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Russia vs the west: the consequences of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the peace in Europe for a generation.

A year since Vladimir Putin shocked Europe by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in Ukraine’s previously quiet Donbas region, his undeclared war on the Russians’ east Slav brothers has become the “new-old normal” on the continent. It has displaced the seven-decade interlude in which Europeans thought they had established a postmodern order of peace in their heartland. It has induced a loss of hope that Europe’s embodiment of the liberal peace first envisioned by Immanuel Kant can be restored within less than one or two generations – if at all. It has confronted the west with a stark choice between appeasement of a regional bully or war with no mutually understood restraints in a nuclear-armed world.

Already the truce hammered out by the Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders on 12 February in all-night negotiations held in Minsk, Belarus, has collapsed in reality, if not in name. Separatists in eastern Ukraine and their allied Russian “paid volunteers” never halted their saturation shelling of the town of Debaltseve at one minute past midnight on 15 February, as had been agreed, but kept up the barrage for three and a half more days until the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers surrounded there died, or were captured, or managed to retreat under blistering fire to contiguous Ukrainian territory.

Only a few of the heavy weapons that were supposed to begin being withdrawn from the designated buffer zone on 16 February have been pulled back on either side. The rebels have not allowed international monitors to take up their designated posts in the ceasefire zone and on the Russian-controlled Ukrainian border.

The truce that was patched up again after the destruction of Debaltseve will probably provide no more than a brief winter respite before a spring offensive by rebels and Russian professional soldiers in eastern Ukraine. Moscow still denies that any of its troops and modern heavy weapons are there, despite all the direct photographic, electronic and eyewitness evidence of their presence and the indirect evidence of artillery and multiple-rocket-shell targeting on Debaltseve with a precision that only well-trained Russian crews could provide. Since fighting began last April, nearly 5,700 people have died and 1.5 million have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.

Even before the ceasefire that never was, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, provided the epitaph for European peace by warning that she could see no realistic scenario in which any arms the west might give Ukraine would significantly change the balance of power in the conflict. Russia cares more about the fortunes of Ukraine than any other outside country, and possesses the military strength, resources and capability to counter any new weapons that Ukraine may be gifted. The only hope Merkel could offer was that, with strategic patience, the west might eventually triumph, just as it ended the cold war – in tandem with the unmentioned Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev – with the bloodless fall of the 28-year-old Berlin Wall in 1989.

This dark prognosis has been reached only in recent weeks. Throughout 2014, Europeans still hoped that their accustomed order could be restored soon. As Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms and masks abruptly ended the quarter-century of amicable coexistence of the Russian and Ukrainian fleets in their Crimean port and deposed the peninsula’s regional government at gunpoint last March, the US president, Barack Obama, dismissed post-superpower Russia as little more than a regional nuisance.

Chancellor Merkel took Putin’s irredentist threat far more seriously. She warned the US president that his Russian counterpart was living “in another world” of tsarist-era nationalism that, she implied, precluded any cost-benefit rationality or compromise. Obama, preoccupied with pullback from America’s overstretch in the Middle East and Afghanistan and his so-called pivot to Asia, in effect outsourced second-rank diplomacy about Ukraine to Berlin. For the first time since 1945, Germany had thrust upon it a geopolitical leadership of Europe commensurate with the country’s economic clout. And for the first time Merkel, whose hallmark had been leading from behind, stepped out in front.

As Putin raced towards annexing Crimea, Merkel told the Bundestag on 13 March 2014 that the previous 69 years of reconciliation, peace and freedom that had been created by an integrating Europe and the transatlantic democratic alliance were a feat that “can still be considered a miracle”. Russia’s theft of Ukrainian territory was unacceptable in 21st-century Europe and represented a reversion to the law of the jungle and to “the law of the strong against the strength of the law”, Merkel said.

She reprimanded Russia for violating international law and specific treaties to which Moscow was a party, including the 1975 Helsinki ban on changing European borders by force and Russia’s 1994 assurance of Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and borders in return for Kyiv’s surrender of its huge arsenal of inherited Soviet nuclear weapons to Moscow.

In dozens of phone calls she warned a disbelieving Putin that Europe’s hard-won peace trumped commercial interests and that this time he could not count on Germany’s pro-Russian business lobby to veto economic retaliation for his provocation. Europe and the US announced that they would not intervene militarily to defend Ukraine, a non-member of Nato, but would gamble instead on countering Russia with slow-impact financial sanctions on his entourage.

Roses on an army tank in Hrashevatoe, eastern Ukraine, abandoned by Ukrainian troops fleeing the Russian onslaught. Photo: Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Merkel was the west’s logical interface with the Russian president. She was the ultimate Putin-Versteher, or “Putin understander”, not in line with the original coinage of this euphemism to describe German apologists for Putin, but in the sense of someone who grew up in Communist East Germany, spoke Russian and sensed the Russian mindset intuitively.

She understood Putin’s paranoia about being encircled by Nato, even if that alliance has expanded not by armed seizure of neighbours’ territory but by responding to the clamour for membership by central Europeans fearing Russian recidivism to Soviet-style forced hegemony. She comprehended the threat to his own rule that Putin feared from street protests in Kyiv; he had served as a KGB recruiter of spies in East Germany in the 1980s and watched the Berlin Wall fall to people power.

Merkel also grasped his resentment at the subsequent Soviet collapse that he calls the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” – and at the independent Ukraine that emerged from the Soviet Union and illicitly tempted its people, in his view, to betray their elder brother Russians by no longer obeying them as tradition required. The humiliation he felt over the cumulative shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine was well known in Berlin.

Putin first lost all of Ukraine when his protégé Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, allowed police snipers to murder scores of pro-European, pro-democracy
“Euromaidan” protesters a year ago. The violence alienated even Yanukovych’s own party and left him no choice but to abscond to exile in Russia, thus ensuring that Ukraine would not add its Slavic weight to Putin’s pet “Eurasian Economic Union” project. Putin’s insistence that Kyiv join the newborn Union, sometimes called “the Soviet Union lite”, was the original spark for the Euromaidan demonstrations in late 2013.

Putin next lost Novorossiya, as he anachronistically called the eastern third of today’s Ukraine that he suddenly claimed for Russia. (The term dates back to the time of Catherine the Great, who seized “New Russia” from the Ottoman empire in the 1780s.) He seemed to believe his own propaganda that discontented Russian speakers in the region would rise up if Russian special forces ignited a rebellion there.

Yet the masses failed to revolt. Only in the rust belt of the Donbas could Russian proxies mobilise ill-paid retirees and buy or coerce enough additional support to set up the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Indeed, in the east of Ukraine as a whole, where many made no clear distinction between Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, opinion polls showed that most people favoured staying within the Ukrainian state.

Merkel understood that Moscow’s cost-free takeover of Crimea in the name of restoring Russia’s lost greatness – the greatly outgunned Ukrainian army on the peninsula did not resist the regional coup, and no Russian blood was shed – was boosting Putin’s popularity ratings to more than 80 per cent. This gave him renewed domestic legitimation even as his decade-old social contract of restoring order and offering a better life to a new, urban middle class in post-Soviet Russia was becoming ineffectual at a time of economic slowdown.

Merkel therefore did not expect the Russian leader to budge from his zero-sum view of international relations. Nor did she expect to deflect him from his reversion to Russia’s historic sense of victimhood and need for a security so absolute that Moscow required the insecurity of neighbours in its sphere of influence.

She did, however, see Putin as an improvising tactician rather than a single-minded strategist. This made him unpredictable, but it also allowed for movement.

At the first stage of the Ukraine crisis Merkel repeatedly offered to help Putin save face if he would cease his depredations, to the point of suggesting European Union-Eurasian Union talks about creating a common economic space. She hoped to keep him talking rather than shooting for as long as possible and to nudge him towards a more realistic perception of the advantages he was losing and the tactical costs that he was incurring in his drive to punish both the Ukrainians and the west for its treatment of Russia as a second-class power.

Merkel first prepared the domestic foundation to support her diplomacy. She forged a close policy partnership with her Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He and others in his SPD parliamentary caucus weaned the Social Democrats from their romantic nostalgia for the old Ostpolitik days of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Together, the grand coalition between the SPD and her own conservatives gave Merkel an 80 per cent majority in the Bundestag in support of targeted sanctions against Russia.

The chancellor then rallied German business to the cause of sanctions – well before the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger airliner over rebel Ukrainian territory last July, an event that is commonly credited with causing a change of heart among Germany’s pro-Russian elite.

Finally, Merkel took the sacrifices that German importers and exporters were ready to make (the huge trade between Russia and Germany shrank by one-fifth between 2013 and 2014) to her EU partners. She argued that the French should make their own sacrifices by not delivering two Mistral-class helicopter carriers they had contracted to sell to the Russians, and that the British should enforce their money laundering laws in dealing with the many Russian tycoons who have made a second home in London.

In the end, Merkel delivered the unanimous vote of all 28 EU members that was required to approve sanctions; and she saw to it that the authorisation was written with enough flexibility to add names to the target list and subtract others without making every shift subject to a new vote of unanimity. It was a quiet tour de force.

However, one task the chancellor did not take on was persuading the generally Russophile German public that Putin’s behaviour was unacceptable. That did not matter, because foreign policy remains an elite exercise in Germany – and because the Malaysia Airlines tragedy did alter popular perceptions of the Russians and yield 70 per cent public approval of sanctions.

In mid-April last year, Merkel initiated a brief Geneva agreement that put on paper a basic wish-list: stopping the violence, disarming illegal armed groups, returning seized buildings to their rightful owners and giving international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe a monitoring role in eastern Ukraine. By bringing the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his Ukrainian counterpart together at the same table, the Geneva accord also finessed Moscow’s tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government (appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled), which Russian propaganda was presenting as the illegitimate result of a fascist coup.

Ironically, the west was aided by the weakness of the provisional Ukrainian government. Over five weeks in April and May, Putin mounted menacing war games by placing up to 80,000 Russian troops on high alert on Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders. But he did not need to invade in order to extend his influence. Local mercenaries, criminal gangs and other proxies under the command of special Russian forces were occupying administrative buildings in a string of medium-sized towns in eastern Ukraine. Putin presumably thought he could control whichever leading politicians emerged in Kyiv without having to shed Russian blood. In this decision he displayed tactical caution, preferring the weapon of intimidation to that of military occupation, with its risks of quagmire and even guerrilla resistance.

The next phase of the Ukraine crisis began in late May with the unexpected landslide election as president of Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king” oligarch who
built his confectionery empire in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and who also has construction and media businesses. Poroshenko had served in several crony governments and was briefly trade minister under Yanukovych. But he had been a strong backer of the Orange Revolution, which began in 2004, sparked by elections rigged in favour of Yanukovych. He also supported the Euromaidan demonstrations from the beginning.

Poroshenko quickly sent the Ukrainian army and militias on an “anti-terror” counteroffensive to recover territory lost to the rebels and their Russian special forces allies. In April the long-neglected and underfunded army had failed miserably in the same mission, in part because hardly any soldiers had such simple protection as Kevlar vests or night-vision goggles, and also because the Ukrainians couldn’t believe that they must shoot at brother Russians who were shooting at them. There were defections to the pro-Russian side.

By the summer, however, older Ukrainian soldiers who had once served in the Soviet army helped the ragtag Ukrainian forces and the better-equipped militias to get their act together. They gradually recovered most of the territory held by the rebels and by mid-July were besieging the remaining rebel strongholds in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. In Kyiv, hopes rose that the Ukrainians could prevent further dismemberment of their country.

On the rebel side, Colonel Igor Strelkov, the designated Russian military intelligence commander of the local proxies and mercenaries who were being pushed back, complained bitterly that they were being deserted by the leadership in Moscow and asked for more heavy weapons. The Russians obliged by rolling over the border into the Donbas more multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, plentiful ammunition and the powerful ground-to-air Buk missile system, which can reach an altitude of 10,000 metres.

In late August the first known direct invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian paratrooper units followed, rolling back the Ukrainian sieges and delivering Putin’s clear message that he would not let his proxies in the Donbas be defeated. Some, perhaps all, of the Russian airborne troops returned to their home bases after their punitive raid.

Poroshenko understood Putin’s line in the sand instantly and, on 5 September, he agreed through an envoy to a truce with rebel leaders that made the half of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions then under rebel control a no-go zone for Ukrainian troops. The ceasefire was never fully observed but it de-escalated the fighting to low-intensity shelling, and the front line remained relatively stable for four months.

German diplomacy in this interlude consisted of trying to freeze the conflict by converting the September truce and subsequent protocol into a permanent, comprehensive ceasefire, or at least into an acceptance of common constraints on escalation. The fear was that if that could not be agreed on, Europe would enter an era of acute Russian-western hostility without even the mutual restraints that the two superpowers settled on at the height of the cold war.

Menacingly, Putin boasted that his troops could be in Kyiv within two days if he so ordered; and could reach the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all Nato member states, just as fast. Indeed, he has been illustrating the point graphically by aggressively testing Nato defences of the Baltic and Atlantic states daily on the seas and in the air – and endangering passenger flights by sending bombers with their transponders turned off into airspace that civilian liners use. On 18 February, RAF jets were scrambled after two Russian military aircraft were spotted off the coast of Cornwall.

The debacle of this month’s attempt to secure a truce has killed the last residual hope of a swift peace. Clearly, the end of the neo-cold war will not occur the way its superpower original did a quarter-century ago, when Washington ostentatiously outspent and out-innovated Moscow in weapons as well as general prosperity just as the Soviet economy and society reached a dead end, making Mikhail Gorbachev decide to trade in empire and feud in return for soft power and animal spirits.

Nor will it come alone from Angela Merkel’s strategic patience, which Philip Stephens of the Financial Times parses as long on patience but short on strategy. And it is unlikely to stem from Vladimir Putin’s progressive foreclosure of his own options by doubling down militarily after every failure to persuade non-Russians of the splendours of Great Russian hegemony. The only certainty is that the war between Russia and Ukraine will go on.

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Berlin and the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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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.

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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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west