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Senior U.K. politician warns populism here to stay

Neil Ainger, Writer at
William Hague addresses the 2017 SWIFT Business Forum in London.

"Nation states are fighting back. People see them as a way to take back control from big corporations and machines," said William Hague, former U.K. Foreign Secretary and ex-leader of the Conservative party and House of Commons, in a speech in London last week that examined the French and U.K. general elections and the impact of technology upon society.

"Politics is going to intrude more in business over the next 20 years than it has in the previous 20 years," said Hague, who now sits in the House of Lords, the UK Parliament's second chamber.

Hague warned that globalization and free trade were potentially under threat from the rising tide of populism evident in the first round of the recent French election; the U.K.'s Brexit vote to leave the European Union (EU); and the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S.

The populist trend was, "not necessarily a good thing but it will continue," said Hague at the 2017 SWIFT Business Forum in London on 25 April.

"People feel they have no influence over the rise of giant corporations or new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI)," he said, while warning that the attempt to use the nation state to regain control meant that "populism was here to stay for some time".

"47 percent of all jobs could be replaced by machines as the pace of the so-called fourth industrial revolution gathers pace," said Hague, referring to a recent McKinsey & Company report he'd read that discussed AI-led automation and the rise of disruptive technology. Hague used to work for the consultancy before entering politics.

"Politics and societies are being profoundly changed by technology," said Hague, prompting debate about "if robots should be taxed in the future." He also discussed the worth or otherwise of a guaranteed national basic income, "as is currently being trialed in Finland."

Populism will "inevitably ebb and flow", said Hague, while referencing the recent defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the inability of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN) to defeat the other leading candidate in the first round of the French elections on 23 April 2017. The far right leader will face a second round run-off against Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! on 7 May in France and her brand of anti-euro and pro-nation state policies are still proving popular.

"In France 41 percent of people in the first round voted for extreme right or left wing leaders," said Hague, with revolutionary leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon gaining 19.64 percent of the first round vote, not far behind Le Pen's 21.53 percent. Macron only just won the first round on 23.75 percent in an extremely close round of voting. He and Le Pen will now battle it out for a place in the Élysée Palace on 7 May.

"49 percent of the French electorate voted for anti-EU and anti-globalization parties in the first round," added Hague, "and unless the country finds a way out of its economic malaise these populists will grow."

"Old party loyalties and patterns of voting are breaking down across Europe," said Hague, "as the emergence of Mélenchon in France and of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK shows."

The Labour Party leader, Corbyn is attracting support from many people who have not voted before and is perhaps leaving space in the middle ground of UK politics for the reemergence of a centrist party such as the Liberal Democrats, led by Tim Farron. The right wing Conservative Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister, Theresa May, will contest the U.K. general election on 8 June 2017 with these figures and the Scottish National Party (SNP) separatist leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), one of the cheerleaders behind the Brexit vote in the U.K., are another potential source of political uncertainty. They are expected to campaign for a 'hard Brexit' that prioritizes caps on immigration and prevents the free movement of people.

Political uncertainty

"There will be more political uncertainty with the Brexit negotiations to come," said Hague, while warning that if the process isn't completed within two years then the qualified majority voting procedure in the European Parliament, which must approve any deal negotiated by the EU's national leaders, will cease to apply. This could give power to a single nation to block an agreement if talks overrun.

The Brexit negotiations, which have triggered this summer's U.K. general election as the PM seeks a new mandate, and larger majority, to enter the talks on a stronger base, "will be very difficult", said Hague. "The U.K. wants to discuss everything at once, including a future trade deal, while the EU wants the 'divorce bill' settled first."

Whoever wins the U.K. general election, with the Conservatives presently leading the polls, will also naturally affect the negotiating positions adopted. The same can be said of the German election in September 2017, so there is no doubt a few more years of instability and political and economic uncertainty await.

Economic uncertainty

Outside of Brexit and the rise of populist political figures that could hinder free trade, Hague identified the biggest threats to future prosperity as the rising global population and associated increase in migration levels. The personal debt levels being built up during this period of low interest rates, low productivity and falling wages is also a problem.

More migration to the EU from Syria, Africa and the Middle-east, "could threaten EU political harmony", said Hague.

He added that: "The build-up of personal debt levels was so stark that when interest rates do rise there will be a serious problem."

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