Saturday, June 13, 2020

Populism from an Insider

Fiona Hill is the Durham miner’s daughter who grew up poor in Bishop Auckland at the time its mines and steelworks were closing down, destroying jobs, communities and shared identities, who then went on to feature prominently in the Trump impeachment hearings as one of America’s foremost Russian experts. At the impeachment hearings, she said: “I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.”

 Hill is in a position to offer valuable insights into the UK, the USA and Russia and recognise the overlap.

“It’s a story really about how the US, UK and Russia have all ended up in the same spot weirdly, not just in terms of Covid-19 but also populist politics and many of the same out-of-control inequalities,” Hill said. What interests Hill is how the three such different countries end up in the same boat, run by populists.

She believes the critical common factor is the heady rise, and then the catastrophic collapse, of heavy industry and the failure of their governments to manage the fall and cushion the impact on their people. She sees unexpected parallels between the UK and Russia. In both countries, the planners had built new towns as part of the great industrialisation drive, which suddenly had their economic lifelines cut off and were left to wither. 

Hill then saw similar when she visited the American mid-west, where her American in-laws lived. The great cities built on steel and automobiles had died, leaving hollowed-out communities.
“For a lot of people there was no social mobility whatsoever,” Hill said. “I’ve seen that same phenomenon here, and also in Russia – people have got stuck – stuck in place both metaphorically and physically.”

In all three countries, the government did little to mitigate the pain, leaving afflicted families to move to where the jobs were. In practice, the barriers to mobility – vast distances and bureaucracy in Russia, house prices in the UK – kept them anchored.

 Even in the US, the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 made movement harder. “If you’re in the north of England it’s probably easier to move to Australia, Canada or America and start again, like some of my family did, rather than trying to find a job in the south,” Hill said. “House prices in the north-east were so ridiculously low vis-a-vis in London or the south.”

And in all three countries, the ties of family obligations and social networks kept people rooted in place without prospects, and educational opportunities to change your destiny have withered away.

“Education becomes the purview of the elite. You start to see all educational opportunities confined in a certain income bracket or region,” Hill explains. “Just as in the UK, in the north and other places where the economy collapsed and the tax base eroded, it’s the same in the United States. Local education authorities can barely make ends meet, and the same goes for Russia. So big swaths of the population in all three countries don’t have the skills that are transferable.”

At her interview for a place at Oxford University in 1984, another candidate mockingly offered to translate for the benefit of the southerners.

“When it was my turn to go to the interview one of the girls stuck her leg out and I tripped over and busted my nose on the door frame,” Hill said. “So – one humiliation after another. I just couldn’t believe it. It was like some bad movie … I felt like Billy Elliot.” The idea of making a career in Britain appeared daunting. “If I lived in the south, or had gone to school down here, I might have stayed in Britain. It might have seemed more feasible,” she said. “But when you’re coming from the north of England, you are completely network-poor – you have no idea of how to go about it. It’s all about mentorship and connections.”

 A chance meeting with a US academic on a work trip to Russia led to her to try for a place at Harvard. At that interview in London, only she and another northern girl, a farmer’s daughter from Sunderland, took the time to chat to the secretary. It turned out that the secretary was part of the selection panel, and it was the two northerners who won the fellowships.

It is her first-hand experience of exclusion in Britain, Hill says, that has helped her to appreciate the powerful appeal of populism. It fills a void.

“Populism provides a narrative for people who have lost their identities that were tied to meaningful work,” she said. “When people lose that then they’re looking for something. There’s a feeling they’ve been robbed and deprived of a golden age, and they want that back and populist politics feeds upon that, and provides scapegoats for losing it.”

Bishop Auckland voted 61% for Brexit. And just as people voted against the seemingly self-evident advantages of the European Union, Hill said they can vote away pillars of the liberal democracy and elect authoritarian narcissists in its place.

“Liberal democracy hasn’t been delivering,” she argued. “If I go back to my home town, it’s still no better than it was when I was growing up in terms of opportunity. The shops are boarded up in the main street. Nothing new is coming in. There’s just no kind of sense of optimism. And when I visit my relatives here in the US in Wisconsin and other places, there’s a lot of sense of: the rest of the world is kind of moving on and leaving us behind. People see that as being closely associated with liberal democracy.”

Hill sees some hope for the future in citywide grassroots activism, to confront the climate crisis, the coronavirus, poverty and inequality. But those are more aspirations for the future. Right now, in Washington, London and Moscow, it is the populists who have the upper hand.

Taken from here

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