Observations of an ex pat: That time of year

t’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the season of good will, holly, mistletoe, reindeer, white-bearded elves, and midnight mass. I mean the time to look back and forward at the world political scene. And there is so much to write and so little space.

Britain has just had its Christmas election. America has had its Christmas impeachment. Hong Kong is still in turmoil. Latin America is going through another of its political crises. The Chinese economy is shrinking. America’s Democratic Party cannot decide which way to go. Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon are rioting, so are the French. The Eurozone has had a terrible year. Putin is as belligerent as ever. Turkey is becoming more obstreperous and Israel can’t reach agreement on a coalition government.

Boris Johnson’s landslide victory has for the moment put paid to the Brexit debate. He claims that his historic 80-seat majority on the sound bite slogan “Get Brexit Done” is a massive mandate for leaving the EU. That is an over-simplified misrepresentation. Opinion polls report that the country continues to be split almost 50/50 between remain and leave. The election result was as much—it not more—of a reflection of distrust of an ideologically-driven Labour Party than it was a vote on Brexit.

So Brexit is likely to remain a big issue with the focus shifting to the prime minister’s renewed No Deal threat if free trade talks are not concluded by this time next year. They are other worrying messages coming out of 10 Downing Street: A review of the relationship between the government and the courts and the role of the media are two indications that Boris Johnson will use his enhanced power to stifle dissent and move Britain to a more presidential style of government.

Unfortunately, Boris won’t be facing much in the way of an official opposition. The Labour Party is set for a bitter civil war between the far-left ideologues of Momentum who blame Labour’s defeat on everyone but themselves, and the more pragmatic wing who want a return to the old New Labour. The current election rules as set down by the party constitution put the Corbynistas and Momentum in pole position. This means a longer and more vicious blood-letting than previous leadership battles and raises the spectre of a Labour split and an open goal for the conservative government.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has this week become the third president in American history to be impeached. Because voting in both houses of Congress has become totally partisan, it is highly unlikely that Trump will be found guilty by the Republican-controlled Senate. But has his 2020 re-election been hindered or helped by impeachment? That question cannot be accurately answered until all the evidence has been presented in the Senate trial. So far everything that the House of Representatives has heard is second or third hand. This is because the president has refused to allow any White House officials to testify. There will be a battle royal to force into the Senate witness box.

Of course, The Democrats still have to put up a credible alternative to Trump and back them. So far no clear alternative has presented him (or her) self. They could, however, look towards the UK election results for some pointers. The British voters rejected an ideologically-driven Labour agenda based on envy with a large dash of class hate. They were more concerned with the practical realities of life and fear of higher taxes and bureaucratic inefficiency, and the Tories projected the image of delivering in that sphere.

China has a few problems. And when the world’s second largest economy has problems than it affects the rest of us. The problems centre on American tariffs and Hong Kong. At the end of 2019, the growth rate in the Chinese economy was its lowest for 29 years—6.2 percent. Economists are projecting an even lower rate for 2020—5.5 percent. This is bad for the rest of us because it means that the Chinese will have less money to buy goods and services from elsewhere in the world. The pro-democracy riots are making a difficult situation worse. The economy of the former British colony shrunk by thee percent in the third quarter of 2019 and is likely to continue to do so in the New Year. Hong Kong is a major trade channel for Mainland China. There is also the danger that the political discontent in Hong Kong could spill over into other parts of China such as Xinjiang. The Chinese people are quite happy to leave most matters in the hands of the communist party—as long as they are delivering on the economic front.

Never stable Latin America is already plagued with the political fallout from its economic problems. Expect more, especially in Argentina and Brazil. Four years ago Argentina’s Mauricio Macri inherited an economic basket case from the Peronists. He tried to sort it out with a tough austerity package and failed. The result was that the Peronists returned to power in October elections. Brazil has its own problems with populist leader Jair Bolsanaro who revels in the title of Latin American Trump. His love affair with the US president is, however, proving one sided. Last month Trump announced he would impose tariffs on Brazilian steel and aluminium because Brazil’s poor economic performance was driving down Brazilian prices on international markets.

President Emmanuel Macron has high hopes for the leadership role of the EU as Angela Merkel prepares her exit. But before he assume that role he needs to strengthen his domestic base which has been shaken by the yellow vest demonstrations over fuel prices and the possibly more damaging riots and strikes over proposed changes to the country’s pensions. The changes are necessary and long overdue, but a hard political sell. In the meantime, growth in the Eurozone has shrunk to 1.1 percent and is expected to go lower in 2020 as Brexit starts to bite.

In the Middle East there is a damaging end of year crescent arc of violence stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran is reeling from US sanctions. Syria is still fighting a civil war with the now added problem of Turkish interference and occupation, and Lebanon and Iraq appear to be sliding into chaos on the back of endemic corruption. The problems of the Middle East are compounded by Israel’s political deadlock and The Trump Administration’s abrogation of its role as honest broker.

On that happy note, it only remains to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and Prosperous New Year.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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7 Comments

  • I find this fascinating. We are told that the Chinese economy is shrinking – and later we are told this is in fact a growth rate of 6.2%.
    What is happening in the world now is simply a continuation of what has been happening for thousands of years.
    There is a difference in the present, unless of course we go back to before the last collapse of human civilisation.
    We have for a years been told how the growth of industrialisation, technology, pollution and so on has been exponential. The rate of increase in change has grown year by year. I can only remember back to the 1940s – as I was born in 1940 – but to me it is clear how the rate of change has indeed increased year by year. Humans have now altered the air we all breathe, the water in our oceans, the number and nature of the species with whom we share our planet, and so on. The estimates of the amount of resources that we would need for all our present population on our planet at a reasonable level which most of us in this country enjoy is around about two planets worth.
    We are faced, as we always have been, with the challenge of how we can construct a means of making decisions which can actually involve all our populations. We, as a species, need to answer the questions about where we think we are going.
    This isn’t going to happen unless some people are prepared to at least try to show the way. It may not happen then of course, but the alternative is to continue to blame others for our own faults.
    Or perhaps we might blame Venezuela – why has that dropped out of the list of demons recently?

  • And meanwhile in Thailand the Future Forward Party faces dissolution and forecasts for economic growth are being revised downward.

  • nigel hunter 20th Dec '19 - 10:28am

    Venezuela. It has probably gone off being newsworthy cos our GE took over and,off course, the media do not have to bash on about it cos Corbyn lost. That particular ‘fear factor’ of a Labour govnt has now gone.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Dec '19 - 10:32am

    The President of the Russian republic held a long press conference yesterday 19/12/2019.
    Any news on Ukraine?
    One country-two systems also applies to a former Portuguese possession in China.
    It was a gambling den until 1999. China was building a road-bridge to Hong Kong. Did they finish it?

  • Richard Underhill 20th Dec '19 - 10:54am

    nigel hunter: The Labour candidate in Tunbridge Wells came third, saving his deposit. As usual there was no SNP candidate, but the Tory, a former MP, who was pro-European in 2016, said that a vote for any other party would help Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.
    He must know how the first past the post system works, so a Labour vote is a wasted vote. There were also two Independent Leaver candidates, so the Tory modified his slogan to include them. They both lost their deposits. There was no Brexit candidate, but the Tory has said on TV that he will vote for Boris Johnson’s plan to leave the EU, which has so far not been finalised.

  • Richard
    It’s an even bigger gambling den and yes the bridge was completed.

  • Richard
    There is one important difference between the hand over in Macau and Hong Kong. In Macau the people there were entitled to full Portuguese passports. In Hong Kong the people could only have a BNO (British National Overseas) passport. A BNO passport allows travel but no right of residence anywhere.

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