Watching the joint press conference, it was clear Theresa May and Donald Trump deserve each other. Hoping to buy-off populism, May has gone in for a hard Brexit and now has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most vulgar populist of all. The May plan for Brexit depends on US support, but not the kind offered by ‘the Donald’.
Since coming to power May has been working hard to rearticulate the centre ground. In her speech on Brexit, May laid out a hard Brexit on the terms of globalisation. This is a tough sell, but it’s even tougher when Trump is in your corner. The Trump administration has not wasted any time, introducing the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ – a 120-day moratorium on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The move to extend the restrictions introduced in 2015 brought about a wave of protests.
Soon May was facing pressure to condemn Trump and protests broke out in London to match the demonstrations in the US. The sight of the two leaders holding hands was too much for some people, but this brief moment of physical contact was just symbolic of the ‘special relationship’. What goes on behind closed doors in the policy war rooms is far more odious.
Brexit means the British government has to find a new economic strategy. Trump has been quick to talk up the possibility of a US-UK trade deal. And the May government is desperate to secure new trade arrangements as it pushes ahead with its hard Brexit. However, May is just walking in the footsteps of her predecessors. The ‘special relationship’ has been a key feature of British politics for several decades.
In the post-war period, the UK was important to the US because it was a major economy and a European powerhouse with a sphere of influence spanning the world. Britain sat on the UN Security Council and was well placed to play a vital role in Europe. This is about to change. Not only is Brexit going ahead, the UK might be about to crack up.
Yet the British ruling class still see themselves as a ‘junior partner’ to the US. The world is not where it was in 1945. The sun may have set on the British empire, but only as it was superseded by a new worldwide empire. Unlike European colonialism, the US preferred to rule by proxy, standing behind its partners and lead multilateral blocs. Germany and Japan were at the core of this strategy in Western Europe and East Asia.
Where needed Britain came in as a mercenary state, prepared to follow up American aggression in Korea and elsewhere. This isn’t to say the British government was always in line with US policy. Famously, Anthony Eden backed an invasion of Egypt without American approval and paid the price for it. Later, Harold Wilson would refuse to send British troops to fight in Vietnam, while maintaining official support for the war effort.
There were even points of conflict. Thatcher was not happy when Reagan invaded Grenada to distract from the massive bombing in Beirut just a couple of days before. Likewise, the US was not eager to support the British war to reclaim the Falklands seized by the Argentine junta, one of Reagan’s favourite dictatorships. The picture has been more consistent in recent years.
John Major and Tony Blair were loyalists of the American empire. Both of them supported the US invasions of Iraq and the brutal sanctions regime, which finished what Saddam had started. Blair was widely ridiculed as a ‘poodle’ for his fawning over the stuttering Texan. In return for near total servility, the UK got to pretend it is still a ‘world leader’. Now with the rise of Trump and the advent of Brexit, the ‘special relationship’ may be about to enter a new phase.
Although Trump is eager to change course, May wants to adapt the post-war record to the new situation. She hopes to manage the current crisis and reconstitute the status quo, whereas Trump wants to see it crash and burn. This is unprecedented. It’s doubtful whether the Trump programme will succeed, or what ‘success’ would even look like.
In the short-term Trump proposes an infrastructure bonanza in the form of private finance initiatives, the kind favoured by Tony Blair and Third Way Democrats, as well as border taxes and other protectionist measures. This doesn’t amount to a serious economic strategy. Though it may be a recipe for gross mismanagement and an orgy of corruption.
Trump thinks he can drop a border tax on Mexico without any consequences coming his way. He vows to dump TPP and redraw NAFTA, failing to see how these trade deals secure American business interests abroad. All the while Trump claims he is going to tear up regulations, slash corporate taxes and shrink the size of the federal government with $10 trillion in spending cuts. This is shit capitalism.
In a way, Donald Trump and Theresa May face the same dilemma: how to revitalise the economy through export-led growth, when the nature of their politics makes this impossible. Both the US and the UK require an industrial base in order to bolster their exports, but this base has largely been abandoned by decades of neoliberal policies.
May has promised an industrial strategy for British business. However, the UK economy is heavily centred around finance and the country’s industrial base is greatly diminished. May has to face up to the legacy of Thatcherism, widespread deindustrialisation and long-term unemployment. As a result, the UK amassed the biggest trade deficit since 1830 and the day of reckoning is on the horizon.
Much like May, the Obama administration wanted TPP and TTIP to renew the old order: firstly, to further integrate Asian economies with the US excluding China; secondly, to blind the European Union and American business together. This is typical of the Democrats. The party has long been more internationalist given its links to finance and other capital-intensive sectors of the economy.
Traditionally, the Republicans are tied closer to labour-intensive sections of the economy, as the GOP is the party of business – whether big or small – and represents a coalition spanning finance and energy, but also steel and manufacturing. This used to mean the Republicans were more nationalistic than the Democrats. But this was not always the case.
After all NAFTA was first drawn up under George HW Bush before it was passed by Bill Clinton. It marked a turning point. Canada and Mexico became more integrated with the US economy, and the Clinton administration would begin the first stages of militarising the Mexican border. Though the trade deal would be great for the super-rich, it was terrible for working people in these countries. This laid the basis for Trump’s populist agenda.
Those who claim Trump has no ideology or no real politics ought to take note of this. Trump has been consistently anti-free trade for the past three decades. He was involved with the Reform Party, alongside Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. The Reform programme was staunchly anti-NAFTA, calling for economic nationalism. But Trump has achieved what Perot could only dream about.
If this is the end of globalisation as we know it, the May government is going to face serious problems in turning Britain into a “great global trading nation”. Britain cannot go it alone, and yet the US may be about to chart its own course. This leaves May in an odd position. She can’t proceed without Trump, nor can she succeed on his terms. She is trapped by Trump’s victory, and we will all face the consequences.
Photograph courtesy of Neil Cummings. Published under a Creative Commons license.