2016 will go down in history as the year of Brexit, Trump and the rise of right-wing, populist parties in Europe. The new political paradigm seems to point towards closing borders and concentrating isolation nation states. From an economic perspective, these developments might prove to be quite worrying; the consequences of a new isolationism could be huge.
In order to better understand the rise of populism, our Ellen Comberg (project manager at Management Circle) conducted an interview with Karina Robinson.
Karina Robinson is the CEO of Robinson Hambro Ltd. and Chairwoman of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal Advisory Board, which groups together CEOs/Chairs of City firms such as the LSE and HSBC. She is also a Governor of the London School of Economics, having been selected for its Finance Committee.
My name is Ellen Comberg, Chairwoman GFL and I am very happy to have you here with me, Karina, for an exclusive interview. Today we want to talk about the rising phenomenon of populism. Karina, we are interested in hearing about your view on this development and what it means for societies around the world.
Populism is the curse of our age. Quite simply, every single policy that any government is trying to implement has to be looked at through the lens of populism. So if you are a government minister, it doesn’t matter that the policy you thought of is for the good of the country. You have to think, whether you can get it through the populist barrier, and that is the only policy worth putting any effort into.
I was recently in Ditchley Park (Ditchley Foundation), which is a think tank, and we had our meeting in the US with policymakers from France, Germany, the US and the UK. With every single policy suggestion we came up with to improve the trans-Atlantic relationship between the US and Europe, we discovered something that cannot get through the domestic populist bias; whether it is the Trump effect in the US, the anti-immigrant anti-establishment movement in Germany, Brexit in the UK or Marine Le Pen in France. And that’s why I say it’s the curse of our age.
Do you believe these movements and sentiments are also due to a simple lack of information? Did, for example, Brexit happen because the EU did not sell it`s advantages well in enough to the British people?
I think the idea of getting across sort of the EU ideals or anything like that is a waste of time. I think we all made the mistake of not making sure that the benefits of globalisation are very clear to people. And these benefits include very basic things, like the cost of the food you buy. This affects every family. The fact that your daughter, even if you come from a relatively poor family in one of these developed nations, can buy three T-shirts now where years and years ago you wouldn’t have been able as a parent to buy her one. These are the effects of globalisation. But we never sold it enough. And now this is a bit of a problem, because it’s too late. Quite simply, the masses of people who have been left behind by globalisation do not believe in its benefits and anything anyone of us say. We become co-called “experts”, which is a new curse word for most populists. Terrible thing, an expert, terrible thing. Or we are part of the “establishment”. Again, a terrible thing.
What we have to do is to try and improve the lot of those who have been left behind by globalisation. There are a number of policies that governments are thinking about. Whether it’s more infrastructure and infrastructure spending to increase…I mean we need more growth. With low growth all ships don`t rise. We need more learning. We need to teach people more skills. There are a number of issues and unfortunately they’re not new. All governments have been trying to teach new skills. But it has to be done with much more awareness of how important it is. More money thrown at it is a part of the equation. And also making it a core issue of any policy any government is doing. It is not only about making a difference for these people, it is about making them realise that they are important.
That said, I have severe doubts concerning the whole xenophobia that’s been given a free reign. The truth is, very often a government will cave in to xenophobia and cater to the lowest possible denominator. The government in the UK is doing this at the moment, starts for example mentioning things about having lists of foreigners, lists of who the foreigners in a company are… This was mentioned at the conservative party’s conference. This is not what our society stands for. Not all of those people who voted for Brexit or who would vote for Trump are racist. One has to realise that there is a percentage that might be, or probably is, but that percentage is not the vast majority. The vast majority are complaining about the lack of job security, about bankers and other financiers making huge amounts of money. Let’s not assume they’re all xenophobic racists.
Tell us your views on Theresa May´s policy going forward. What is her strategy? Is she catering to xenophobia and thus pushing for a hard Brexit?
There are two ways to look at the Prime Minister May’s statements. One is that she truly believes the hard Brexit will work for this country. The other is that she doesn’t believe it’s the best way forward, but she believes it’s necessary for her to keep the Conservative Party together. It is almost more than the people out there who voted for Brexit. It’s much more for her about internal politics. In truth at the moment there is no Labour opposition. The Labour Party is a disaster with a leader who is more of a Brexiteer than a remain-politician.
And therefore, her biggest challenge is probably to keep her party together so that in 2020 she can actually be up for election, and the Conservatives can make it back into government. And I think that is what she is focusing on, to the detriment of what really matters. Which is that the people who voted for Brexit, that have been left behind by globalisation, see an improvement in their lives. And a hard Brexit will not improve anybody’s life.
Looking at all those populist movements throughout Europe, which role do you think the media has, especially social media?
Social media has been instrumental in what’s happened and what will continue happening. We haven’t, as a society, arrived at the realisation of how to deal with it. Politicians always had to think about being re-elected. But now they are having to cater to voters, rather than thinking medium or long-term. This became more short-term with the press being freer, and now it is beyond short term. It’s today. They – a number of them – don’t have an understanding of how to deal with social media and how to stand up against some of the wrong ideas that are coming about in social media, some of the movements that are against everything our democracies stand for. I think politicians need to understand that there is also a silent majority quite often. Right now, they assume the silent majority is irrelevant because it is the loud minority that is governing how politics is run. And I think changing this comes down to understanding how to handle social media better. We will get there, but we are certainly not there now.
Thank you, Karina, for sharing these thoughts with us. Our readers and I look forward to discussing these pressing issues further with you at the summit.