From the moment President Trump succeeded in his 2016 election promise to deliver “Brexit times 10,” through to Boris Johnson’s election in July as the new leader of the Conservative Party and British prime minister (Trump has dubbed him “Britain Trump”), there has been a remarkable political symbiosis between the U.S. and Britain.
Today, both countries are deeply riven socially — between winners and losers of globalization, between rural and urban voters, and between generations. These divisions also cut through their main political parties. In this polarized environment, many British and American politicians have concluded that they must ride the populist tiger rather than search for votes in a barren center ground. Compromise offers few rewards now, and moderates seem to have left the field.
Under Trump, partisanship in the U.S. has reached historic highs, leading to congressional gridlock and government by executive order. Pro-trade Republicans are being led by an “America first” mercantilist. Internationalists have resigned or been fired.
In Britain, after the contentious result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, politicians are scrambling to deal with the fact that only 8% of Britons now identify themselves “very strongly” with a political party, whereas over 40% identify very strongly as a “Remainer” or a “Leaver,” according to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey.
This helps explain why Johnson’s new Cabinet has signed up collectively to delivering Brexit by Oct. 31, deal or no deal with the European Union. It also explains why Johnson felt he could prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for a critical five-week period through Oct. 14, during which he hopes to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The political opposition on both sides of the Atlantic is torn between veering further to the left in order to present a clear alternative to the sitting government and trying to get ahead of the popular curve by rebuilding a more moderate political agenda.
These similarities are not a coincidence but a reflection of similar, deep-seated dynamics. First, the British and American laissez-faire economic models concentrated the gains of economic globalization in multinational businesses and their shareholders, leaving median wages to stagnate from the mid-1990s in the face of ever more competitive emerging markets. Dissatisfaction with established parties runs deep.
Second, both countries’ openness to immigration has heightened the feeling of economic insecurity and, more important, threatened the sense of national identity among segments of their populations. Many Americans and Britons now want leaders who will take back control of immigration and think of them first.
Third, both the U.S. and Britain share a narrative of historical exceptionalism. Early European Americans forged their individualistic outlook in opposition to the rigid power structures of their homelands. The U.S. engaged internationally only when it had become the dominant superpower, able to set the rules of the game for itself and for others.
Britons carry a sense of national exceptionalism from their island geography, the era of empire and their status as victors in World War II, with the privileges that bestowed. Britain was a reluctant member of the EU from the outset.
Today, both countries cling to the trappings of sovereignty. And both are rejecting the next phase of the globalization revolution that they helped to midwife: the harmonization of economic regulations that impinge on national decision-making.
Instead, the Trump administration has ripped apart the multilateral trading system with a series of unilateral trade measures against both China and allies across the world. Thanks to Brexit, Britain is about to weaken the EU, the most advanced trading bloc in the world, cutting its combined gross domestic product by some 15%.
But we should not take the parallels too far. The two countries face very different circumstances. The U.S. can afford to adopt a unilateral posture, confident in its size, economic and financial power, and unique natural and human endowments, all of which give it some genuinely sovereign economic tools.
Britain, on the other hand, is a midsize power, with modest natural resources and a persistent current account deficit combined with a vulnerable currency. It depends for its economic health on a close trading relationship with the EU. Brexit or not, its foreign policy interests are inseparable from those of its European neighbors, with whom it shares a similar outlook on Russia, China and the Middle East — and similar risks from immigration, pandemics and terrorism.
As much as their politics echo each other, Britain and the U.S. will struggle to reenergize their long-standing special relationship. On the plus side, the two countries share deep and mutually beneficial cultural, business and security linkages, which could allow them to strengthen the transatlantic axis in the face of growing assertiveness from Russia and China. But Britain’s post-Brexit geopolitical isolation and economic uncertainty will impose limits on its role as America’s principal ally.
The more interesting question is whether, having entered the populist whirlpool at the same time, they might also be the first among the Western countries to emerge out the other side. Given the deep roots and historic resilience of their political systems, this is entirely possible.
An agreement with the EU over Brexit would likely see the Conservatives return to a centrist domestic agenda, given that their main internal schism concerns Europe. And the 2020 presidential election provides the next potential hinge point for the U.S.
Indeed, the election of a President Elizabeth Warren opposite a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 would open another chapter in Anglo-American symbiosis.
Robin Niblett is the director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.