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Brown and Mandelson: It's Love

Peter Mandelson once spoke of how Gordon Brown “wants to kill me before I destroy him”, but now the

There is a compelling black-and-white photograph from 1996 of Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown by the fine Magnum photographer Peter Marlow. Brown, his head slightly lowered, has his back to the camera, somehow reinforcing the sense of his volcanic presence in a wood-panelled room of the Institution of Civil Engineers, where the men are alone before some long-forgotten youth employment launch. Would the moment that First Secretary Mandelson tells Prime Minister Brown the game is up, if it were ever to happen, look something like this? In faultlessly pressed white shirt and cufflinks, jacketless, his pose courtierly, Mandelson is in profile. Almost, but not quite, apprehensive, he has the facial expression of a man waiting patiently for an answer that he knows, with just the faintest trace of sympathy, the other does not want to give. As in a classic narrative painting, the tension is palpable.

As well it might have been. For Marlow has frozen an instant in the most pivotal few months of what by then already seemed an irretrievably dysfunctional relationship. Only four months earlier, Tony Blair had written to remind Mandelson that “we are not players in some Greek tragedy” and lamented that “the most brilliant political minds of their generation” are “more desirous of victory over each other than making it work”. This followed a letter of “resignation” from Mandelson after a particularly poisonous row. Mandelson quoted the Brown ally Michael Wills as saying that “Gordon ‘wants to kill me before I destroy him’”.

Yet by the time the picture is taken, Mandelson, eager for a fashionable and expensive home in Notting Hill, has been house-hunting under the genial tutelage of Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire MP, close friend of Brown and then owner of the New Statesman. Weeks later the two men would finalise the £373,000 loan from Robinson that, in the single most self-destructive act of his career, Mandelson would keep secret as he began his rise through government under the patronage of Tony Blair.

Until, that is, details of the loan were leaked to the press in December 1998 by other close allies of Brown, causing Mandelson’s first resignation from the cabinet. Brown was not responsible for the leak, but it was the climax of what Blair had called in his letter a “titanic but ultimately irrelevant personality feud”. Yet it was a feud that no one, least of all the then British prime minister, knew how to stop.

A decade later, Brown and Mandelson are all but joined at the hip. The clutch of Merrie England titles that Mandelson has acquired in his new role reflects his centrality in the government. There was speculation at the time of the reshuffle that Mandelson had sought to be foreign secretary – certainly a job he has long wanted.

In fact, it was never a possibility. He is too pivotal to be allowed long absences from the UK. He now spends much of his time in Downing Street – including, by all counts, many evenings that end with his urging the Prime Minister to go to bed. He even coexists, albeit warily, with Ed Balls, easily Brown’s closest ministerial confidant hitherto. Today, joined in their service to the Prime Minister, they have a “non-aggression” pact in which, while Balls continues bilateral telephone contact with Brown, the two lieutenants do not contradict each other at meetings and do not brief against other. Finally, Mandelson is credited, even by those who wished it had not happened, with “saving” the Prime Minister during the period of maximum turbulence around the Euro elections this month.

How did all this happen? How did Mandelson’s sworn enemy come first to bring him back into government and then to locate him as primus inter pares among his ministers? And how will it end? After all, it was not as if the enmity did not survive in-tact well into Mandelson’s appointment as European trade commissioner in 2004. Even while Brown was still chancellor, Mandelson would regularly, if only semi-openly, complain to British correspondents in Brussels about the Treasury’s refusal to consult with him.

After Brown became Prime Minister relations with Mandelson became, if anything, worse. The Brussels press corps were left with the impression that the commissioner thought Brown might not be up to taking on what he indicated was the impressive challenge being mounted by David Cameron. Then, in March 2007, at a time when the widely known freeze in relations between the commissioner and his home-country government was already undermining his authority in Brussels, Mandelson chose to give a chilly radio interview in which he announced that he had decided to deny Brown the pleasure of sacking him by not seeking a second term. It was a new low point.

The bare facts of the subsequent and gradual rapprochement during the first half of 2008 are well documented: the prime ministerial visit to Brussels and the long talk between the two men about anything but trade. The London dinner given by Stewart Wood, the only No 10 official then permitted contact with Mandelson, to which were invited both Mandelson and Baroness Shriti Vadera, a tough-minded and long-standing ally of Brown’s, to whom Mandelson greatly warmed. The lunch, also in London, Mandelson had with the veteran Downing Street (and former Treasury) official Jeremy Heywood, before which the Prime Minister asked Heywood if he could come, too. Heywood politely refused, but the lunch was followed by another long tête-à-tête between Brown and Mandelson, this time in Downing Street.

Even before this, however, Brown followed up on his Brussels trip – after a short interval – by starting to telephone Mandelson, to send him speech drafts and policy proposals. In short, to consult him. By all accounts the gradually intensifying appeal was notably personal, a call for help by a man who was discovering that being prime minister was a good deal more complicated than being chancellor. But Mandelson, his friends are convinced, had no notion at this stage that he might return to government.

It is easy to describe the invitation to Mandelson to rejoin the cabinet in October last year (and the thaw that preceded it) in merely political terms. For Brown, the appointment added much-needed lustre to an otherwise routine reshuffle. More importantly, and even if the prospects of a challenge from David Miliband had faded, it served to neutralise what he saw as a still potent Blairite threat to his premiership. From Mandelson’s point of view it was, in Blair’s now famous phrase when a stunned Mandelson consulted him about the offer, a “no-brainer”.

Despite having arguably the best job in the European Commission – given that trade, unlike many of the other portfolios, is actually in the commission’s competence – he missed the action in London; he was in danger of becoming a “lame duck” because of his decision not to seek a second term and because of the wide perception, even if it was becoming much less accurate, that he had been frozen out by London. And there was little sign of a successful conclusion to the world trade round, which might have crowned his term in Brussels. (Blair’s advice, similarly solicited by Alastair Campbell, whom Brown also offered more or less any job he wanted, was more equivocal. Campbell refused the job offer; he had built another life, which he enjoyed.)

Yet politics alone cannot explain the subsequent and growing intimacy between the two men, or the relative ease with which they exorcised the demons of the previous 13 years. The psychological roots almost certainly lie further still in their past.

It is easy to forget now the cohesiveness of this triangle, before John Smith’s death in 1994, that had gradually formed since the “discovery” of Mandelson as Labour’s communications director, and the subsequent promotion of the backbenchers Brown and Blair as early as the run-up to the 1987 election. Alex Stevenson, working as a young researcher for Mandelson, recalled that, during 1993, when the group felt relatively isolated as “modernisers”, there were “incessant” telephone calls from Blair and Brown, but that those from Brown were even more frequent. The three men’s closeness – with a largely unspoken understanding that Brown was the leading figure of the three – can scarcely be exaggerated. Probably no one but Mandelson and Brown remembers that it was the latter who painstakingly advised the former on his crucial speech to the selection conference that chose him as parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1989 – and actually wrote the peroration of it.

The best analogy to describe the relationship is that of two brothers who quarrel bitterly over a legacy – in this case the leadership of the Labour Party and the premiership – but are finally reconciled, resuming their old warmth. This is the view of two former officials who worked in Downing Street during the worst of the Mandelson-Brown schism and experienced it first-hand. One says now, “I think the reason they were so angry with each other was that they had been so close.” The other puts it even more forcefully: “It’s impossible to hate someone that much unless you also love them.”

Even during the worst of the feud, the bond was never quite broken. When Mandelson’s mother, Mary, the daughter of Herbert Morrison and the most formative political influence of his life, died in 2006, during yet another peak of Brown-Mandelson hostilities, Brown telephoned Mandelson in Brussels to express his condolences. The conversation was awkward but the call was memorable enough for Mandelson to report it to his closest friends.

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Anatomy of a feud

1994 After the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Peter Mandelson sidelines his old friend Gordon Brown and backs the more popular Tony Blair for the leadership. “We’ve been betrayed,” Brown tells one ally. “I love you, but I can destroy you,” Mandelson warns Brown.

1995 Blair’s attempts at détente fail when he confronts Brown. “Peter? He’s been going around telling everyone that I’m gay. And I’m not gay,” Brown fumes.

1996 Displaying his often unacknowledged sense of humour, Brown acidly remarks to a Tribune rally: “Peter asked me for 10p to phone a friend the other day. I said: ‘Here, take 20p and ring them all.’ When people ask me if I have a close relationship with Mandelson, I answer: ‘How would I know? I haven’t spoken to him for 18 months.’”

1998 Mandelson is forced to resign from the cabinet for the first time after the Guardian reports that he received a secret loan of £373,000 from his ministerial colleague Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson blames Brown’s pugnacious spin doctor Charlie Whelan for the leak.

2001 Accused of unreasonably aiding the Hinduja brothers in their quest for British citizenship, Mandelson resigns as Northern Ireland secretary and loses his status as joint election co-ordinator with Brown. Mandelson is subsequently exonerated by the Hammond inquiry.

2007 Asked whether he fears being replaced as the UK’s European commissioner when Brown becomes prime minister, Mandelson replies: “I don’t know whether this is going to come as a disappointment to him, but he can’t actually fire me. So like it or not, I’m afraid he will have to accept me as commissioner until November 2009.”

2008 On 3 October, Mandelson makes an extraordinary return to the cabinet as business secretary. Ten days later he becomes Baron Mandelson of Foy and takes his seat in the House of Lords.

2008 Mandelson is said to have “dripped pure poison” about Gordon Brown to George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, just weeks before his return to government. Mandelson denounces the leaking of the conversation as “straight out of a dirty-tricks department”.

2009 Brown hands Mandelson overall control of a new superdepartment, with a portfolio including business regulation, universities and space travel. Awarded the Soviet-style title of First Secretary of State, Mandelson cements his position as de facto deputy prime minister.

George Eaton

More remarkably still, at the time of his first resignation eight years earlier, Mandelson, fighting in vain for his political life after being exposed by some of Brown’s closest henchmen, turned to the then chancellor himself for counsel. He discovered that Brown was horrified that the saga was leading to Mandelson’s inevitable departure from government.

In Mandelson’s second resignation, Brown played no part. Indeed, Mandelson had more cause to blame Blair than Brown. What the resignation did, however, was expose the falsity of the frequent claim that Brown’s problem had been with Mandelson and not with Blair. Mandelson’s removal did nothing to reduce the relentless pressure Brown applied on Blair, which, together with the legacy of the Iraq War, culminated in Blair’s departure in 2007.

Nevertheless, the split between Mandelson and Brown was deeply personal and precisely fratricidal. Brown’s lieutenants blamed Mandelson for creating the conditions in which Blair emerged in the polls as the clear front-runner for the Labour leadership in 1994. In fact, he had no such magical powers, as Brown himself may deep down have realised. Which is why Mandelson judged the break came several months later in an argument over party appointments. The issue over which Mandelson sided with Blair against Brown was relatively trivial, but showed the depth of Mandelson’s new fealty to Blair.

All this, especially the intensity of feeling between Brown and Mandelson, calls into question the conventional wisdom that Mandelson may ultimately move against Brown in October, as he did not move against him a fortnight ago. In Mandelson’s case, predictions are a fool’s game, and it could yet happen. Certainly he has not been in the habit of ending up on the losing side in the past, including in 1994, or when, after a brief hesitation, he decided not to join the SDP after its formation in 1981.

The idea of being “the last man standing” in the cabinet, as a deeply uneasy Ken Baker was at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990, is hardly appealing. But most of those close to Mandelson – including those who might ideally prefer it otherwise – appear to think it likelier that he intends to stick with Brown to the end, and to use, on the Prime Minister’s behalf, all the political skills he has to keep him in place.

There are several political reasons for this. The unrest in the parliamentary party is dire, though perhaps not much more dire than it was for Blair in the wake of the Iraq War. But there is no clear, obvious successor to the Prime Minister, or at least no clear agreement, not even among the “Blairites” (to the extent that such a term has meaning now that Mandelson has thrown in his lot with the Prime Minister), about the ideal successor. If Brown disappeared, Mandelson would probably prefer David Miliband over Alan Johnson. But there is a lack of confidence – even among those, other than Mandelson, closest to Blair in the past – about whether either Miliband or Johnson would do better than Brown. At least the Prime Minister has the policies and track record needed at a time of profound economic crisis. And while Brown’s supporters may have wilfully exaggerated the inevitability of a leadership contest, it is by no means clear, given the febrile state of the party and the beginnings of the jockeying to determine a post-election scenario, that one could be avoided, possibly with disastrous results so close to a general election.

This is not to say that, if an irresistible revolt materialises, it would not fall to Mandelson, as it did in 1994, to tell Brown how conditions were. Or, if Brown decided to go, to ensure that he withdrew with honour. But it looks much less likely than assumed that Mandelson would be prepared to wield the knife. And the personal reasons for this are at least as potent as the political ones: a commitment not to desert Brown twice and, at least as important, the resulting damage to his reputation if he did.

The former Labour foreign secretary and SDP founder Lord Owen is said to have reinforced this point in a recent conversation with Man­delson, as have others. Of all the twists in this melodrama of internecine strife that has so hobbled the Labour government over more than a decade, the strangest of all would be if it fell to Peter Mandelson to disprove Lloyd George’s maxim that there is no friendship at the top.

Donald Macintyre is the author of “Mandelson and the Making of New Labour” (HarperCollins)

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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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 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran