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Excellent piece in the FT today by Peter Spiegel arguing that tensions over the Euro and immigration could see an unravelling of the European project.  But maybe the most interesting part of the article are the final lines, worth quoting at length.

Excellent piece in the FT today by Peter Spiegel arguing that tensions over the Euro and immigration could see an unravelling of the European project.  But maybe the most interesting part of the article are the final lines, worth quoting at length.

We may be witnessing a generational change in European political dynamics. Traditional left-right divisions have narrowed. No mainstream social democrat now advocates centralised economic planning, just as no conservative candidate seriously questions the underpinning of the welfare state.

In its place, we are seeing a new division, between globalisers and localisers. The urban elites on both the left (intellectuals, liberal internationalists) and the right (free traders, global business leaders) face a challenge to their postwar consensus from a new group of revanchists. This political force also comes from both the left (trade unionists, working-class whites) and the right (rural nationalists, far-right xenophobes).

This analysis has a lot to recommend it. 

Reading at the end of last week, for example, about plans being hatched in the EU for external agencies to effectively take over the running of large parts of Greek economic policy, one can only wonder at the political consequences of this and the potential for a major eruption of anti-European feeling in Greece and other 'periphery' nations. 

And there are various straws in the wind in the UK as well which suggest that certain strands of nationalist/localist feeling are beginning to influence politics here.  Blue Labour and Red Tory, for example, both demand that politicians and the state do more to protect communities from the ravages of globalisation and Blue Labour has made much of the need to make left wing politics more explicitly patriotic.  Indeed Labour seems to feel there may be some political benefit to be gained from such a perspective with reports emerging that the Party may start striking a more populist, UK-first line on the EU bailouts.  And it is well-known that there are very many within the trade union movement who would more than happily throw their resources behind a protectionist, anti-global push.

When one adds to this, the strong possibility that livelihoods could face a prolonged squeeze in the UK and across Europe, that unemployment is unlikely to come down rapidly any time soon, and that trust in the political establishment is hardly at its highest and it does seem that a potent brew may be bubbling away which could soon boil over into just the political divisions Spiegel identifies.

Which immediately raises the question of how progressives on both left and right should respond.  A tentative answer would have two parts.

Firstly, there must be an unequivocal identification with the centre of the political spectrum against the populism emerging on left and right.  Reaching for simplistic, gut-feeling solutions at a time of complex global and economic dynamics is always wrong, usually self-defeating and ultimately dangerous.  This is why the 'faith, family, flag' perspective of Blue Labour needs to be treated with caution and why any adoption by Labour of a nationalist stance on the EU bailouts issue should be rethought.

Secondly, that political centre needs to reflect on its own offer to the British and European peoples very closely.  If Spiegel is right, the fortunes of both centre right and centre left could be more closely intertwined than we may currently imagine as defining battles between internationalists and nationalists and centre and extremes emerge.  Both centre right and left need to accept that the "globalisation is good for everyone" message is losing what credibility it has left.  But both need to start rapidly developing a new message that globalisation can be rethought and refashioned in a way that means its benefits can be distributed far more widely and that a simple retreat behind national borders or a deliberate unravelling of global projects are so much snake oil designed to propel the political careers of a few mavericks rather than solve complex problems.

What that means in practice will take some time to develop but clearly a very different set of expectations around corporate behaviour is one element and a greater commitment to pro-active growth policies that address regional and sectoral inequalities might be another.  But the immediate test will be whether the EU establishment can develop a response to the Eurozone crisis that doesn't involve humiliation and provocation of whole nationalities. 

The challenge, of course, will be whether centre right and centre left can overcome traditional enmities to develop a shared perspective or whether tribal instincts will make a divided centre increasingly easy prey for newer, darker political forces.

As Matthew Taylor has mentioned previously, it will be these questions that inform the RSA's fringe events at the Party conferences this year.


A slightly edited version of this post appeared on Liberal Conspiracy.


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