Content Block

Society 13/11/2016

A lesson for New York, from London

Take it from someone who's been there

Dear New Yorkers,

I’m going to be blunt, it doesn’t get any better with time. Your city, like London, is a multicultural jewel in a nation that has voted for a variant of right-wing populism. So I thought it would be helpful to explain how things have unfolded in the months after Brexit and how to cope with a Trump presidency.

First, you are going to get pretty sick of the crowing of liberals in Canada and elsewhere in the world. From German political parties trying to steal your startups, to amusing side-quips from foreign politicians, a lot of people elsewhere are going to tell you the city you love is a provincial outpost of a bankrupt nation. Ignore them. When Berlin, Rome or Stockholm have anywhere near the opportunities for ethnic minorities, then they can carp. Till then, a moment of reflection on why none of these countries have anywhere near the ethnic representation in their parliaments, on their TV or in their top companies as the US or UK would be useful.


After defensiveness will come guilt. You know you’ve spent longer in London in the past few years than you have in Birmingham, Alabama in the same way many Londoners have spent longer in New York than our own Birmingham. This won’t be the story of most New Yorkers, but this is your story right? You know if you fly into London – or vice-versa – you’ll have friends you can dine with. You’ll have the same cultural reference points - House of Cards, that new local brewery that has opened up – and you’ll have the same conversations as you did at home. And this is where it becomes sharp. Because your preoccupations are not the preoccupations of the people who voted Brexit or Trump. You did the right thing and helped migrants in Calais (or Syrian refugees), you signed that petition on LGBTi rights and you shared that Lady Gaga / Lily Allen video on why migration is good for us. And yes, you also voted left, and in your head backed the minimum wage (which didn’t change) and in your head knew you wanted more house building for poorer citizens (which didn’t happen) and student debt reduction (which didn’t happen) and better trade deals to protect local workers (which didn’t happen). But you didn’t ever take to the streets to make any of these things happen - and so those people, the people who voted Trump and Brexit assumed you didn’t really care.

Worse, the people on your side will insult the people you need to win over who ought to be on your side. Just six days before the election, Lena Dunham tweeted to her 6 million followers an animation with the words:

“white men are a problem … white straight men are a big problem, that’s for sure.”

If you are a white man stacking shelves for the minimum wage in a supermarket in Ohio, is hearing this going to make you more or less likely to vote Trump?

After guilt comes anger

Regardless, after guilt will come anger. This is where you will really let yourselves down folks. When NAFTA comes under fire or TPP is cancelled, you’ll be sharing the article quoting a Goldman Sachs executive saying it will cost jobs in New York – in the same way Londoners have lept to the defence of the hedge funders, investment bankers and financial spivs of our City. You’ll find your liberal friends talking and writing about the end of the financial eminence of your city, arguing for free trade at any cost, disseminating infographics on the lost revenue from bankers bonuses. You’ll worry about trade and investment and the stock price and the value of the dollar and the pound and at this point you will become indistinguishable from the establishment your fellow countrymen just voted against.

And part of your anger will be righteous, because what comes in the weeks and months after will be awful. That liberal carping from overseas will hit a nerve. The tone of your national debate will sour. The evening news will report men booting pregnant Muslim women in their stomachs, Nazi graffiti on school walls, migrants being verbally abused and language unthinkable a decade before becoming commonplace. From guilt, you will again move to horror. You remember that you warned that the fabric of your nation could be undone by this leap in the dark. You thought your country was better than that. You remember calling out the vile racism at Trump rallies that the candidate did not see fit to challenge and the Brexit posters demonising Syrian refugees that looked like fascist propaganda. You spoke out as journalists were shouted down at rallies and “experts” came under attack. The other side will accuse you of being hysterical. Why whinge they will say, neither Trump nor UKIP would ever bring forward ‘Jim Crow’ laws? You know they hardly need to. We live in the era where racism is privatised. Why create state propaganda outlets when Facebook and Twitter will distribute the most vile racism and untruths while profiting from the clicks? Why legislate to drive down the number of immigrants when your supporters can just make them feel unwelcome - or worse?

A new form of politics

Yet, here’s the thing. For all the grimness, there will be glimmers of hope. You will still live in a city – and a country – that is multicultural and free. The culture war you fear you have lost, you got very close to winning. Brexit and Trump are the death rattle of changing countries, after the worst economic dip since the Great Depression. The politicians you trust and like are mostly still elected. The racists and xenophobes are still a minority, albeit an emboldened one. In your city, you will feel a rush of energy as a previously moribund form of politics, your politics, is shaken up. Pre-Brexit, no one in London nor the United Kingdom cared much for the European Union. Now nearly half the population cares and actually and genuinely feels at least a little European. People fly European Union flags as a sign of quiet protest.

As Thomas Frank told Little Atoms recently, the Democrats have become increasingly alienated from the American working-class: it is going to face a shake-up. No one is going to do politics solely online anymore.

The question is going to be asked, what have you actually done? The smug style in liberal politics, the left’s factionalism, the hard-left’s suicide mission to destroy electable social democrats; all of this must end and it will. In the meantime, the bubble we inhabit will give us temporary sanctuary. But we can’t afford to stay there for long.

Mike is the publisher of Little Atoms and the Director of 89up. He has run high profile campaigns on Belarus and Azerbaijan, works with the Don't Spy On Us campaign and documentary film company BRITDOC on the Oscar-nominated film CITIZENFOUR. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Index on Censorship.