At last, the 1 per cent are beginning to get it

The international community is facing an increasing tide of populism, writes Sholto Byrnes

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair responds to the Chilcot report. Stefan Rousseau / Getty Images
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From Trumpism in America to the Podemos party in Spain, from the election of a president whose nickname is “the enforcer” in the Philippines to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, an increasingly common feature of politics worldwide is the rejection of elites — both perceived and real. There has been a turning against globalisation and outbursts of anger against a universalist world order that has left billions behind.

To acknowledge this is to express the obvious. But only now, it appears, is the penny beginning to drop with some of the leading lights of this fellowship of the global elite.

Over the weekend, Larry Summers, a former US treasury secretary, chief economist of the World Bank and president of Harvard, wrote in the Financial Times: "The willingness of people to be intimidated by experts into supporting cosmopolitan outcomes appears for the moment to have been exhausted."

The terms are interesting. “Cosmopolitan outcomes” must, of course, be better than narrow-minded, petty, nationalistic ones. Who would dare admit to favouring those? But Mr Summers concedes that to support these outcomes, people had to be “intimidated by experts” who “inflated rhetoric about the economic outcomes of international integration” to gain approval for what he calls “more enlightened economic policies”.

Translation: these experts — among whom, with such a CV, Mr Summers must surely count — lied, because they thought they knew better than ordinary voters.

Mr Summers then continues, in a statement of the blindingly obvious: “A new approach has to start from the idea that the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.”

If this is a revelation to him — he does refer to it as “a new approach” — he is admitting to having harboured a breathtakingly out-of-touch worldview beforehand. It is also one which, were it to have informed the United States government when he was part of it, would rightly have infuriated the millions of Americans who would never have supposed that anything other than their welfare would be the first priority of their leaders.

But if Mr Summers has had to be enlightened, maybe that's not surprising. Here's Michael Ignatieff, now a Harvard professor, formerly (and disastrously) leader of the Canadian Liberals, and at ease in the same transcontinental political salons as Mr Summers, in the New York Times on Saturday: "Globalisation and a borderless world have been terrific for the educated, the young, the mobile, the multilingual, the multicultural. But globalisation has been really tough for people whose jobs are tied to a community ... whose first allegiance is to their locality, their place of birth.

“Cosmopolitans are perpetually surprised that, A, they’re only 1 per cent of the population, and, B, most people don’t think like them.”

Cosmopolitans, he says, think of actions involving migrants and refugees in terms of an international discourse about rights, whereas for “ordinary people, a citizen’s relation to a stranger is a gift relationship, not a rights relationship”.

Since Mr Ignatieff identifies himself as a cosmopolitan, this appears to be an admission that he has finally realised and is even now, perhaps, still “perpetually surprised” by the fact that the global political class of which he is a revered member has long been desperately far removed from the aspirations and values of the masses — those “ordinary people” with whose views he has been so recently acquainted.

One might have thought that some form of apology might be appropriate from Mr Summers and Mr Ignatieff. But just as with Tony Blair, who made an almost tearful non-admission of guilt after the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War — another elite-led disaster — statements of contrition are hard to spot.

“We couldn’t have known,” they all seem to wail, shielding their eyes from a truth that is obvious to everyone else: that if they hadn’t been so convinced by the superiority of their own theories, the evidence of the disruption and distress those theories caused in practice was staring them in the face.

But then so often these elites live in bubbles. They inhabit wealthy global cities in which diversity and liberal values are the norm, echo-chambers that reinforce the conformity of this international superclass. The “countryside” is somewhere they visit from the safe space of boutique hotels or villages colonised by urban second-homers. Of the areas of rural poverty and the rundown post-industrial cities and suburbs that litter most western countries, they know nothing. Why on Earth would they go there?

So when voice is given to the less-privileged — those "ordinary people" to whom Mr Ignatieff condescends for not subscribing to the same faith in universal rights he takes for granted — the elites are shocked. This was most evident in the UK after the EU referendum. In London — a global city par excellence — there was widespread anger at the result. As The Guardian's Suzanne Moore put it: "It is now seemingly permissible to mock anyone who voted the 'wrong' way [as] thick old racists who have socked it to a still unbelieving establishment."

This is dangerous, arrogant and betrays the same belief — that democratic votes are only democratic when they produce the result you want — that the US displayed towards Hamas’s election victory in 2006. It is to be welcomed that Mr Summers and Mr Ignatieff have undergone their epiphanies. May they now spread the news to their fellow cosmopolitans that there are vast majorities who do not share their elite view. For the alternative is an increasing tide of populism — and on that rides not just the likes of Bernie Sanders, but Marine Le Pen and those scarier still, elevated by the votes of those who have been ignored for far too long.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia