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Jeremy Corbyn: “I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote”

Can Jeremy Corbyn really lead the Labour party? NS editor Jason Cowley meets the potential leader to talk campaigns, the media, and how he'd handle PMQs.

I was instructed to meet Jeremy Corbyn in a café at the Royal College of General Practitioners, close to Euston Station in London. I had asked for as much time as possible with Labour’s 66-year-old man of the moment but his aides had offered “no more than half an hour”. Three weeks earlier I would probably have been granted three hours in his company. Three months ago, when Corbyn was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn-era Labour politics, he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview, so predictable seemed his oppositionism and so complete his irrelevance.

But now, with the Labour Party traumatised by election defeat and “Corbynmania” gripping the left, the Islington North MP is inundated with requests for media interviews. Even his closest aides accept he could win the Labour leadership, having begun the contest merely content that their man had secured the necessary 35 MPs’ nominations to make it through to the final four.

“Things have gone crazy,” said a breathless member of his campaign team, which is being funded by Unite and other unions. “We weren’t able to give any time to the Financial Times and we could only give the Mirror five minutes on the phone.”

In the event, Corbyn, a veteran of the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-apartheid struggle and CND, arrives 30 minutes late for our meeting. With him is Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff for Ken Livingstone who also worked for Ed Miliband as  a go-between with the unions. Fletcher is an old friend of the New Statesman and I assent when he asks to sit in on the interview, which ends up lasting 14 minutes longer than expected, before Corbyn is hurried away to catch a train to Bristol. (He actually missed his train because, as I learn later, he was mobbed at Euston by young fans wanting to have selfies taken with him. Such are the perils of being the flag-carrier for the radical left in Labour’s excessively protracted and increasingly bizarre leadership contest.)

We meet two days after a YouGov poll for the Times has confirmed what we had reported on our Staggers blog: that Corbyn, who began as the 100-1 outsider, leads the contest to be the next leader of the Labour Party. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says as he orders a mid-afternoon cappuccino. “Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s fascinating, the latent thirst that was out there for serious debate and serious politics.”

He pauses. “Oh, look, there I am in black and white.” He glances at a wall-mounted television screen on which a report about him is being broadcast on one of the news channels. I peer at Corbyn and then at Corbyn peering at himself on the screen – and the effect is disorienting, as if I have stumbled into some kind of parallel world in which this survivor from Labour’s most bitter conflicts in the Eighties has re-emerged as a serious leadership contender. But this is no hoax: it’s really happening – and in and to a Labour Party that seems to have lost all confidence and sense of purpose, having endured the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband, and been routed in Scotland and defeated in England.

There is nothing smug or triumphalist in Corbyn’s manner. He is quietly spoken and, unlike other leftist renegades such as George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, unshowy. He is wearing an open-necked white shirt (beneath which is visible a thin-rimmed vest of the kind my paternal grandfather, a London bus driver, used to wear, even on the warmest days, under his stiff-collared, starched shirts) with one of his trademark beige canvas jackets. His grey hair and beard are clipped short. He looks pale and tired and has a heavy cold, which has deepened his voice. He resembles nothing so much as a red-brick sociology lecturer, circa 1978.

Because of his cold, I ask if the campaign is becoming too much for him. “Not at all,” he says. “I have put the case for anti-austerity economics. I’ve put the case for the kind of anti-Trident peace view of the world and I’ve put the case for Labour being a bigger, more community-based party, and it’s been very interesting the discussion we’ve had at the forums – sorry, the hustings.”

Most of the hustings have been oversubscribed and after each one Corbyn holds his own, separate event. “We went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival [in Dorset] on Sunday after the London hustings and I wasn’t part of the main stage because the TUC are strictly neutral on this. But after the festival had finished we had our own event outside the Unison tent and we had 3,000 people there.”

Among his many ardent supporters is Richard Burgon, who was elected MP for Leeds East in May. “I was one of the first MPs to nominate him and I’m proud to have done so,” Burgon told me. “Jeremy has enthused tens of thousands of people who were sick and tired of the same old, same old Westminster bubble politics.”

Burgon denied that the Labour intake of 2015 is more left-wing than its predecessors. “There are a range of views among the new MPs. What I would say, though, is that most of us aren’t in thrall to outdated Blairism.” Corbyn, he said, is “not the favourite to win but he can win”. “It’s all to play for. The political establishment and parts of the media are out to get him. They don’t want people to opt for real change.”

***

Jeremy Corbyn was born in 1949 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and attended Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, followed by North London Polytechnic, from which he dropped out, never completing a degree. His parents – his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a maths teacher – were both peace campaigners, as their son would become, too. Corbyn has at various times worked as a journalist, teacher, union official and councillor. In many ways he conforms to a north London leftist stereotype: ascetic and parsimonious, he is a vegetarian, does not drink alcohol, has his own allotment and does not own a car. His brother, Piers, is a controversial weather forecaster and climate-change denier. Corbyn has been married three times – his present wife is a Mexican, Laura Alvarez, who imports fair-trade coffee – and it has been widely reported that his second marriage ended because his then wife wanted to send one of their three sons to a selective grammar school, as indeed she eventually did. The truth, I was told, was more complicated, as marriage break-ups inevitably are.

How seriously should one take the Corbyn surge? There is certainly much enthusiasm for his uncompromising socialism among the young – “the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn . . . the more people seem to like him”, wrote the NS blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – and among many former Labour supporters who became disaffected with the party during the Blair years. “Today,” another New Statesman contributor wrote to me, “I paid money over to Labour for the first time since I was a party member in the early Nineties. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn has given me hope that the party can return to its roots.”

But which roots are these? From its earliest beginnings, Labour has been an uneasy coalition of socialists and social democrats, of radicals and pragmatists, of workers and professors. It has always sought accommodation with rather than aspiring to replace capitalism. Yet, along the way, there have inevitably been ruptures and splits. In 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Attlee government because they wanted the party to “Keep Left”.

But how left does left need to be?

A serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his long career since he was elected to the Commons in 1983 defying the party whip. Throughout the Eighties he was close to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Sinn Fein; and, as a vigorous opponent of what he calls “Israel’s occupation policies”, he has nurtured alliances with the Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody,” he says now.

He supports the abolition of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent (“nuclear weapons are immoral”) as well as withdrawal from Nato (“I’d rather we weren’t in it”) – issues that contributed to the Labour split in 1981. A hard Eurosceptic, he told me he had not “closed his mind” to Brexit – so I was slightly surprised to read on 29 July that he had issued a statement arguing that Britons should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”.

“Taken slightly historically, the turning point in the EU was actually the Single European Act, the Thatcher/Maastricht-era stuff, which was turning the EU into very much a market system,” he says. “Setting up an independent European Central Bank, which then promotes the euro, and I think the sheer brutality of the way they’ve treated Greece, makes me question an awful lot. The other side of it is, I think, that Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe. There has to be agreement on environmental regulation . . . Why are we leaving it all to [David] Cameron, to put together a statement, when he’s had no negotiations with anybody?”

He returns to the plight of Greece. “Look at it another way: if we allow unaccountable forces to destroy an economy like Greece, when all that bailout money isn’t going to the Greek people, it’s going to various banks all across Europe, then I think we need to think very, very carefully about what role they [the EU] are playing and what role we are playing in that.”

He is a republican, but abolition of the monarchy can wait, because “my priority is social justice”. He supports the removal of the charitable status of independent, fee-paying schools (“I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of them straight away”) and he would force state-funded academies and free schools to return to local authority control (“I would bring them back into the orbit of local education authorities”).

***

Corbyn knows what he knows and has known it for as long as he’s been in politics: he articulates his strident positions without stridency but also without compromise, and he seems comfortable in his own skin as Ed Miliband never did.

Miliband’s public performances were invariably tortured, as he triangulated and equivocated. For whatever reason, he never successfully reconciled the radicalism of his rhetoric about “predator capitalism” with the incrementalism of his retail policies; his cerebral style of book-learned Hampstead socialism with the pragmatic need to convince the electorate that he and his party could be trusted to run the economy more efficiently and effectively than the Tories.

By contrast, Corbyn is an unembarrassed advocate of big-state socialism – high taxes on business and the rich, public ownership of the railways and essential utilities, strict regulation of markets, the abolition of tuition fees, a benign, non-interventionist foreign policy and so on – and is happy to speak of the influence of Marx on his political thought.

As you listen to him, it can all seem so gloriously uncomplicated, as if socialism in one country were eminently achievable, even in age of integrated global capitalism. It’s hard not to respect his conviction and candour even if you disagree with his policies. His zeal and confidence contrast markedly with the caution of Yvette Cooper and the opportunism of Andy Burnham, who this past week joined in the chorus of Labour self-flagellation by announcing that the party today would never have been able to establish a national health service.

The changes to the rules under which Labour elects a leader – implemented by Ed Miliband as part of a new settlement with the unions to diminish the power of the block vote – means that anyone who registers as a supporter and pays £3 has a vote in the leadership contest. Under the revised rules, which have reduced the role and influence of MPs, the party has made itself vulnerable to entryism and outside manipulation. Unite, which supports and funds Corbyn, is also working assiduously, using phone banks to encourage its members to register as “affiliated” supporters so that they can vote in the contest – for Corbyn, no doubt. Leading members of the shadow cabinet such as Chuka Umunna have said that they would not serve under Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Tories are sitting back and watching all of this unfold with ill-concealed delight. Labour has not felt this divided since the early Eighties, when moderates from the right of the party broke away to form the SDP.

***

The radical left likes to convince itself that Labour lost in 2015 because it was not sufficiently socialist, as if the people of England are yearning for a more egalitarian society, if only the right leader would emerge. Yes, 50 per cent of Scots voted in May for the SNP, which positioned itself to the left of Labour and won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats; but Scotland, in the grip of nationalist fervour, has become an altogether different country from England, which is why so many Scots want to end the Union.

So, how does Corbyn propose to win in southern England and the Home Counties? I remind him that, south of the metaphorical Severn-Wash line, excluding London, Labour holds 11 out of 197 seats. But he says: “Let’s erase the line for a moment and talk about the whole of Britain, where 36 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote . . . the registration system mitigates against young people registering. And so I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote. We can grow the electorate: the Obama strategy, actually, that’s a lot of what Obama did.

“Secondly, is it wrong to appeal to every­one and say, ‘Actually, your society and your interests are better served if we have a fully comprehensive wraparound health and adult social-care service, if we have a comprehensive benefits system that doesn’t subsidise low wages and high rent; but instead, we do something about both of those things,’ and that we have a strategy which actually removes the worst vestiges of poverty in Britain? I don’t know about you. You travel around a lot, I’m sure, as I do, it’s absolutely – I’ll put this in black and white now – it’s absolutely disgusting, the level of serious poverty in Britain.”

I ask Corbyn if he is serious about winning. He smiles. “We’re doing this as a serious point, and it’s a serious operation and it’s going very well. I’m putting forward a different economic agenda. And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”

Does he fear the party could split if he won the leadership, especially as he would have to command the kind of loyalty from colleagues that he has never shown?

“Well, loyalty is about the party and the movement . . . if you want a better and more effective party, we’ve got to open ourselves up much more to our membership and our supporters. And that is what has happened in this election. It’s much more open than any previous contest . . . I think a lot of the people who have joined the party since the election – I’ve met a lot of them – are anti-austerity. They’re people who have joined to do something. Maybe they saw also that the other, very small left parties like Respect and Left Unity just didn’t get anywhere.”

How would he feel about being leader of the opposition? Would he have the stamina to take on David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, week after week?

“I’ve got lots of stamina, don’t worry about that. I cycle every day – it’s OK.”

He wouldn’t win and then resign? “Why would I do that? Who says that? There have been some amazing statements that have come out about me in the past few days. Apparently people know what’s going on in my mind so I don’t need to think any more. I just read the papers.

“Listen, if we win this election, we’re in it for the long run.”

So he’d fight the general election in 2020?

“Well, let’s take one thing at a time. We haven’t been elected yet. We might not be. But I hope the party would want to hold together and I’m sure it would. I hope the party would recognise that the most democratic election we have held has produced an important result and has mobilised more importantly a very large number of people. I’ve never seen so many people at Labour Party meetings.”

We digress briefly to discuss George Galloway of the Respect Party. In March 2012, when Galloway won Bradford West in a by-election from Labour, Corbyn tweeted his support for his old friend even though he had defeated a Labour MP – but now he says they are no longer close. “No doubt George and I will come across each other somewhere . . . I thought the tactics he used against our candidate [Naz Shah, who won Bradford West back for Labour in May] were appalling. I was quite shocked; it was appalling.”

Simon Fletcher interjects. Our time is up and Jeremy Corbyn has a train to catch. Before departing, he says: “I have an issue with the New Statesman. In 1968, when
I was living in Jamaica, I sent a poem to the Statesman for publication. I never heard ­anything for months – and then it was eventually rejected.”

Would he like me to publish the poem, I ask?

“Yes, I would,” Corbyn says. He seems pleased and his shrewd eyes brighten.

Fletcher intervenes. “We’d better see what’s in it first,” he says, and then, gesturing towards the street, he leads his man away. On the nearby television screen, a clip from a recent Labour leadership hustings is being replayed. The camera closes in on Corbyn as he gestures and expounds. He seems suddenly everywhere – an unspun, pre-internet politician who has become an unlikely icon of the social media age, an inspiration to the idealistic young, nothing less than the man who would be leader of the British left. But here’s the question: can the surge last?

 

Q&A: Scotland, Israel and WikiLeaks

Jason Cowley Your favourite Tory MP?

Jeremy Corbyn Well, there have been a lot of them. The most amusing is Peter Tapsell. He was just totally historic. He said he had been in parliament so long, he kind of knew it all. I mean, I’ve obviously known a very large number of them. Often extremely patriarchal, right-wing Tories.

NS And favourite Labour MP?

JC Over the years? Well, it would have to be Tony Benn. Because he was an original thinker, and also I think very bravely published his diaries, which showed his developing original thought. And yeah, he got the most amazing attacks and was ridiculed throughout his life but ended up a much-loved, old-school institution. Tony was a legend, in many, many ways.

NS The historical figure you most admire?

JC In Britain or anywhere? That’s a very tough question. Well, there are so many. I think in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne. Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. And there is a report that I can’t find any proof of one way or the other, that in late 1648 he had a three-day parley with Cromwell at the Nag’s Head in Islington. I can’t find the record of it. But I wish I could get it. Then I could get a plaque put up for it.

NS Is there a historical figure you most identify with?

JC The historical figure that I would seek to identify with is probably Salvador Allende, because I think he was a very interesting guy in many ways. Very thoughtful, deep man.

NS Did you meet him?

JC No, no. I’ve met many people in Chile but unfortunately not him. He was brought down by the CIA, with the help of the British.

NS Do you support Scottish independence?

JC I think they’ve got the right to a referendum if they want one. I would be much happier if they had their autonomy in the way they’ve got it now.

NS Do you still support Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame? Do you still think he’s “imprisoned” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?

JC He’s taken himself into the embassy because he felt that, had he been taken back to Sweden, he would be taken forcibly to the US. The Swedish are unclear about what would happen to him in Sweden. I think it would be much better if the Swedish authorities investigated the case against him, decided whether there was a case for a prosecution or not, and dealt with it that way, while guaranteeing that under no circumstances would he be extradited to the US.

NS Would you abolish the charitable status of public schools?

JC I would look at that, yes. It’s very difficult to do, and I’m not into saying we’re going to get rid of them all straight away. I want to empower local education authorities much more. I’m actually more worried about the role of free schools and academies, which are largely unaccountable.

NS Are you worried about entryism from the far left?

JC I would want the registered supporters to become party members. I am of the view that we should lower the membership fee and increase the membership.

NS Would you abolish the monarchy?

JC Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it’s not the fight I’m going to fight: it’s not the fight I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.

NS Do you regret seeking to build alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and other terror groups?

JC Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody . . . There has to be a conversation. Over Hezbollah and Hamas, yes, I’ve met [the Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I’ve met people from all these groups, actually, with a number of other people; Tony Blair has [too].

NS Do you support Israel’s right to exist?

JC Yes.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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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 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double