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A life behind bars

For 30 years, Frances Crook has being trying to reform Britain’s prisons. So why does change feel as far away as ever?

When I heard that Michael Gove had been sacked as justice secretary, I was in prison. Kirklevington Grange, to be exact, a category D jail in North Yorkshire for men nearing the end of their sentence. The news came on the television – mobile phones are banned from British prisons, though some do find their way in – and I turned to my companion to see her reaction. She looked mildly interested.

Then again, Frances Crook has worked with 14 cabinet ministers responsible for prisons in her 30 years as chief executive of the Howard League, the penal reform charity. At 63, she has been in the job long enough to see both Kenneth Clarke and Jack Straw come round for a second go. Later, I ask if this parade of politicians makes her feel like the Queen in The Audience, played by Helen Mirren, watching prime ministers pass by. “I met them all,” she replies. “The only one who refused to meet me was Michael Howard. I met some of them twice.”

Over the past 150 years, the Howard League has established itself as a moderate and constant voice asking for three things from our justice system: “less crime, safer communities, fewer people in prison”. Some see it as a bunch of bleeding hearts. As even Crook jokes later, she can’t help it: she suffers from a spectacular case of nominative determinism. Her name literally means “free the criminals”.

The name of the charity comes from the 18th-century prison reformer John Howard, who first visited a jail in England when he was appointed high sheriff of Bedfordshire. Appalled by the conditions he found there, he spent four decades and £30,000 of his own money touring the country trying to improve penal standards. He visited some institutions eight or nine times. In Ely, he found “the gaoler chained the victims down on their backs on the floor, across which [were] several iron bars, with an iron collar with spikes about their necks and a heavy iron bar over their legs”.

The Howard League was set up in 1866 to continue this work, and visiting jails is still a large part of its remit. It becomes easier, seeing the problems at first hand and how these vary across the estate, to piece together what isn’t working. Crook visits a dozen jails a year, a process that has become simpler since Chris Grayling moved on from the post of justice secretary in May 2015. He hated outsiders seeing inside the estate, and journalists were rarely granted access.

The biggest problem is sheer numbers. In October 2016 the prison population stood at 85,860, which is 11 per cent more people than our jails can decently accommodate. Since the 1990s, it has increased steadily by 3.6 per cent a year – whereas it dropped to 40,000 under Margaret Thatcher. The prison population is overwhelmingly white, male and British, although foreigners and ethnic minorities are over-represented in comparison to the country at large.

Only 5 per cent of all prisoners in the UK are female; 12 per cent are foreign nationals; 25 per cent are from an ethnic minority. Men from lower socio-economic groups are over-represented, not least because of the toxic legacy of policies such as antisocial behaviour orders, which Crook describes as “absolutely wicked”. “Well, it just scooped up people: women who were working in the sex trade, people with mental-health problems, people who were on the edge of society who were not coping well,” she says. “There will always be people like that, who are fragile one way or another, who are addicted to something – gambling, drugs, alcohol – who are just not very good at life.”



Crook can remember her first day at the Howard League, back in 1986, because the office was empty when she arrived. After graduating from the University of Liverpool she had worked as a teacher, a councillor and as a campaigns co-ordinator for Amnesty International, during which she visited her first prison. It was Holloway, the women’s jail in north London, and she was taken there by the recently elected local MP, Jeremy Corbyn. She found the regime almost militaristic. “It was a very repressive, oppressive place – quite unpleasant.” (For her first seven years at the Howard League, she also served as a Labour councillor in Finchley, where she lives; and she had her only child, Sarah, now 28, soon after starting at the League.)

At Amnesty, she had also visited ­Barlinnie in Glasgow, which had a special unit where offenders could work on art projects alongside prison officers. It was where the gangster Jimmy Boyle was incarcerated after his conviction for murder in 1967. After leaving prison he became a sculptor, and never returned to crime. “It had a fantastic success rate,” Crook says. The unit was shut in 1995.

When she arrived at the League for her interview, Crook says, “they’d been very honest with me and said: ‘You’re taking a huge risk. There’s no money, we’re in debt, you’ll be taking on an organisation that’s either going to sink or swim.’” When she started work, she found that the headed notepaper still had a previous address on it. “So we just set to, fundraising for the first two years.” In the days before computers, every begging letter had to be typed individually.

Prison reform was, and is, an unfashionable cause. Money dribbled in from individuals and from Quaker charities – “and, luckily, every so often a Tory politician gets banged up for something and they become a convert to prison reform”. A long-term supporter left £6m in his will nearly a decade ago; consequently, unlike many other charities, the Howard League receives no money from central or local government.

Crook says the barriers to reforming the system change depending on the government and mood of the day. The killing of James Bulger in 1993 gave a new impetus to those who favoured a punitive justice system. Later in that decade, it was often “fear of the tabloid press – the fear of a scandal, and you can never tell what it is: Christmas dinner, sex, running a drug ring, escapes”.

She has a pet theory that New Labour’s huge majority created a generation of MPs with little to do at Westminster, and who were endlessly buttonholed at constituency surgeries about issues such as dog mess, graffiti and children hanging around in parks. “The people who go to an MP’s surgery are the people who have an axe to grind,” she says. “They’re complaining about something, usually their neighbours, or kids playing football, or antisocial behaviour.” Such people would see criminals as a class separate from theirs even if they, too, were committing criminal acts. “They’re not going to complain ‘I’m beating my wife’ or ‘I’m buggering my children’ or ‘I’m involved in petty theft’ or ‘I’m fiddling my tax’ – all the things that people do.”




What is wrong with our prisons? Drugs are rife, particularly new ­“psychoactive substances” such as spice (a synthetic form of cannabis), which have unpredictable effects. With drugs comes a drug economy, leading to beatings and gang violence.

The increasing length of sentences has driven up the prison population and there are greater numbers of the elderly and infirm. At the same time, there are 7,000 fewer officers now than in 2010, when the prison population was lower, according to a report by the House of Commons justice committee. It is particularly hard to recruit in the south of England, because the basic salary is £20,545, so officers from northern prisons are sometimes sent on “detached duty”, living in hotels and clocking up extra money for the inconvenience. Steve Graham, deputy governor at Holme House Prison in County Durham, tells us he has five officers at Wandsworth, London.

“The thing is,” Crook says, “they’re coming from an adult male prison and they’re going into Feltham [a young offender institution], dealing with children, with 15- and 16-year-old boys; or they go into a women’s prison and deal with women. They’ve got no training and no support.”

Steve Graham nods. “All I can say is, from Holme House . . .”

Crook interrupts: “It’s not their fault.”

Given such staff shortages, men are left in cells for longer because there is no one to let them out. (There is now a Teach First plan to recruit university leavers to the sector under a scheme called Unlocked Graduates.) Overcrowding often leads to two prisoners being squeezed into a cell made for one. Isis, a male young offender institution in Greenwich, south-east London, was built in 2010 to house 478; at its last inspection, it was found to hold 600.

Basic safety is still a problem: 268 people have died in prison this year, and the Prison Governors Association has called for an inquiry into the “unprecedented” rise in self-harming, violence against staff and suicide. The “benchmarking” scheme to cut costs, introduced by Chris Grayling in 2014, came in for particular criticism, the governors asking “why resources continued to be depleted when evidence showed that it was not working”.

Finally, the part-privatisation of the probation system in England and Wales to contractors such as Sodexo, which started in 2014, was accomplished with all the success that the phrase “government outsourcing” has come to imply. The £3.7bn contracts to oversee 200,000 medium- and low-risk offenders are almost all loss-making, as the providers complained to the Financial Times on 12 October. “If you are 15 to 30 per cent down on business, that will mean having to reduce staff and that will have a knock-on effect on our ability to reduce reoffending,” one manager told the newspaper. “To say it’s a cock-up is an understatement.”

The most frustrating thing for campaigners is that the government is entirely aware of the problems. Appearing before the Commons justice committee on 15 July 2015, Michael Gove said: “You cannot look at the number of suicides and self-inflicted injuries, or at the level of violence overall in the prison estate, and feel anything other than concern about the conditions in which prison officers have to work and the conditions in which offenders are kept.”

When I email to ask Gove for his impression of Frances Crook, he calls her “a passionate, principled and highly effective campaigner dedicated to helping those who few others speak up for” – and he delivers a statement that makes Ken Clarke look like Hanging Judge Jeffreys. “While the state will always need to incarcerate some offenders, the mark of a civilised society is a decent and humane prison system,” he tells me. “Every human being has an innate dignity and worth and, in the right circumstances, is capable of contributing positively to society. Prisons which are safe and ordered communities led by people committed to rehabilitation can turn those who have been liabilities to society into assets.”

Gove’s great plan was to “academise” jails: giving governors control over their budgets and regimes, rather than issuing nationwide decrees. The liberalisation scheme is being piloted at six reform prisons, including Wandsworth, Kirklevington and Holme House.

Anyone who remembers him in his education days – when he angered teachers by declaring himself the enemy of “the Blob” – might be surprised that Gove is remembered far more fondly by those in the prison system. Kirklevington, with 283 cells, has an annual budget of just over £5m; Holme House, which holds 1,167 men, has £18.5m, plus another £2m for education. But bureaucracy is stifling the ability of governors to run their own institutions: many are tied in to private finance initiative contracts for services such as building maintenance, with tough break clauses. As we tour a dilapidated building at Kirklevington, Crook points out a leaking roof and collapsed floor. Where maintenance often used to be done in-house, providing work for offenders, Gove’s predecessor Grayling preferred to employ private firms.

Such problems are now the province of Liz Truss, formerly Gove’s junior minister at Education, who was appointed Justice Secretary in the post-Brexit reshuffle. Her speech at the last Conservative party conference followed her predecessor’s lead in acknowledging the profound problems of many prisoners. “More than half can’t read or write to a basic standard,” she said, “half have mental-health problems and nearly two-thirds of women offenders are victims of abuse.” Truss also insisted that Gove’s reforms would continue, with a white paper due “in the coming weeks”. (It was published on 3 November.)

Ian Blakemore, the executive governor for both Kirklevington and Holme House, was one of several senior staff who seemed enthusiastic about the possibilities of reform. Having worked in the prison service for 27 years, he pointed to the greater openness as a sign that the prisons are engaging with their local communities. Angie Petit, the governor of Kirklevington – who started as a prison officer – added that she would welcome more control over the budget: “It’s become more prescriptive. For example, if I had a prisoner-pay budget, and I needed to top that up from a different budget, I wasn’t able to. Whereas now I can.”

Crook was exasperated. “This is only ­going back. This is not going forward. This is just going back to what it used to be.” The first question she asks on a visit, she said, is: what’s the budget? “For 30 years I’ve been asking: what’s your budget? And now, you’ve got a budget again, which is good – but you still haven’t got as much autonomy, even with the reform prisons, as we did ten years ago.”




Frances Crook’s first political act came at school, when she was asked to “put on these very short hockey skirts and go out on this freezing cold field and run around with a hockey stick,” as she told the Guardian in 2006. She refused, telling her teachers that she didn’t see the point, and that she would sit in the changing rooms until they had finished. “The teachers were so astounded, they didn’t know how to react. Nobody had ever refused before. I never did play hockey. In the end I used to go home. Nobody seemed to care. But it was an important political lesson. You can say no to things – as long as you are reasonable about it and say what you are going to do instead.”

So, here’s the rub: Frances Crook’s job is to spend time with people who are doing unpleasant front-line jobs – when did anyone last throw piss in your face at work? – or managers dealing with arbitrary Whitehall directives, trying to manage troubled and sometimes violent people, on limited budgets. She sees them fight the slow, remorseless grind of the system. But her job is to criticise them.

There is something teacher-like about her, even three decades after leaving the profession. On the day we tour Kirklevington and Holme House, she warns us that she might slow us down because she is soon to have a hip replacement. This does not prove to be the case. As we walk round, she has a birdlike alertness for detail. On seeing the lunch on offer at the canteen: “You can have carbohydrate, carbohydrate or . . . carbohydrate.” When I wince over a sign listing prices for “confectionary” and “muffin’s” – once a sub-editor, always a sub-editor – Crook promptly takes it up with our guides. “This stuff matters,” she insists. “People learn from their environment.” Later, in a cell: “This is a little nag, but when you put phones in the room, let them get incoming calls.” She overrides the press officer so that we see visiting time.

One of the prisoners we meet, Joe (not his real name), tells us he is due to be released the next day. He doesn’t seem happy. “I’m getting out tomorrow and I’ve got nowhere to go,” he says. On release, he will get his clothes and belongings back, and a discharge grant, but places in probation hostels are limited to high-risk offenders. “After 21 months, I’ll have £49 in cash. I’m being set up to fail.” As we leave, Crook takes our guide aside and insists that accommodation be found for Joe, at least for his first night.

Later, I ask Crook: how does she do it? Most of us would be too afraid of causing a bother, or being disliked, to do her job. “I always was a little awkward sod!” she smiles. “Just born awkward.” And does she find it hard to let go at the end of the day? “I’m not a people person. I’m a systems person.”

Peter Stanford, the director of the Longford Trust, a prison education charity, concurs. “When you’re working with these frustrating things – when we even seem to be going backwards – that takes a very particular sort of person. She’s sustained her passion, her energy and worked round every obstacle. Ordinary people would have given up. She can be prickly and difficult, but she’s right. You need someone not to be seduced by the latest silky-tongued minister.” Talking of which, Michael Gove is full of praise for her ability to stand up to the government. “Progress depends on campaigners making the powerful uncomfortable,” he says, “and Frances does that for the very best of reasons.”




The most memorable part of our visit comes in House Block 6 of Holme House, where there is a therapeutic community. Prisoners have to apply to join it, commit to voluntary drug testing and submit to a system of judgement by their peers. Get three negative “pulls” in 28 days, and there is an “encounter” with the rest of the community, where your problems are addressed. Everyone has a job, and after 38 weeks everyone “graduates” from the programme. The scheme is part-funded by the local NHS, and what is stopping it from expansion is money for more staffing. “That,” says a prison officer – “and not everyone wants to change.”

Crook is keen for me to see House Block 6 because it mirrors some of the techniques used at her favourite prison, Grendon in Buckinghamshire, which styles itself as a “democratic, therapeutic community”. Grendon deals with sex offenders and those who have committed violent crimes, and combines drug rehabilitation with intensive therapy. “And it’s been there quietly in the Buckinghamshire countryside for 40 years, and has a reoffending rate of less than 10 per cent.” Nationally, half of all prisoners reoffend within a year of release.

Life on House Block 6 is still not easy. “Slammed behind your door, you feel forgot about,” one man tells me. Another has not seen his seven-year-old child in 20 months, because his partner lives too far away to visit. Complaints about lack of medical treatment are common: one man can’t get a repeat prescription of the anxiety medication he has taken for 16 years; another has waited four years for a hip replacement. Dental work is basic. There is one psychiatrist available to the block.

There are bright spots, though: many of the prisoners we meet praise the staff for doing a “difficult” job and others are happy with the work and training on offer. Out of 1,167 on the roll, a thousand have something to do during the day.

When we gather a group from the block, I am surprised by the first question: “Haven’t I seen you on Newsnight?” The men here are more articulate than others we meet during the day, and they know how they are seen by outsiders. “They think we’ve all got PlayStations,” says one. “People think we’re bad people,” says another. “We’re good people who made mistakes.”

When I ask what their one wish for change would be, the answers are thoughtful: more education, more support on release, more ability to save up money for release. One says simply: “I’d like to see more light at the end of the tunnel.”




As well as her first day at the Howard League, Frances Crook remembers her worst. In 2003 she met Pauline Campbell, a single parent in Cheshire, whose daughter Sarah was 17 and “wearing too much make-up and experimenting with drugs”. Sarah had been raped as a teenager, and was taking antidepressants. One night, she and a friend went into town and, in Crook’s words, “jostled this chap – they were trying to get some money out of him because they wanted to buy drugs, and he had a heart attack, and he died”.

Sarah Campbell was arrested, convicted of manslaughter and sent to HMP Styal in Cheshire. On the segregation unit, a few days before her 19th birthday, she took an overdose of prescription drugs. She was one of six women to die in Styal in a 12-month period. “It was so awful,” Crook says. “I felt very strongly – my daughter’s called Sarah, and she was the same age at the time, and we’d both been teachers and all that.”

She began to work with Pauline Campbell, and eventually the Home Office conceded that Sarah’s human rights had been violated – but not before Pauline had been arrested 12 times while protesting about the treatment of vulnerable women.

“She’d go and stand outside Holloway Prison and try to stop the vans coming in, because she said the prison was not safe . . . We did what we could.” Crook and her colleague tried to channel Pauline’s grief towards campaigning and she became a trustee of the Howard League. But she never got over her loss; a journalist visiting the house years later found it was still full of her daughter’s belongings. On 15 May 2008, Pauline went to Sarah’s grave and took an overdose. She was 60 years old.

For Crook, that incident is an indictment of the British prison system and its many failings: it took one tragedy – the initial death of the pensioner hassled by Sarah Campbell – and added two more. “This is what the system does,” she says. “It’s not just the prisons, it’s the courts . . . it’s the whole system. It doesn’t make things better. It makes things worse.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind

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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 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind