In the latest Proxima Breakfast briefing, we welcomed Justin Webb, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme*, to share his insight on a changing geopolitical and economic landscape and what the future holds for transatlantic relations. Here are some of the highlights from the session:
Healing political division
Justin grounded the political and cultural schism of US politics with a story of President Obama’s election in 2008. He was reporting in rural America at the time and the reaction he saw to Obama’s election was an early indicator of the small-town vs metropolitan elite mindset that has so influenced the US and geopolitical landscape since then.
But he suggested that the speed of Biden’s action since coming to power could mean that significant change is on the horizon. Biden’s economic policies, he said, were the first real departure from the ‘Reaganomics’ that had dominated American economic policy since the 1980s. He said that Biden’s new stimulus deal could lead to a huge lift in wages in the bottom quintile of the US population and could signal the Democrats winning back working-class America in the longer term.
Justin suggested that the populist label which many in Europe have placed on the US for the past four years will be easily shrugged off as the country begins to regain a real sense of itself.
He said that Trumpian politics would be quickly forgotten in the US if its economy booms under the policies of Biden. Justin predicted that there may be a period of introspection in Europe as it examines its own populist makeup while the US begins to lead on the world stage.
A special relationship?
Justin suggested that a decisive domestic policy programme means that the UK will be far down the list of political priorities for the Biden administration. While the soft power of the UK will continue to be strong amongst much of the American population, Justin suggested this soft power is dwindling in the places where US power resides. Among US policy makers he does not believe that there is a strong sense of the fabled ‘special relationship’ that UK policy makers so often reference.
This would be reflected in a weaker trade deal with the UK than many hoped for, Justin argued. He pointed to the significant lobby in congress that were concerned by the UK’s relationship with the EU, and specifically Ireland, which will put any major trade deal on the back burner.
The fight for working class voters
Justin said that there is a common European misconception that the US is a country in which everyone is striving for some greater goal. He said that on the contrary, the vast political base of Trump was an ambivalent one. They wanted to get on with their lives and did not want to be coopted into a cultural direction they were not comfortable with. He indicated that this political power base is now changing the direction of UK politics as well.
In the UK he said there was now a fight for working class voters for the first time in decades, and this presented a major opportunity for a political party that placed community at its core. Higher taxes, he said, would be the price that wealthier members of society would pay for this new political direction.
Future of UK government
Justin looked at the impact of COVID on UK Government and suggested that the pandemic would bring change in how the UK presents itself on the world stage. He noted that there are efforts afoot to revamp Downing St. and reorganise the way central government works in the longer term – potentially part of an effort to present a new efficient look to the outside world and replacing the somewhat amateur and ramshackle image the UK has been seen as portraying in the past.
However, he also stated that any revamp of the UK’s image and status on the world stage would depend on the nature of its long-term relationship with the EU. Only after this relationship has been stabilised can the UK begin to look outwards and look to establish itself as a serious world figure.
*As featured in The Guardian.