Populism could be the way to No 10. But in time, deep social changes will limit its appealby Tom Clark / May 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Mendacity and caprice have always been found in politics, yet until recently there was a certain price to be paid. But no longer perhaps, and not only because of Donald Trump. Around the world, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (whose ruinous stance on the Amazon Julia Blunck exposes) to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, a shameless new form of governance is on the march. It trades in feelings not facts, nostalgia not progress, grievances not solutions, and chauvinism rather than co-operation. From behind a cover of ancient hatreds and hyped-up modern threats, it disdains established processes and norms, and manoeuvres itself into a position where ordinary rules do not apply.
I hesitate before pinning the label of “populism” on this illiberal semi-democracy. A measure of populism is unavoidable in any democracy, and has historically sometimes been a necessary corrective to complacent establishment assumptions, about the economy in particular. But for want of a short-hand, it will have to do, as this month’s Prospect asks whether Britain is ripe to be blown off-course by this ill political wind.
Go through the list of conditions in American society on which Trump preyed, and most are here. The long slump and its aftermath? Obviously. A deeper rot in industrial towns, and bewilderment with modernity in the countryside? For sure. A sense of lost greatness? In spades. A generation of immigration having run at a rate that is exceptional by historical standards? Absolutely, and again exactly as in America a very large chunk of the electorate feels uneasy with this change, an unease which Londoner Tom Smail gives voice to.
Even without the shambolic, interminable saga of quitting Europe, populist nationalism would probably find a sizeable receptive audience at the moment. But add in the growing sense of a Brexit betrayal, artfully stoked by Nigel Farage in the undeniably odd European parliament elections in which anti-Brexit forces are hopelessly splintered, and this receptiveness is bound to increase.
“Johnson is, perhaps, too frivolous a figure even to rank as a populist”
All this poses, as Steve Bloomfield forcefully argues, some sore temptations for the Conservative Party, which it does not seem in a mood to resist. Through their long and shape-shifting history, Britain’s Tory tribe has been many things—isolationist, imperialist, doctrinaire and pragmatic—but, at least when in power, it has never…