In H.G. Wells’ great science fiction, The Time Machine, written in 1895, the hero, who is identified only as The Time Traveller, builds a machine which transports him to AD 802,701. There he finds that mankind has evolved into two distinct sub-species: the Eloi, a society of peaceful, elegant aesthetes, living without working and eating only fruit, and the Morlocks, who live underground and spend their days in industrial toil. The Morlocks fear the light, and emerge onto the surface of the planet only at night. In due course, The Time Traveller is horrified to discover that the Morlocks survive by feeding on the Eloi, who they capture on their night raids.
Reading some of the commentary on Donald Trump’s election victory this week, one would almost imagine that this dystopian future is already upon us. According to some, the US Presidential Election saw the poor, downtrodden, neglected, rural, white working class voting for Trump, whilst the educated, middle class, sophisticated urban voters backed Clinton. It was a victory for the Morlocks, with the outvoted Eloi being deprived of power only as a precursor to being served up as dinner.
Comparisons of this nature always involve generalisations, and there is a risk of oversimplifying the case to make a point. Trump was highly successful at motivating the Republican base. His support came not just from men but also large numbers of women (particularly Republican women) and he even managed to attract the support of ethnic minorities, including, curiously, perhaps as many as a quarter of Hispanics.
And yet, it cannot be denied that in winning States like Pennsylvania, which had backed the Democrats for decades, Trump was able to appeal to white working class men in rust-belt communities in a way that no Republican candidate had been able to do for a long time. He leaves the US Democrats as a party of the intelligentsia, the city dwellers, of ethnic minorities and of sectional interests, but one which has lost touch with part of its traditional base.
Trump himself was enthusiastic about comparing his campaign to the Brexit vote, championing those who felt left behind by a liberal, capitalist system. And undoubtedly there are similarities in part of the voting block which backed Trump and those within the UK who voted for Brexit, with a bias towards less well-off voters outside large metropolitan centres.
One can even extend the comparison back to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. All the research that we have demonstrates that men were more likely to vote Yes than women, as were those in socio-economic groups C2DE, against ABC1s who were more likely to be No voters.
There is a common thread that runs through all three campaigns: a fondness for empty slogans (e.g.‘Take back control’); a reliance on simplistic solutions; a dismissal of economic reality; and a dislike of ‘the other’.
There is more than an element of snobbery in some of what has been written, whether that be about Trump or indeed Brexit. The joy of democracy is that all votes are equal, regardless of the personal wealth, education, or social status of the individual.
What Trump’s victory really tells us is that the political establishment has lost its connection with large sections of society, and this is a phenomenon developing right across the Western world. Who would now bet against the rise of the far right in future European elections? The French Front National Leader, Marine Le Pen, was quick to welcome Trump’s victory, perhaps recognising that it pointed to an enhancement of her own prospects of becoming French President next year.
What does this mean for Western society, when a demagogue like Trump can sweep to power, with virtually no policies to speak of, but deplorable rhetoric about Muslims, about Mexicans, and with a disgraceful attitude towards women?
I believe it requires all of us who believe in liberal Western values to stand up and argue the case for a more open and tolerant society. We should not be afraid to recognise, for example, the valuable contribution that immigrants make to the United Kingdom. And we should energetically defend the principle of free trade between nations as a means of making us all better off, and raising those who are struggling out of poverty.
At the same time, we should understand the alienation that many feel from elitist viewpoints which do not represent the wider population, where, for example, we criminalise young men for singing songs at football grounds, where extreme political correctness leads to platforms being denied to those deemed to hold controversial views, and the Police seem to be more anxious to investigate “offensive” tweets than to tackle housebreaking.
The United Kingdom has long been a tolerant and diverse society, and one where democracy and free speech have been jealously guarded. It is these traditional British values; values that we helped export to the world, that we should defend.
It also means safety and security at home. If we are to see the rise of nationalism throughout Europe, if we are to see Le Pen elected as French President, I suspect that at least some of those who voted Remain in this year’s EU referendum may consider that we are better off out of that political union. And in a world where Trump is President, it is surely not time to be arguing for Scotland to go it alone and break up the UK.
The peoples of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland need to stand together for our British values, and make common cause for these throughout the world. Otherwise, we may see our own society become yet more divided in the manner that is happening elsewhere.