How they frown. How they fulminate. How they threaten. For decades, presidents and prime ministers, policymakers and pundits have told voters there is only one direction of travel: free trade. Now comes Brexit and Donald Trump – and the horrible suspicion that the public won’t buy it any more. This is how an elite project falls apart. And the elites don’t know what to do, apart from keep insisting the public listen.
In Washington last month, you could barely move for wagging fingers as the heads of the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation warned that free trade was in mortal danger. In Ottawa last week, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau surveyed the hundreds of thousands of Europeans demonstrating against the continent’s treaty with his country and said: “If … Europe is unable to sign a progressive trade agreement with a country like Canada, well, then with whom will Europe think that it can do business in the years to come?”
Their outriders in the press have dropped the pretence of liberal politesse for red-cheeked self-righteousness. The hairy-palmed hordes are coming for our internationalism! As if internationalism were little more than business-class flights and the freedom to structure derivatives across several time zones. The Economist slaps an image of anti-globalisation demonstrators on its cover with the headline: “Why they’re wrong”. Note that use of “they”, with its shadow of the drawbridge being hastily pulled up. Coming soon, perhaps: “Why can’t we get the 99% we deserve?”