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Man of the people? Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a campaign speech at a JCB factory in Uttoxeter in 2019. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The populist delusion

The right has won the early battles, but the left can still win the war

By Jon Bloomfield & David Edgar  

Over the last decade, an increasingly confident right wing has presented disillusioned voters with a simple choice: elitist, neoliberal hyper-globalisation or popular, patriotic nationalism. This new fault-line pits economic and social liberalism against social conservatism and the promise of muscular economic intervention. Despite the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020, progressives have yet to find a strategy to combat this potent—if false—divide.

The traditional right-left dividing line—economic liberalism and social conservatism on the right, economic interventionism and social liberalism on the left—forced working-class nationalists to choose between their socially conservative instincts (including hostility to immigration) and their support for state intervention in the economy. In essence, they had to decide which liberalism—social or economic—to reject.

The 2016 Brexit referendum freed such voters from this restraint—and it certainly set back the old liberal order. But despite many jumping to the conclusion that fervent nationalism explained the whole Brexit…

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