I remember just after the financial crisis a decade or so ago, reading a sizable report in the economist about the expected political repercussions.
They suggested large-scale protests, a rise of populist leaders and possible government overthrows, all across the world. And this is what we had – from the Occupy protests, to the Arab Spring, to Trump, Brexit & Co, and so much more during the 2010’s – all either directly or indirectly, fully or partly, caused by the financial crisis.
Which leads me to wonder what this current major crisis will bring in the way of politics going forwards?
I think there will be 3 main threads – not all affecting the same countries and affecting different countries to different degrees, often depending on their current government; anti-China, anti-government and anti-populist/pro-expert.
Maybe we haven’t had quite enough of experts
Yes, I foresee an age where experts are once again valued, where we have not actually had quite enough of them.
Politics is often a reaction against perceived current failures or recent past failures, and those governments who have studiously ignored experts, hello Jair “A Little Flu” Bolsonaro, will surely struggle going forwards against politicians who are publicly backed by experts, hell, maybe are experts themselves.
Even if the politicians themselves are not experts at the more important subject matters of the day, having a calmness and a dullness could be an attribute post-covid – we could easily witness the rise of one of the most boring political party leaders ever here in the UK, Kier Starmer, who is dullness studiously defined. But he does have this air of competence about him.
Of course, those governments judged to have failed to look after the health of their citizens by ignoring expert advice, do have other options.
Everything Is China’s Fault
Let’s face it, there is quite a bit of blame for the Covid crisis that can be left at China’s door, from lying to the WHO about the outbreak, to spreading false information, stopping doctors from speaking out and if you believe some of the more “out-there” ideas, it could even have escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
The US-China trade war has been running for a while, protectionism is on the rise and there is a general fear in many countries across the world about Chinese interference in markets and politics, and theft of intellectual property.
You may not buy into the idea that China is doing anything wrong. But I’m pretty sure that you can buy into the idea that blaming China will make for very electable policy in the coming years.
The most obvious is Trump’s public China-bashing, but the democrats are arguably just as anti-China, and with their twinges of long-standing protectionism could even be argued to be more naturally anti-China. In the UK, we’ve now turned against using Huawei products for our 5G network – in some European countries China is to blame for dumping of steel on the markets, leading to the closure of steelworks in countries like France, as one example.
Their state capitalism model allows them to subsidise industries to take them towards monopoly positions as private western companies cannot compete. Not to mention the argument that many manufacturing jobs have gone to China since they were admitted to the WTO in 2001.
Again, you can pick and choose whichever of the above you agree with, and I have barely covered even the main accusations made towards China, so please do excuse my brevity. Yet the narrative is set, and there for politicians to be able to take advantage of.
Will those politicians who suffer from a lack of competence be able to take advantage of the growing backlash against China?
Or we could just blame the government
Covid-19 has not just badly struck countries with populist leaders, though there does seem to be a theme there, it has also impacted countries with left-wing governments like Spain or centrist governments like France.
In all countries there will be a desire by the public to blame the government for failings, perceived or real, in the handling of covid-19, and this may lead to some surprising election results.
You may find some countries such as Sweden hold their hands up to their failings regarding Covid-19, as they seem to be doing with respect to their very high figures of care home deaths. On the flip side, I’m fully expecting Boris Johnson to be blaming the EU for our care home deaths, hell he’ll be blaming a crocodile infestation in Botswana before he takes responsibility in public for any mistakes.
Yet governments of most countries will not escape the blame, and this pandemic has plenty of time to run – even countries which are currently judged to have had a “good crisis” will have plenty of opportunity to anger their citizens.
It could perhaps even see autocratic regimes fall – I’m sure Putin is aware of the danger, hence the alleged theft of vaccine ip and claims of the first vaccine.
You could argue that covid-19 led to the denied victory of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (I had to look up her second name!) in Belarus’ election recently, especially given the anger under the surface reported there in recent months, with the president suggesting drinking vodka and driving tractors as a cure for covid. And you thought Trump was dumb.
When, where and how?
I think the most difficult aspect to ascertain is the latter aspect, regarding anger over how governments have dealt with covid.
As we’ve seen in the UK, there was a “rally around the flag” feel at the beginning, and the Conservative Party ratings soared. Yet, bit by bit, the narrative has changed to one of incompetence. Opposition politicians in many countries have dampened their attacks during the crisis, but will find a pool of anger and discontentment to tap into.
When this will happen, is uncertain. Mass protests will likely be avoided in many countries until the pandemic is at an end, unless there is an urgency to seize the moment – and perhaps the incompetence will be forgotten about by time it is safe to protest in large numbers. Perhaps.
Also, not all of the three above-described outcomes will affect all countries, though often all will to one extent or another.
I guess the biggest question remains whether an increased desire for boring but sensible politicians could outweigh the ability of other politicians to blame China, and what shape any post-covid anger may take in the way of protests. The election in the US will be fascinating as a glimpse to see which movement has most power – anti-China or anti-populist?
For Britain? I’ll cover that in a future blog post. I feel there is quite a lot to say about the current state of British politics!