Now, boys, that's not very nice

The left believes in altruism, equality, community and all-round cuddliness. Caroline Danielfinds ne

When John Major departed from 10 Downing Street he left behind more than just memories of snatched sandwiches over his desk and morning tea in the kitchen with Norma. He also left a bottle of champagne for Tony Blair with a note saying that he'd had seven great years in the old place, and that he was sure that Blair would have a great time there, too.

Now that seems like a nice thing to do. But then Major always came across as the sort of man your granny would knit a cardigan for. Honest John. Nice John. A good man, sadly fallen among Eurosceptics.

More surprising, at least to those on the left, has been the discovery that (say it quietly) Michael Portillo is also actually rather nice. So nice that many of his civil servants cried when he left office. Portillo's attempt to slip out discreetly from the Ministry of Defence was rumbled when a voice over the public address system said he was about to leave the building and hundreds of staff members turned up to say farewell.

Several Tory ministers were not so nice by all accounts (Michael Howard, for example, was not popular with his civil servants) and there are plenty of nice people on the left. Lord (Alf) Dubs of Battersea, a Labour minister in the Northern Ireland Office, is "the most indisputably nice person that I have ever met", according to Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Tory MP. "He's so nice I found him crying in the Lords because he had won the constituency raffle and he worried that people would think he had fixed it."

So Parris has proposed a "Dubs scale" of niceness. And he is clear that ideologues would score low. Indeed, both Arthur Scargill and Alfred Sherman, the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, would probably score negative points. "The reason ideology goes with nastiness," argues Parris, "is that they look at the world through a theoretical structure. They don't like people very much so they need a structure."

Certainly, one would not usually want to go on a date with an ideologue. But more generally, is it people on the left or on the right who should scoop up more "Dubs" points?

I tried asking a cross-section of politicians. Teresa Gorman replied with a scrawled fax bearing the words: "Why ask me, you must be MAD!"

Most people on the left, I found, are noisily confident that they are nicest. And you would expect the left to be nicer. After all, the left has a more optimistic and flattering view of human nature, believing that people can change and be made less selfish, less greedy, cuddlier and generally more communally minded. The left is supposed to believe in equality, that people should be respected for what they are and what they have the potential to become. And the left is supposed to believe in collective action, rather than in every man for himself. Even the right sometimes acknowledges, implicitly, the left's greater niceness, when it says that the left has too rosy a view of human nature.

But in practice the left, particularly in power, doesn't always behave as nicely as its own rhetoric suggests it should. Take just a few examples from recent months. David Clark, widely regarded as one of the nicest cabinet ministers, was booted out. (As Parris says, "one of the problems with being a nice person is you don't realise how nasty everyone else is.") Gordon Brown has been accused of having "psychological problems" by a Blair aide. Last week, anonymous Treasury sources dismissed Peter Mandelson's plans for Post Office reform as "garbage" and "rubbish". Not very nice, and certainly not what you would call community-minded.

Members of Tory governments rubbished each other, too. Under Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen was famously described by Bernard Ingham as a "semi-detached" member of the government. Even nice John Major was caught out saying that some members of his cabinet were "bastards". But the poisonous atmosphere at the top of the Labour Party is widely regarded as worse than under the previous government.

It wasn't especially nice, either, that Robin Cook had 45 minutes to decide between his wife and his mistress, or that he publicly blamed his civil servants for the Sierra Leone affair.

Then there are all those special advisers. Some of them seem unable to meet government detractors with sophisticated point-by-point rebuttal. Instead, they adopt a style of brusque bullying to compensate for their youthful inadequacies in the fields of policy and personal relations. There is a naive view that your political influence is directly proportional to your ability to bully rather than persuade. A deep-seated political insecurity has bred this strutting self-importance in some of the advising classes.

The Blairites in particular can come across as a touch too self-savouring. Some remain scarred by the bunker mentality of opposition and have resorted to a kind of introverted tribalism. They are bonded together by a meritocratic cliquishness fused from the years together in opposition, and the knowledge that they got to the top of the political tree by dint of their own hard work. They are terribly nice to their own, and loyal to each other, but they can adopt an off-handedness towards people whom they don't think are "on side". They may write speeches about the "giving age" and about building a "decent society", but that decency doesn't always start at home.

These people inherit from Thatcherism a certain kind of meritocratic sniffiness. Meritocracy militates against niceness. It's hard to empathise with those who failed, if you believe they failed because they didn't make the best use of their opportunities. As John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, puts it, "the circumstances which make people nasty is a feeling of unchallengeable power", and the Blairites have it, for now.

But there's something else about people on the left which earns them negative Dubs points. Because they believe that society can change, they dash about trying to tweak the status quo by dreaming up clever improving schemes, rather like a photographer changing the backdrop in the hope of showing off his clients in their best light. They believe in a "project". Until that "project" is over, they can't relax and lighten up.

This attitude of mind is caught in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, called "To Those Who Come After", in which he wrote: "We, who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness, could not ourselves be friendly."

Sitting next to a prominent young (but getting older) new Labourite at a round-table discussion on Europe, I rose to leave early to celebrate my birthday. The sober (occasionally) man pulled my sleeve and whispered earnestly, with no trace of a smile: "I bet Margaret Thatcher never got on in the world by leaving political functions early to celebrate her birthday."

Yet according to Ian Christie, deputy director of Demos: "One purpose of socialism ought to be to allow more people to sit around in cafes having fun with each other. Instead, the left often has a sense that they are doing more important things than the right, that they shouldn't hang around being funny but need to be earnest and active. Yet social cohesion can be promoted by laughter and companionship."

It is not just companionship that gets lost in the mix. A sense of courtesy can, too.This in part is a remnant of class warriordom. "The left still retains the idea that manners and ritual conventions are a badge of servitude," thinks Laurie Taylor, NS columnist.

"There's a feeling on the left that you're in a tremendous hurry and don't have the time for these little courtesies," observes Rick Nye, the nice director of the Social Market Foundation.

In contrast, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, "in the British context manners have always been part of being a Conservative".

None of this means that the right as a whole deserves more Dubs points. Right-wingers may be more civil but, as Andrew Puddephatt, the director of Charter 88, claims, they "have an ease and grace which comes with the assurance of power. You realise that the charm and politeness is often a kind of condescension and is a superficial kind of niceness."

John Gray also thinks it wrong to be romantic about the old patrician Tories. "They could be tolerant and open-minded but this was founded on a view of hierarchy and inequality, and emerged from a feeling of unchallengeable social power."

And the right is certainly not very nice to foreigners. "A lot of Tory ministers seemed to think it was funny to be rude to foreigners," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. "At an Ecofin council meeting the German delegate arrived late and Norman Lamont looked at his watch and quipped, 'I thought the Germans were supposed to be punctual'. He thought it was very funny to be rude."

So both the left and the right are not as nice as they should be. But is niceness really such a political asset anyway?

In the 1987 party political broadcast on ITV for the Liberal/ Social Democrat Alliance, Sir David Steel lamented that "to listen to some people in politics you'd think that 'nice' was a four-letter word". And look what happened to him. Back in the 1920s, something similar happened to Sir Austen Chamberlain, a Tory leader of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it".

George Walden, the former Tory MP, thinks "it's often niceness that causes all the trouble. Niceness is a killer really. Niceness settles for mediocrity. Michael Foot was a grossly self-indulgent politician but he was a nice bloke."

And Steven Lukes, a twin-hatted professor of moral philosophy at Sienna, Italy, and of sociology at New York University, thinks that "the left is supposed to be critical of the existing order of things. An essential tool in their armoury has to be satire. Too much niceness blunts the edge of satire, so the left had better not be very nice. It's not necessarily a political virtue, being nice."

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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.

***

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 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition