On 9th May 2017 the Henry Jackson Society warmly welcomed Bill Emmott to debate the findings from his new book, The Fate of the West. The book argues that Western states are reacting to global insecurity and economic uncertainty by closing borders, hoarding wealth and solidifying power. Emmott argues that inequality of wealth and insularity are some of the biggest threats to democracies. For Western democracy to survive, states need to resist the temptation to be rigid and unequal.
Emmott began by speaking about his concerns for the future of liberal democracies. The recent electoral success of Trump, the rise of the far right in Europe and the Brexit vote in the UK are all symptoms of a growing problem within democratic nations. Citizens in liberal democracies, largely since the 2007/8 financial crisis, are angry and worried about what direction their lives and their countries are going. Emmott ponders whether this is a structural issue (are all civilisations doomed to decline?) or are we experiencing the nadir of a cyclical trend? Emmott suspects the latter and argues that there is cause for hope and we can repair the damage.
While big mistakes have been made, the problems are repairable and Liberals need to speak up about defending our way of life. The 2007/8 financial crisis, saved from turning into another great depression by huge government interventions, shook the public’s confidence in the system. Later people became angry as the vast majority of bankers went unpunished and government purses across the West squeezed public services under austerity. Emmott lays part of the blame for the decline of the West at the over-powerful financial sector. To reverse this course liberal democracies need to attain the perfect balance of openness (transparency reform) and equality (equal rights of citizens across the wealth and political spectrum). In a post financial crisis world, we are guilty of the neglect of the equality of rights. Emmott also places blame with socialist ideas of redistribution which demand the sharing of wealth by mandate rather than by equality based on meritocracy.
Emmott argues that an open society, in the face of an increasingly globalised world order, is not only possible but may be the only solution, so long as it is underpinned by two core principles. First, democracies must foster equality and the rights of citizenship: all citizens must be able to participate in the society and all must be equal in the eyes of the law. Secondly, open societies must also recognise that not everything has to be transparent all the time. Western states have been far too open to taking a laissez faire approach to market regulation, which lead to the financial crisis. Open borders are also a problem. Emmott says that border controls are sensible, though he does not endorse the Conservative party’s policy of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands, nonetheless, he contends that some controls on the speed of immigration do make sense.
Through all its problems, Emmott maintains that the West is not doomed. Although it may face stiff headwinds: an ageing population, relative economic slowdown and rising populism are among some of the problems. However, the West is still at the technological frontier of the world, is a flexible and free society, and is strongly networked via trade deals and international political institutions. Emmott says that he would only start to become seriously worried if the West were to throw away its networks and become a closed off society.
What to look out for over the next few years, for signs of progress in reversing Western decline, are in places like France, where Macron has a lot to deliver on addressing peoples’ anger and his promises about the EU. In Italy, where we shall see how much of an in-road the populist and anti-EU Five Star Movement makes at the next election. Finally, in the United States we are still left guessing what Trump’s personal philosophy is: will he earn his title as leader of the free world?
Emmott finished his lecture which a quick word on the EU and Brexit to which he said, “Frankly I don’t give a Damn”. He does regret the decision made by the British people, but states that the UK is “a bit of a sideshow” in the grand scheme of things. Britain’s fate will be affected by leaving the EU, but not determined. The EU is not the cause of Western decline and the strife of many people’s lives but it has ceased to become part of the solution. For instance, the Euro has chocked off the ability to perform policy adjustment, paralysing the EU whose leadership is in denial of the scale of the problems it faces.