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2 December 2022

Populism is in decline in the West but the UK is still paying the price

The Brexit vote made what could have been a passing fashion a near-permanent feature of our politics.

By David Gauke

As we enter the final month of 2022, there are reasons to think that it has proved to be a much better year for the West and believers in liberal values than one could have expected. Those two related threats – populism at home and authoritarianism abroad – have both received substantial blows.

It was not that long ago that the US had appeared to lose its will to engage with the outside world (see the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021); Europe showed no sign of filling the void. China, meanwhile, was growing in international influence, able to take strategic decisions unfettered by public opinion. Russia, obviously in longer-term decline, remained a regional superpower and a threat to our security, while the Iranian regime remained internally secure and externally hostile.

The limits of authoritarianism have, however, been starkly exposed. Russia’s failure in Ukraine flows from rampant corruption, an unwillingness to tell truth to power and the promotion of compliant mediocrities. Vladimir Putin sees the West as decadent, soft and lacking martial qualities but it is the Russian army that has been revealed as inept. This would not have happened in a more open and questioning society.

The Iranian regime looks far from secure. The values of its theocratic leadership appear out of touch with large parts of the country – particularly, but not exclusively, the younger, better educated, urban population. The mullahs have seen off liberal insurrections in the past but it is starting to look like only a matter of time before fundamental change happens.

One cannot say the same with as much confidence of China but the recent protests are, nonetheless, remarkable and unmatched since 1989 and Tiananmen Square. President Xi Jinping will presumably prevail but his zero-Covid strategy and vaccine nationalism is causing great hardship and weakening his hold.

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Lockdowns are causing substantial economic problems but there are longer-term problems to confront. If China is to avoid falling into a middle-income trap – where it reaches a certain point in economic development and then stagnates – it must move from being an economy based on manufacturing to one in which consumption and services play a greater role. Such an economy benefits from a society that is more creative and individualistic – which is incompatible with where Xi wants to take China.

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If authoritarianism appears to be cracking elsewhere, populism also appears to be in decline in the West. In France, Emmanuel Macron was comfortably re-elected while those Republicans who refused to accept the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory paid an electoral price in the midterms. Donald Trump is not yet finished but he is certainly diminished.

[See also: Emmanuel Macron: the man who would be king]

Not everything that has happened in recent months is positive – the new Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leads a party with fascist roots – but populism appears to have peaked. Serious economic challenges have generally seen a move to a more serious, managerial approach to government.

The UK is no exception. Boris Johnson was no authoritarian (he deserves credit for his approach to Ukraine) but he was a populist willing to weaken our institutions if it was to his advantage. His immediate successor, Liz Truss, shared his distrust of institutions and economic orthodoxy, and very quickly came a cropper.  Market credibility became paramount, which resulted in the return of the grown-ups in the form of first Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor and then Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister.

Sunak vs Starmer is a big improvement on the options put before the British people in 2019 but the worry – from the UK’s perspective – is that if populism was a fad that peaked in the second half of the 2010s, it is here that the damage appears to be most long lasting.

I wrote last week about how the public appears to have changed its view of Brexit, not only regretting the decision of 2016 but actively wanting to rejoin the EU. This view is only likely to strengthen in the next two years with the UK forecast to grow slower than all other G20 economies with the exception of Russia. Our political leaders, however, have concluded that a prerequisite of political success is accepting the 2016 result as interpreted by the victors of the 2019 general election – that Brexit means a hard Brexit.  

In the last few days, we have had Keir Starmer tell the Mail on Sunday that opposing freedom of movement is a red line for him while the Sunday Times was told that Rishi Sunak will refuse to compromise over the Northern Ireland protocol, and will proceed with the scrapping of up to 4,000 EU laws despite the business uncertainty this will cause. 

The West faces many challenges – economic, demographic and geopolitical – but 2022 has brought us some reasons to be cheerful. The invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian tragedy but it has strengthened our resolve and weakened an adversary. Instability in Russia, Iran and China brings great risks but offers hope of a more harmonious future. Populists are being exposed for not having answers to the public’s concerns.

This optimism, however, must be tempered in the case of the UK. The 2016 Brexit vote – perhaps the year of peak populism – made what could have been a passing fashion a near permanent feature of our politics. Putting the consequences of populism behind us may be a more challenging undertaking for the UK than elsewhere.

[See also: Labour’s landslide in Chester shows voters have an appetite for change]

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