The day after Donald Trump won the American election, one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Der Speigel, simply drew his burning orange face heading towards earth like a destructive meteor. “The End Of The World (as we know it)” — its front-page howled. An illustration is worth a thousand articles.
Picking up a newspaper these days can leave you with a similar feeling, like the West is on the verge of a meltdown. Most European countries are facing either a financial collapse, worryingly high youth unemployment or a resurgent neo-Nazi party which wants to leave the European Union. Doom and gloom is everywhere. It could just take one big event to tip everything over the edge.
But there are reasons for optimism too. At first glance, the election of Trump, Europe’s problems and the UK’s vote for Brexit represent a shift against immigration, globalisation and liberal ideals. The wider picture, however, looks a bit different.
In Britain and America what we are seeing is a dying generation lash out, angry the world is changing beyond their control. They want to reverse direction and this was their chance, perhaps the last chance, to make that happen. But they are in for a huge disappointment.
Last week the British government quietly revealed a startling fact. Last year over 27% of women who gave birth across the UK were born overseas. One in every eighth person living in the UK now was born abroad. Both these figures are at their highest for half a century.
London’s changing population is part of a story of a divide opening up between Britain’s biggest cities and the rest of the country. More than two-thirds of babies born in London last year had at least one parent born overseas. This also the highest it has ever been. Not only are cities across the UK thriving, their residents are more comfortable around different cultures, languages and races. This is also changing the local politics: The UK’s big cities mostly voted to remain in the EU by big margins. They are also voting less and less for anti-immigration parties.
The same urban vs rural divide is even wider in America. Trump got his votes overwhelmingly from small, declining, rural areas while Hillary Clinton’s votes came from big cities in the richest states.
What is behind this shift? Immigration, of course. It’s hard to believe now but cities like London, New York and others were declining during the 1970s and 80s. People couldn’t wait to move out. Now they are willing to pay astronomical rents to stay.
Immigrants start more businesses than the average. They bring new talent and fresh thinking. They work really hard. And they mostly live in big cities. In London they are even credited for improving the quality of schools (children who speak multiple languages do better). They have not only regenerated big western cities, they have changed the politics too.
This growing divide isn’t just geographical, it is also generational. Younger Britons and Americans are more global and liberal than their parents. They are much more comfortable mixing with people of different backgrounds. Mixed-race children are the fastest growing demographic in both countries.
The speed of change is such that if the Brexit vote had been held in 2020, the result would have been the opposite. Similarly, the share of the American white population is dropping every year. Barack Obama could not have won twice if the American population looked like it did 30 years ago. Trump managed to rally older, white voters this time but in four years it will be even harder to win again.
But here is the problem. Just because cosmopolitan cities in America and Britain are booming does not mean small-town people will follow them. They are so worried by the speed and scale of the change and want to stop it. This is why they are coming out in bigger numbers now than they did before. It is because multi-racial liberalism is becoming so dominant that they are lashing out.
But change does not stop, it can only be managed. The clock cannot be turned back. The challenge for liberal and left politicians now is to find a way of hanging on to enough rural voters while keeping their younger, growing urban base happy.
Of course there are caveats to this optimism. The young, urban base isn’t large enough to win power outright, yet. So building a winning coalition isn’t easy. Some of those voters will also shift to the opposite side. Plus, these demographic changes are taking place faster in the US and UK than mainland Europe. But both countries play an outsized role in the West’s future.
Europe and America may look like they are retreating inwards for now but liberals have time on their side. Sometimes progress takes place one funeral at a time.
Sunny Hundal is a London-based political commentator. Twitter: @sunny_hundal
The views expressed are personal.