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What a 1987 campaign can tell us about Trump and Brexit

A new age had dawned.  Big bang had just happened.  A confident and youthful financial sector was poised to lead the UK economy out of the depression of the 1970s and early 1980s.  But there was a problem.  The commanding heights of the economy were still in the dead hands of the old grey men of the post-war British Establishment.  And of all of the grey men standing in the way of progress, Sir Nicholas Goodison was the architype.

Goodison was the chairman of the London Stock Exchange who had reluctantly presided over the Big Bang reforms.  But according to City insiders Goodison was desperately clinging to the old ways of doing business.  He had to go.  So the testosterone-fuelled, red bracers wearing bright young things turned to Damien McCrystal; the Sun newspaper’s first City Editor.

In those days, the Sun was still highly influential.  There was no internet or multi-channel TV.  And in the days before Hillsborough, the Sun could count on millions of working class readers.  Just five years later, the paper was to claim that its support was what swung the electorate behind John Major.  Even in the late 1990s, the Blair government felt obliged to consult with the paper’s proprietor before finalising policy.  If anyone could topple Goodison, the Sun could.

So McCrystal went off to see Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun’s Editor-in-Chief and Rupert Murdoch’s representative on planet earth, to sell the idea of a campaign against Goodison.  On the way to the meeting, McCrystal thought through all of the economic arguments about the benefits of a popular shareholding democracy based around an expanding and increasingly globalised banking and finance industry; an industry that would move to New York unless people like Goodison were removed and the last vestiges of the old regulatory system swept aside.

When MacKenzie asked why Goodison had to go, McCrystal thought about all of the complex arguments he had been playing out in his head.  He quickly realised that these would go straight over MacKenzie’s head.  So he turned back to MacKenzie and replied: “because he’s a cunt!”

That was enough for MacKenzie.  The Sun ran the campaign.  Goodison was gone within months.

MacKenzie (or at least Murdoch) wanted change.  Indeed, destroying the British Establishment was Rupert Murdoch’s life purpose back in those days.  But MacKenzie needed an argument that he could understand.  McCrystal’s crude response – delivered with conviction – was sufficient.

It is always that way for those with lazy minds and little in the way of intellect.  As McCrystal understood, there is no point trying to win the day using a sophisticated argument full of conditional sub-clauses and nuances.  What you need is a simple message that everyone can understand.

Fast-forward to the other side of those banking and finance reforms.  A thirty-year debt binge has come crashing down.  The banks are only profitable in the sense that they are owed £ Trillions by billions of bad debtors who will probably never pay the money back – without insanely low interest rates and ongoing bailouts from taxpayers, they would have disappeared years ago.  Meanwhile the real economy – particularly in the so-called developed world – is in ruins.  Ordinary working people have had their faces ground into the gravel by a system that insists that globalisation and the offshoring of jobs is good for them.  While politicians fiddle GDP and employment figures (while neglecting to cover up the fact that tax income has all but collapsed) millions of Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, Britons and Americans are forced to use food banks and food stamps to feed their families.  In what are supposed to be the richest countries on earth, the homeless shelters have waiting lists.  Like Kelvin MacKenzie back in 1987, the people want change today – but they also want a clear, simple message delivered with conviction to persuade them.

So we could talk about how a debt-based fiat currency system is a Ponzi scheme that depends upon exponential economic growth so that people can continue borrowing.  We could discuss the ways in which this endless growth has raped much of the planet, and now threatens our life support systems.  We could examine the way all of the resources that our economy depends upon are becoming rarer, harder to extract and vastly more expensive.  We could explain that while nobody can be sure exactly how this will turn out, it is unlikely that things are going to improve.

Alternatively, we could simply blame it all on foreigners!

That, in essence, is Donald Trump’s selling point.  Not just the soundbites about banning Muslims and building walls along the Mexican border that make it over to this side of the Pond.  Trump’s real appeal comes from blaming successive US administrations for globilisation; for shipping American jobs off to Asia and for signing up to poorly constructed trade deals that leave US workers unable to compete.  The success of the Brexit campaigners was similar.  As the campaign went on, it became clear that traditional Labour supporters in the North, the Midlands and South Wales were sourly dissatisfied with the status quo.  By selling the simple idea that it was all the fault of (especially east European) immigration, and that only by leaving the EU could anything change, the Leave campaigners were able to swing the result.

It is worth considering the other side of both campaigns.  Hillary Clinton is running more or less the same Remain campaign that so badly backfired on David Cameron (remember him?).  Since Clinton is and Remain was essentially about a business as usual that has spent the last three decades trampling over the dreams of ordinary people, neither is/was able to construct a coherent but straightforward reason to vote for them… certainly not one that could be delivered with any conviction.  Instead, we got a rehashing of Project Fear, in which a parade of so-called “experts” and establishment luminaries were trotted out to prophesise the most vicious ills that would befall anyone foolish enough to vote the other way.

One reason for the current popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (and a key reason for Blairite hostility toward them) is precisely that they refused to engage with the kind of uncritical Remain campaign that led Cameron to defeat.  Instead, they had wanted a Labour campaign that acknowledged the problems with the EU, but that wanted to remain in order to reform.  In the USA, Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign took a similar position in relation to the US status quo.

We should remind ourselves that leaders do not arise out of thin air.  Disruptive figures like Trump and Farage, Corbyn and Sanders can only come to prominence when the business as usual centre ground disintegrates.  With the slow collapse of the global economy in the wake of the Great Financial Accident of 2008, that process of disintegration is well underway.  Just as the 1929 crash was followed by an age of extremes in the 1930s, we too are witnessing the rise of the extremes and the failure of the centre ground.

In Britain, there has been much talk of a centrist Parliament effectively rejecting the result of the Brexit referendum.  I can think of nothing better designed to bring about a UKIP government in 2020 than for politicians (who are hardly held in high esteem) to do so.  In the US, where all of the economic indicators are pointing firmly south, a Clinton victory is likely to produce the kind of right-wing backlash that will leave Donald Trump looking like a moderate.  Another five years of business as usual, and the next contenders for the UK and US (and most EU states’) governments could well be wearing jackboots and armbands.

The point is that such an outcome cannot be defeated with centrist sophistry and obfuscation.  Like McCrystal in 1987, if the left or the centre wants to win the day, they need a simple, clear argument for change that they can deliver with conviction.  So far, they have failed to come up with one…

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