It says something about the shock to the British political establishment caused by Donald Trump’s victory that the first coherent and visible response came from Nigel Farage, the only high-level UK politician who can claim to have had any real contact with the new US president-elect’s wing of the Republican party.
Farage said Trump’s victory was the second of two great political revolutions in 2016. “I thought Brexit was big but, boy, this looks like it is going to be even bigger,” he said.
Theresa May, by contrast, issued a statement with the usual bromides welcoming Trump’s victory, vowing that the special relationship would endure, and highlighting the UK’s security and defence relationship with Washington.
Yet it may prove deeply worrying for Downing Street and the Foreign Office that a potentially isolationist president, critical of Nato and the WTO, has come to power just as Britain is weakening its relationship with Europe.
The concern will be that the UK finds itself stranded between Europe and the US, and that as the two blocs become increasingly estranged, Britain’s role as the bridge between Washington and Europe becomes untenable or irrelevant.
Tom Raines, of the thinktank Chatham House, put it bluntly: “The twin poles of UK foreign policy for 40 years has been the special relationship with Atlanticist US and active membership of the EU. Both are in tatters.”
There will also be concern for Britain’s Brexit talks. Trump is a Brexit supporter, but he may have less credibility in European capitals than Hillary Clinton in trying to put pressure on the EU to come to a deal.
The Trump victory could drive the EU to one of two Brexit responses. The union could circle the wagons and try to prevent Marine Le Pen from winning the French presidential election by driving a harder bargain with the UK. Alternatively, it could conclude that the wider geopolitical stakes, including dealing with Russia and terrorism, are so high that a quick and dirty deal with the UK is a necessity.
No 10 policymakers viewed the Trump triumph through the same prism as Brexit, and May will probably offer herself as the western leader who shares lead responsibility with Trump in responding to the populist revolt.
The head of the No 10 policy board, George Freeman, saw Trump’s victory in that context, tweeting: “At its heart this is about a broken contract through the failure of globalised market economics to serve the interests of domestic workers.”
He said the result was “a stunning demonstration of how disempowered low-income Americans feel by Washington politics and globalisation. The insurgency is a big test for the constitutional protections for liberty and democracy in the UK and the US. It is clear we are living through a genuine crisis of legitimacy sweeping through western political economy.”
He asked whether EU leaders would wake up to “the roar of anger at globalisation, machine politics and out-of-touch elites.” Freeman, who was a fierce critic of the tone of Trump’s campaign and at one point described the candidate as “Trumpolini”, added: “The key now is how he governs, and who he appoints to his administration.”
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, dismissed the possibility that the Trump of the stump would evaporate now that he was heading for the White House. “We can try and play it down as we listened to his conciliatory words in his acceptance speech, but it is a bit like Boris Johnson trying to be serious. It is not very convincing.”
Powell, speaking on BBC radio, said the biggest problem was the president-elect’s temperament. “In the end, in that split second when he has to make a decision – ‘do I or don’t I?’ – that is when the constraints do not hold for a US president, and the consequences could be catastrophic.”
The result, he said, was a triumph for “isolationism, nativism and protectionism, something we have feared for over a century in the US, and the consequences really will be very serious”.
Paradoxically, that may increase the pressure on the UK to stay close to the EU, at least on foreign policy, and try to remain prominent in Nato’s resistance to Russian expansionism. A shrivelled Nato, an ineffective EU defence arm and an aggressive Moscow would be the worst possible outcome.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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