Alexis Anne MacKenzie
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There Won't Be Blood: Suzanne Moore on the menopause

The female body can be a mess, so I simply decided to have it – the menopause – one cold November weekend a few years ago. But women my age won’t just melt away and we won’t become invisible.

Something in me has died. Not an actual thing. I know what that feels like. I have had a dead foetus inside me and been told to go home and wait to miscarry “naturally”. This is different. Another kind of ending. The bits that made me a woman of some description . . . they are still there, but they have no useful function. No more ovulation. No more bleeding. No more babies. No more contraception. No more wondering. No more tampon tax. The curse is lifted.

I want a medal, a paper hat, a prize; some kind of public recognition or a rite of passage at least, involving fire-eating, chanting and mescalin. Instead I find that no one wants me even to talk about it. “It” being the menopause. “My womb is a tomb” doesn’t seem to work well as a conversation starter.

“Can I have some sort of certificate?” I ask my poor GP.

“It doesn’t really work like that.”

“When can I say it’s over, that I’m done?”

She sighs. I like her and I feel if she could she would give me more than a wry smile.

No one really asks me how I am getting on with the old “change of life”. Especially not men. They probably think that would be rude and I would bite their heads off and they would probably be right. I don’t really have the mood swings that some talk about. I have just the one mood. Rage. I am enraged as soon as I wake up, enraged by the news, enraged by how the world is, enraged when I can’t sleep, and I can never sleep.

Some women cry. A lot. My friend cried because she saw a baby: “A baby at the bus stop. I cried at the bus stop.” She repeats the story several times until the bus stop is more significant to me than the baby. This is the hormonal horror that awaits. Weeping on buses. She is fully gone, I think to myself. A few years older than me, and constantly fanning herself. An evening with her is a trial, as the heating has to be switched on and off several times. Her thermostat has packed up. Her actual thermostat, the one in her house. It’s all the fiddling.

It is somehow reassuring to know most of my women friends are even more deranged than me. They talk of herbs and potions from hippie shops, black cohosh and sage tea, which is revolting. But some of the sisterhood around this time of life is what my kids would call “judgy”. There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. The natural and the unnatural. That is what being a woman is, I decide. Doing it the wrong way. I am further incensed.

“Are you having hot flushes?” my doctor asked at one point.

“I don’t know.”

“Then you are not,” she says. “You would know if you were. You are in the perimenopause.” She doesn’t have time to explain the perimenopause. I suspect it’s because she can’t. It can go on for ten years, apparently. Ten years?!

It’s just as well I am handling everything so well. I end my relationship because it’s bad and I end it badly because there is no other way. A process of shedding starts. Some hoard and hold on. This is not for me. Some intuition tells me that freedom will demand letting go.

At the time, I didn’t see these feelings as menopausal. But now I do. This deep sense of time passing, through one’s flesh, of not wanting more of the same, a sense of coming into the present and only the present, understanding that time is valuable and time has passed: these come through knowing that parts of my life are over. I can no longer create life – and I have created three – so now I must create my own. This self-creation is either selfish or absolutely necessary to survive. Yes, I can jump out of a plane, get a new “hobby”, rush around in a flurry of activities involving Zumba and watercolours . . . but why would I? The manic overachievement of the menopausal feels a lot like denial.

Read the medical books. Look at the fashion spreads. Women dry up. Youth is moist, wet, dewy. Old women are husks with coarsened skin and thinning vaginal walls and the cause of this curse is hormonal: oestrogen. We no longer produce enough of it. The ovaries stop their egg production. The average age for the menopause is 51 but it can come much earlier. Chemotherapy will bring it on. IVF treatment induces it; this is the fresh hell.

Some sail through it. I asked a brilliant 80-year-old I met smoking at a party about it. “Honey,” she said, “I was too damn busy to notice.” That generation was tougher than
mine in every way. Some of our angst is cultural. To put it into perspective, historically a lot of women just died before they got to this age. We are the lucky ones.

Having lost enough friends along the way, I know this but I can’t avoid the questions: what does it mean to be a woman who, having served her purpose – reproduction – may have another kind of life? We may not define ourselves by our reproductive organs, whether we have children or not, but we are defined by them. Whatever your opinion about your role, your sex, your gender, your identity, your biology, your destiny, something is physically happening. If one enters “womanhood” with menstruation, now you are exiting it. A predator whose bones are thinning is a woman to be feared. A woman whose ovaries no longer do what they should do is somehow ungendered and possibly disgusting.

The sanctioned discussions around the menopause are fairly limited, mostly to “ageing”. The physicality is rarely mentioned. Instead we ask: “Can we have more older women on TV?” “Can a grandmother be a president? “Can mutton be a lamb shish?” Well, yes, obviously, if these are the parameters of the debate.

Inevitably, then we see pictures of women who look good for their age. Helen Mirren, Carine Roitfeld and the other one. You know, some other one who is still desirable. I want to scream. It is their job to look good. This is not the job of most women, although we are increasingly groomed to think it is, to define ourselves purely physically. The advice comes thick and heavy as we try to stop being thick and heavy. It is relentless and relentlessly boring. Exercise and everything in moderation. Another part of me dies.

The menopause is not sexy. We get it. We don’t get it. It might be ultra-sexy, actually. Hormones are druggy and – rather like in pregnancy – some women find their libido shoots up; for others, it declines and they express relief. We are all different but the truism remains that our bodies, battle-scarred as they may be, are now somewhere we ought to feel at home. To not feel at home is the source of terror. To feel the fear of where this all might be heading.

Simone de Beauvoir could barely look at herself in the mirror, her own ageing was so horrific to her. For some, the cloak of invisibility of middle age is worn with aplomb; for others, it is a shroud. The worrying about libido, too much, too little, is real. If you want to depress yourself, google “clitoral atrophy”. Although I am not a doctor, the solution seems to be: use it or lose it.

The lack of information around the menopause is one of the things that has shocked me most. It is a mystery to many well-informed women. The perimenopause, for instance, is an all-purpose diagnosis for all kinds of ills. Many women are told they are “peri” with no idea what this means. Erratic bleeding, insomnia, itching, vaginal dryness, memory lapse and vasomotor disturbance are just a few of the symptoms that could make you “peri”. You are post-menopausal when you haven’t had a period for over a year.

The lack of definition bothered me. The female body can be a mess, so I simply decided to have it – the menopause – one cold November weekend a few years ago. I took to my bed, decided that my time was over and nested in a cloud of self-pity. By the Monday I was bored and went out and saw a great gig. These are a good menopausal activity, as they occur in dark spaces and no one cares if you perspire.

But I am not surprised so many women end up utterly depressed. If the menopause is seen as basically a disease, as lack, then women’s bodily chemistry must be rebalanced with hormone replacement therapy or antidepressants. Lately I am seeing that a lot. Middle-aged women are now on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for what are basically the symptoms of menopause. The encroaching darkness must be kept at bay. Having seen women go from crawling around on all fours to functioning well on HRT, I know it can help. But why is there so little discussion about long-term medicating of the female body?

Despite my melodrama, in truth, I hardly suffered at all. Why would I? I never had terrible periods: indeed, I used to see PMT in others as a form of attention-seeking. But when menopausal insomnia hit me I felt unable to function.

“Can you not fall asleep, or do you keep waking?” the doctor asked.

“Both.”

More blood tests. Too much cortisol. “It’s the stress hormone. Your body is somehow trying to kick-start your ovaries. It will try anything.”

“I hate my ovaries,” I wailed. The doctor prescribed me tricyclics, the old-fashioned kind of antidepressants, just to use at night. Immediately I trebled the dose. When Michael Jackson died, my first thought was to wonder what sleeping medication he was on. Can I get that? That is what insomnia does.

***

As the drugs didn’t work, I was offered the sleep clinic. Off I trotted weekly to cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s new bargain-basement cure-all. The first thing I was told by a shrink was that I must stop referring to our therapy as “The Insomniac Club” or, indeed, referring to myself as an insomniac. My thinking needed reframing.

Again, no one wanted me to use the word “menopause” but they pushed me to learn something called “sleep hygiene”. When I described physical feelings of insomnia that were decidedly menopausal, that I could actually feel descending on me, they talked about turning off my laptop. This did not help. Mostly I didn’t understand why I was having group therapy with a perfectly nice but unemployed man who couldn’t sleep at night because he slept all day; a wired and scratchy young woman who was always shivering; a very angry man who claimed not to have slept for ten years; and a shy emo who did sleep, but was troubled by the idea of seasonal affective disorder.

But the reason I was there summed up for me what is wrong with our attitudes to the menopause. A psychiatrist had assessed me over the phone.

One of the questions he asked was: “Do you have dark thoughts?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of thing?”

“I just think about how I will die and everyone I know will die and how dying is when everything you hold dear is taken away from you bit by bit.”

“Do you have those thoughts often?”

“Yes, often. I always have had. But now a lot.”

To me, this is normal. The NHS clearly does not have a tick box labelled “existentialism”. Somehow over the phone I had been assessed as mildly suicidal. Nothing happened. I just got a letter telling me as much, which is . . . cheerful, first thing in the morning. The thing is, I’m not in the least suicidal – but menopause is something to do with death and yet no one wants you to say this out loud. No one at all.

To deny the connection to death is a lie. Your body is not returning to a previous state. The death may be metaphorical, as you are not dying, unless your body was only ever there for childbearing. Are women who have not had children lesser women? Are we only defined by motherhood and fuckability? No, of course not. We are more than that. That’s what we tell ourselves. But what is this more? How do we reproduce ourselves for ourselves? If you have a moment. If you are not looking after children and parents. If you can be bothered.

Maybe that’s why so much cheery advice on looking younger (it’s not happening) or getting a pet or internet dating can be grating. And inane. A further denial of loss. I’ve never met a woman who misses having periods, but I know many who felt a form of mourning in middle age. The mourning is unvoiced and unsure because one of the things women learn very young is that ­putting yourself at the centre of things is unbecoming. The flood of feelings about life, death, ageing, sex and the whole damn shebang is easier to push away, to belittle, than to confront.

This may also explain the constant uplift of some of the blogs on the subject. At least women do exchange information online, and because most of us are so clueless this is useful. I knew far more as a teenager about what menstruation was than I knew about the menopause as a fiftysomething. While information is scant, the drive to be happy is so manic that it is near hysteria.

My favourite advice was on the value for menopausal symptoms of a nice, hot bath with Taoist oils (no idea). There was a picture of an antique bathtub and an inspirational quote – “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them”, from Sylvia Plath. The Sylvia Plath. That well-known life coach.

Is a jaunty sense of humour a response to fear? Germaine Greer may have been right when she said that what women “are afraid of losing is not femininity, which can always be faked and probably is always fake, but femaleness”. If by femaleness she means the ability to reproduce – certainly not a defining part of every woman’s life – then the return to the individual that existed before menstruation raises interesting questions. Her view may be seen as unfashionable essentialism, or rather we may begin to see the menopause as a form of transitioning. For it is a time of transition. Undoubtedly. Is a woman who is free of her “sexual and reproductive destiny” less of a woman? If so, someone needs to explain what a woman is exactly and why she may not now become more of herself.

In the early 1990s the menopause and what it meant were explored by feminists such as Greer and Gail Sheehy, who stood at opposite ends of the spectrum. For Sheehy, the menopause was something that women as health consumers would lobby around, breaking the last great taboo. HRT would stop osteoporosis and heart attacks, and women could embrace a second adulthood in ways men couldn’t. Some medics described women low in oestrogen as “the walking dead” and Sheey’s 1991 book The Silent Passage is a call to arms to demand intervention.

Since then, debates about HRT and breast cancer have raged and the standard dosage of HRT has come down.

The theory is that sexless cronehood can thus be swerved. The practice turns out to be different. The sexed-up older woman, the “cougar”, honed and toned, botoxed and HRTed up to the nines, is still a figure of fun, for men and for other women. We do not like the bodies of older women even when they are our own. And every pleasure-giving thing from sunlight to gin is said to age us faster. The menopausal woman must decide whether she will go with thinning bones or a higher risk of breast cancer – and for many it is no choice at all, as they feel so terrible. We still have to function.

The production (and politics) of oestrogen is incredibly complicated both within our bodies and without. Too much of it is bad for us. Too little of it is bad for us. This was brought home to me when I was in a hospital with yet another friend with a tumour in her breast. “It’s because I smoked, isn’t it?” she said to the consultant.

“No. We see every type of breast cancer here and the only things that all the women have in common is that they have breasts and produce oestrogen.”

Not all cancers are related to oestrogen but some are. It is produced in the female body, mainly through the ovaries, but also the liver and the adrenal glands. A few of the things that make us produce too much of it and are therefore dangerous are excess fat, too many carbohydrates, alcohol, meat and perfume – basically what I would call the finer things in life. Then there’s all the excess oestrogen in the environment from plastics, pesticides and from women who are leaking it out all over the shop because they are on the Pill.

At this point, if you are sensible, you may make an informed choice about a healthy diet and exercise to get through menopausal symptoms. Cortisol – the likely cause of my insomnia – is related to insulin production, so I can vouch that if you cut out all sugar and alcohol your mood will level out, your cravings will stop and your night sweats will ease. After three weeks of this, however, I felt such a life wasn’t really worth living.

Upping your calcium is a good idea. Women swap hard-won tips such as “tahini is a great source of calcium” but it’s all a bit reminiscent of that time when you’ve just had a baby and you go out and people assume that all you want to talk about is babies, when it’s the last thing you want to do. Except this time it’s even worse, because you’re talking about seeds. Still, you are now in the zone of bone scans and mammograms, with bowel cancer tests to look forward to.

I was called in for a smear. While the cold metal was still inside, the nurse said casually: “Well, you won’t be needing these so often. Cervical cancer is a young woman’s disease.” As I was putting my knickers back on she pulled back the curtain to hand me a leaflet on pelvic floor exercises.

This was one of the better days.

***

As always, for the rich, there is something better and more “natural”. The common or garden kind of HRT is made from hormones extracted from the urine of pregnant horses. Private doctors prescribe BHRT instead: bio-identical hormone replacement therapy. Bio-identicals are said to be natural. They are made not from horse piss but from Mexican yams, which, let’s face it, sounds a lot nicer. And somehow more feminine.

Bio-identicals are prescribed in carpeted offices and individual doses after a series of tests. Those who take them swear by them. As so often, though, a lot of sense goes out of the window when people start talking about drugs versus naturally occurring chemicals, Big Pharma versus . . . private “BHRT” medication.

It’s a minefield of wishful thinking. This is an argument about giving women synthetic hormones rather than the naturally occurring versions that some of their advocates insist are not drugs. This is patently rubbish: if something is stopping your hot flushes and depression and keeping your skin smooth and all the things that BHRT claims, then it’s a drug. Perhaps BHRT is a better drug and the way it is prescribed is better than the random handing-out of normal HRT by stressed-out GPs. Perhaps it is a better way, but to argue for access to these better drugs, or more information, we would have to think politically about the menopause and it is hard to be political about things that embarrass us.

Indeed, we may begin to question why this stage of life must be dealt with by chemicals at all. Are women to spend most of their lives ingesting hormones to stop them getting pregnant, and then the rest of it ingesting others to mimic the effects of oestrogen? For this is what we are doing.

Is the answer to every woman struggling with aches, pains and questions about her very being simply HRT or SSRIs? It can certainly feel like that. At one stage I dabbled with HRT. I can’t remember why. It was a locum and I think he wanted to get me and my dark thoughts out of his surgery. For nine days I took the pills, waiting to feel something. But there was nothing. On the tenth day I woke in the night with what I can only describe as labour pains and with puddles of blood everywhere. My “femaleness” had returned with a vengeance and it was so horrible, I had to stop myself dialling 999 and telling them I was Carrie.

HRT may be a godsend for some, but there is something very odd in tricking the female body into thinking it is still capable of reproduction when it is not, just in order to remain lubricated and shiny. Those with partners now have no excuse for twin beds or relief from “conjugal duties”. With Viagra and HRT and the ideology that sex is compulsory for health and happiness, we can all go on for ever and ever. The time when women could call it a day or no longer need to scratch that itch is gone. For some, there is joy in no longer fearing pregnancy; for others, sex is one less chore they have to perform. Or it may be that many older women renounce sex because men have renounced them for a younger model and it’s easier to pretend it’s a choice.

Lubrication is important in so many ways. Use lube for sure. But know that you no longer have to be it. All those years when femininity was enacted as social lubrication have gone. You don’t have enough time left to go round making everyone else feel comfortable. Let them sort themselves out. What does return – or never left but I can only now admit to – is what I can only describe as the delightful cockiness of adolescence.

Alongside this is the rage. The rage I felt so intensely is so obviously a rage against the dying of the light that I am suspicious of New Age stuff that seeks to pacify it. Holding on to this rage and not caring what people think of it is powerful.

What helps is paying attention to yourself – and I don’t mean exfoliation regimes, I mean attention to your interior self, because the outside is going to decline whatever you do. Listen to your psyche beginning to grasp what it does not want to let itself know: that it is not immortal. Listen and learn, for this is the place creative thought comes from. Creation is always to imagine something living beyond yourself out there in the world. This urge surely is not reducible to femaleness or reproduction. So this time of loss may be a time of gain if you allow it.

Pleasure is still possible because at this time, thankfully, most of us start needing glasses. We can no longer see all the flaws that young girls with luminous skins search for on themselves with eyes like microscopes. The light may indeed be dying but we all need a dimmer switch at hand.

As we start to exit “womanhood” we need again to redefine it. The curse. The change. These old words come up as some seek a power grab in the realm of the spiritual, too often the substitute for real power. Serenity can’t possibly be a bad goal, though I don’t see so many middle-aged men seeking it. Instead, I prefer Angela Davis’s take on the serenity prayer: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

Menopause makes us impatient. This is good. Women my age won’t just melt away and we won’t become invisible. It’s a fight for sure, but then it always is. Womanhood and femaleness, born or made, is nomadic. That place we call home shifts so much over the course of a lifetime. In this movement lies some knowledge that may scare us as much as it may set us free.

“The change” can be medicated, but what the menopause does is tell us explicitly that although parts of us are now “done”, there is more to do and it’s now or never. Accepting this can feel bloody awful sometimes and whatever gets you through the night may indeed be worth having. Unquestioningly dulling all these feelings associated with menopause exacts another price, too. Natural is not better than unnatural yet surely by 50 or so women should be able to make informed choices that can only happen when we discuss exactly what those choices are. Too few do. Doctors who are trained to prescribe HRT do not know quite how and when to take women off it. There is withdrawal, and there is no soft landing for so many. HRT is not a cure for menopause but a ploy to delay it and the devastating symptoms often return. Except now you are in your sixties, not your fifties. Many seem unclear about this.

For me, some clarity comes after and even during the heat daze. It just does. One day I am in an office and a guy says to me: “You’re on fire lately, Suzanne.”

“Wow!” I think. “What a sensitive sort of man is this man, knowing about my fluctuating hormones. How does he know that I’m currently what one of my friends describes as ‘sweaty and mental’?”

Normally when women are given a compliment we demur. But there’s no need any longer.

“You are right!” I say. “I am actually on fire!”

He looks slightly worried. He backs away. He clearly thinks I am mad, so I decide to leave the building and go to the revolving door.

It whirls round as I push the door harder, as I am now on the way to the next place. Everything changes. Inside and outside. All the time. How did I ever think life was anything but this?

This. Now.

I am “in the moment”, as they say.

The door jams. I have pushed it too hard. We are all stuck. Now a young woman trying to come into the building starts tutting that I am making her late. I burst out laughing to myself and I don’t care who sees me cackling.

Then the door starts moving again and through I go. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais