Elites would be foolish to dismiss Brexit and Trump as the triumph of crude populism

Ed Amory
Associations with the powerful are less valuable; endorsement from the crowd is more so (Source: Getty)

For the second time this year, a Western electorate rejected the overwhelming advice of the elites, the politicians, the entertainers, the intellectuals, the financiers. Instead, the American people chose brutal, chaotic, isolationist, misogynist, prejudiced change.

This is consistent with evidence that our Insight Team has consistently uncovered about the mood of the global public. To take Britain as an example, in London, 70 per cent of people agree that globalisation has had a positive impact on their lives. In the North West of England, that figure falls to 33 per cent.

They blame politicians and businesses; 81 per cent of the UK public agree that big businesses have become greedy, taking more out of society than they put in. So it’s not surprising that 87 per cent of Britons agree that Britain is less unified than 20 years ago.

Just as in Britain, a large swathe of America has lost its trust in the establishment. They believe that their children will for the first time in their country’s history be worse off than them, they have little hope for the future, and leaders in business and politics have forfeited their trust.

Read more: From Brexit to Trump, the elites have lost control over politics

Anglo-Saxon capitalism in particular was seen to fail in a recession that was created by a greedy minority, but for which the majority paid the price. So for them, a vote for Brexit, a vote for Trump, made absolute sense.

What matters now is how the elites react. When I spoke to the American Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg earlier this month, he reminded me that the world has been here before, in the 1930s. The elites then responded to the collapse of trust with what he called the Progressive Era of Renewal, actions designed to rebuild trust between the rulers and the ruled.

This time around, there is a danger that those elites are in turn losing trust and confidence in their electorates, and will use their power and influence to try to deny this desire for change. That is understandable, and may be even sensible in the short term, but it is unlikely in the longer term to build the bridges that will re-establish stable democracy.

Brexit and Trump represent a cry for help from a large number of people. We’d be foolish to dismiss it as simply the triumph of crude or misguided populism.

Read more: Trump knows that success requires compromise: Brexiteers should take note

It’s very hard to predict what a Trump presidency will really mean, just as it’s proving exceptionally difficult to define Brexit, so the only certainty is a prolonged period of uncertainty. This will hit investment and suppress global growth.

However, there is one area of relative certainty. Trust is at a premium – reputation matters more than ever. Those businesses that invest in building a real value-based relationship with their consumers will prosper, just as those politicians who are able to convince electorates that they mean what they say will thrive.

Equally, saying one thing and doing another will be punished more harshly than ever. Just as political parties must prove, as the Conservative Party Conference slogan for 2016 put it, that they are “For Everyone”, so businesses must clearly demonstrate their value to the societies in which they operate. Associations with the powerful are less valuable; endorsement from the crowd is more so.

On the eve of the First World War, the British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Listening to some of the commentariat following Trump’s victory, you would think that they were channeling Sir Edward. It’s not that bad yet. The future is still ours to shape.

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