May's careful balancing act has swallowed the UKIP vote—but to be sustainable, she needs bolder policy solutions.by Sam Hall / May 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
Many have celebrated Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency as the moment the populist march across the west was halted. Right-wing populism finally flunked an electoral test—so the narrative runs—after a string of successes in 2016 encompassing Brexit, Trump and a rejection of Italy’s constitutional reforms.
But was Brexit really a populist moment like Trump’s victory? Vote Leave’s rhetoric certainly featured some of the same dominant themes: cultural anxiety about uncontrolled immigration; dissatisfaction with the behaviour of political and corporate elites; and a feeling of insecurity because of globalisation.
But also running through the campaign were more conventional narratives, like traditional British Euroscepticism, which draws on the failures of the eurozone and unpopular judgements from the European Court of Justice, a return to national sovereignty, and increased spending on the NHS.
Theresa May’s interpretation of the Brexit mandate has also fallen short of full-blooded populism. She has instead sought to occupy a middle ground between populism and globalism, championing the economic and security successes of globalisation, but seeking to assuage people’s economic and cultural concerns, particularly in relation to immigration.
In a speech to a room of globalists at Davos in January, she declared herself one of them, a supporter of free trade, free markets, and globalisation. But she also set them a challenge: “Too often today, the responsibilities we have to one another have been forgotten as the cult of individualism has taken hold, and globalisation and the democratisation of communications has encouraged people to look beyond their own communities and immediate networks in the name of joining a broader global community.”
Through her manifesto published last week and her speeches since becoming prime minister, she has artfully gestured towards both the populist and the globalist poles. She has shown her sympathy with some populist anxieties, with her high-profile swipe at “citizens of nowhere,” her insistence on ending free movement of people regardless of the implications for trade with the European Union, her proposed price cap on retail energy prices, her new rights for workers in the gig economy, and her adherence to the net migration target. Add to this the manifesto’s scorn for the political priorities of the “elites in Westminster.”