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Report from York Union: ‘Brexit, Trump and Post-Truth Politics: What next?’

Mural of Donald Trump kissing Boris Johnson in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Source: The Independent

Last week’s York Union panel event focused on the themes of rising culture and politics of fear in Western politics and how this led to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. The guest speakers on the panel included Sophie Gaston, (Head of International Projects and External Affairs at Demos), Julia Rampen (editor of The New Statesman’s online politics blog, The Staggers) and Ralph Buckle (Senior Associate at Institute of Economic Affairs). The discussion raised interesting opinions and tensions between the guest speakers and vocal members of the audience.

The discussion began on the topic of Brexit and whether the speakers were in support of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Ralph Buckle stated that he fully supported Brexit and voted Leave in last year’s EU Referendum. Buckle began by highlighting that he was not a ‘stereotypical’ leave voter; “I’m middle class, well-educated and have a degree from York”. This is a contrasting image of the old, uneducated leave voters that are often portrayed throughout the media. The reasoning behind Buckle’s vote was that the current immigration system implemented by the EU is “grossly unfair”.

Similarly, Buckle described the EU’s agricultural policy as being “unbelievably immoral”, calling it one of the “greatest injustices of our time”. He countered claims that Brexit would only have a small positive impact on Britain’s economy and immigration system, arguing that even a 1% chance of making things better is a chance worth taking. Buckle thinks that Brexit will bring about the possibility of much more global free trade and opportunities to do deals with other European countries.

In regards to Trump, Buckle remained optimistic. He suggested that America’s economy looks like it’ll grow under Trump’s administration as they attempt to target the 4% growth rate. Buckle concluded his opening remarks by stating that 2016 had been “a bloody great year”; global life expectancy shot up, extreme poverty fell below 10% and we’re now living in “an unparalleled age of growth and prosperity”. “There has never been a better time to be alive” stated Buckle, owing this to factors such as Brexit.

Buckle believed that the post-truth politics was nothing new. Post-truth is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The word was closely associated with Brexit and Trump last year, although Buckle argued that this wasn’t an emerging issue.

The other guest panellists did not share the same optimistic view as Buckle. Julia Rampen, editor of The Staggers, believed that post-truth politics was a very serious issue within modern day politics. The increase in social media use and accessibility to information means that smears made by politicians can reach a much larger audience now than it would of in the past. Rampen claimed that there is an issue with a lack of accountability from those who manufacture twisted stories and put them on social media. She highlighted how many people hate newspapers such as The Daily Mail for creating smears, however these news outlets have accountability.

What’s more worrying, claimed Rampen, is the smaller outlets that have no level of accountability. “It is tempting for some politicians to tap into new schemes of communication” said Rampen, “Trump is the master of doing that”. In regards to why Trump won the U.S. presidency, Rampen claimed it was down to the radicalisation of the Republican Party and the end of bipartisanship within American politics that have raised tensions.

One of the most interesting parts of any York Union event is when questions are handed over to the audience and this discussion was no exception. One audience member shared a common opinion with much of the British public, as they were suspicious about news outlets and if they were prepared to tell the whole truth on key political issues. Sophie Gaston explained how the media and Brexit and Trump’s campaigns were focused on emotional language and raising passions. Gaston focused on the political style of populism and how these two campaigns were a form of this. She stated that populism has an ‘inherent violence’ to it and creates cleavages within society, this is why there has been a lot of violence and backlash surrounding the results of both political events.

At this point, a disgruntled audience member interrupted Gaston, exclaiming that they couldn’t accept her saying that the Leave campaign and its supporters are violent. Gaston assertively said that she “hadn’t finished talking yet”, and continued explaining her point. There was evidence of hate crimes during and after the EU referendum and there were negative actions made by both sides of the Brexit debate.

The discussion then turned towards the process of globalisation and how it has instilled fear into a lot of the voting public’s minds. Sophie Gaston explained how the think-tank, Demos, has conducted a lot of research into globalisation and its effects on populism and fear. Surprisingly, the research found that there was a majority of support for globalisation through the surveys that they carried out. Gaston highlighted how globalisation has brought benefits that aren’t purely economic for a lot of countries. Globalisation also allows for the exchange of people and ideas across cultures.

However, Gaston was aware that globalisation has caused issues for governments as they are having to balance this process and the national interest of their country. A lot of countries have failed to shield and protect their own people from some of the disproportionate impacts of globalisation.

A topic that all three speakers agreed on is the fact that there is a growing distrust of experts. Rampen explained how the distrust of economic experts in the Brexit campaign can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis. She believed that is would be difficult for economic experts to gain credibility after the results of the EU Referendum and Trump’s victory. Gaston said that a lot of people don’t actually care about facts and experts now, they are willing to put their financial stability at risk and instead vote for things that look like they will bring greater change and hope. The other speakers also agreed that fear played a big part in both of these political events and their outcomes.

One audience member asked what we should do to stop fostering ideas of fear and if any liberals had suggestions of how to move forward from the unexpected results of the referendum and American election. Rampen believed that it would be helpful for the scared people in America to move away from being fearful as it doesn’t bring constructive opposition. Rampen referred to Barack Obama’s message; don’t hide away, get out and engage. Buckle made the point that if you keep demonising people that disagree with you then when you get to someone like Trump (“who is possibly the worse thing”) then people won’t believe you. Gaston also believed that it was time for the public to engage and ‘shake their fists’ at the government in order to keep everyone to account and keep pressure on domestic policy. She felt that the social liberals and economic liberals had to start coming together and start to show moral leadership that isn’t just reactive to populism.

Tensions between some audience members remained high throughout the discussion, particularly between Remain and Leave voters. One audience member asked the panel why the “middle class liberal elite feel like they have the right to look down at those who voted for Brexit?” This was met with criticism from other audience members who rightly pointed out that this is happening from both sides of the Brexit debate and it isn’t all one sided.

One of the last questions for the panel was whether they are for or against referendums. Rampen explained that she did not like referendums; as a Scottish woman she was aware of the divisions in society that were a consequence of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. She felt that referendums also discredited hardworking MPs and that we should see more of them rather than opting for referendums. Buckle wasn’t as bothered by referendums, he felt that they made sense for generation defining issues but didn’t quite fit with our political system. Gaston concluded by saying that she was a believer in representative democracy and felt that referendums undermine that and are inherently divisive.

All in all, this was another successful event for the York Union. The discussion brought about very interesting points by all panel members who had differing views. The interaction with the audience meant that more passionate opinions were brought forward and it created a rousing atmosphere throughout the lecture hall.

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