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Populism without the people

By peddling the politics of grievance and waging tedious culture wars, the right has retreated into a realm of fantasy.

 

 

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In its daily more feverish attempts to push for the re-election of the sitting American president in the summer months of 2020, the Times took to referring to the incumbent as a populist. It was a strange word to use about Donald Trump. If there is such a thing, surely a populist has to be someone who has appeal for an entire electorate. But Trump lost ground with those earning under $50,000 a year, was overwhelmingly unpopular with black voters and commanded the support of only a minority of women. The young didn’t like him. Hispanics preferred Joe Biden by a margin of 30 points. How could someone who repelled such significant sections of the voting public properly be called a populist?

Not for the first time, Rupert Murdoch was squirting his own brand of perfumed aerosol. The word, surely, was authoritarian.

Behind the careless use of the word “populism” lies an assumption that is as ugly as it is deeply rooted. In this world-view, it is taken for granted that “the people” – conveniently lumpen – are as mean and vindictive as the journalists who evoke them. The white working class is represented as aching for the swish of the guillotine. They’re all driving around in white vans fighting for their own survival, sending donations to Migration Watch, carousing with Tommy Robinson and nursing early medieval views on crime and punishment. (None of them, naturally, works in hospitals, schools, care homes or any other essential service. None of them selflessly maintains the social fabric.) Only through the machinations of a liberal elite, it is implied, are these people denied what they truly want: for immigrants to die in the sea and for Western civilisation to purify itself of everything and everyone who contaminates it from outside.

The obvious trick behind this kind of polemic is to pretend that it’s “the people” who are the agents of reaction – and that, in a burst of disruptive energy, their thwarted desires are finally being acknowledged by fresh-faced outsiders who have ­arrived in decadent capital cities like Washington, DC, London, Budapest, Brasilia and Warsaw to outrage and defy the political establishment.

In 2020, the one-time conservative Anne Applebaum published a beautifully written and important book, Twilight of Democracy, to kill this ridiculous narrative. She wrote of how many friends she had lost by refusing to surrender to the fashionable trend of pretending to be hard done by when you’re on top. But she went on to ask the far more important question arising: why is the right wing, in Europe, in the UK, in India and in the US, moving so much further to the right?

Applebaum had lived in eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so she brought an interesting perspective. She knew a little bit about collaboration by intellectuals inside corrupt regimes. She was horrified to see something of the same mentality developing in the West. Why were so many writers, editors and politicians prepared to collude with known liars? Why had they abandoned their faith in reason and democracy, in order to offer unquestioning support to leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán, whom they knew to have a long record of rarely telling the truth? Why did they no longer trust that their own point of view might prevail through argument? Why were they frightened to disown malpractice on their own side? And why were they closing their eyes to the behaviour of leaders who were more suited to crashing round in the china shop than they were to restocking it?

Why, in other words, had the right abandoned its values?

While living in Poland in the 1980s, Applebaum had admired fellow anti-communists. She had seen Conservatism in the UK and Republicanism in the US as philosophies that brought freedom. But now, in the 21st century, she could not understand the turn they had taken into what she felt to be despair. She had lost her affinity with a ruling class which had given up. She knew from first-hand experience that the responsibility for the impending chaos of Brexit, and all the nostalgia it was engendering, did not lie with an abandoned section of the electorate who were said to know no better. She could see that the white working class was being paraded as disingenuous cover for where the real responsibility lay: among the very people who had once been her colleagues.

It did not need Applebaum to point out that the people who were desperate to pull Britain away from its geographical moorings were as likely to be found in Knightsbridge as in Hartlepool. The leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who put the fear of God into the Conservative Party, was a stockbroker. His principal cheerleaders were press owners, paid-up members of an elite who all lived abroad: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers.

The Conservative benches were well stocked with entitled parliamentary opportunists who were well placed to survive turbulence. Their representative and, later, leader, was an Old Etonian, Boris Johnson. Just a handful of years earlier, before he morphed into yet another populist who mislaid his popularity, Johnson had been cheerfully pro-EU. 

***

You may want to argue that so-called popular movements have always been led by characters from smart backgrounds. The British fascist leader of the 1930s, Oswald Mosley (Roderick Spode in PG Wodehouse’s comic fiction), was a product of Winchester and Sandhurst, and newsreel footage shows him speaking to his ranks of anti-Semitic thugs in tones which sound absurdly posh to modern ears. Donald Trump, the great disrupter in the US, inherited a fortune from his father, which, by some calculations, would today be far greater if he had simply left it in the bank.

But, even by historic standards, the Brexit movement does seem peculiarly lordly, depending on a generation of privileged journalists, politicians and financiers who wanted to kick away the European ladder on which they themselves had climbed. A bunch of Etonian politicians had benefited personally from social advances achieved by the liberal left. Not for them the untrendy prejudices of Section 28! But never once did they stop to acknowledge that it was their opponents who had secured them their new freedoms of lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Trump’s parallel electoral tactic in the United States was to dispel the notion of shame. That ambition defined his project and was at the heart of his huge and stubborn appeal. Trump promised to take the embarrassment out of people’s own worst feelings. And by “people” he didn’t just mean the working class. Far from it. The well-to-do were to be given a free pass as well.

Before Trump, the common pieties of public life had meant that any elector who had sexist or racist feelings, or who wanted always to insist on their own needs over the needs of others, might have felt vaguely rebuked by notions of good and bad. A scent of disapproval would have reached them from the religious and non-religious institutions which were there to suggest social norms. But, under Trump, all bets were off. People of all backgrounds, super-rich and dirt poor, were given permission to feel whatever they damn well pleased by a president who proclaimed, “Look at me, I’m never ashamed. I’m never contrite. Why should you be?”

[See also: The politics of the cattle market: why Italy remains ungovernable]

All revolutions, whether of the right or the left, are powered by grievance. But the important question is always whether the grievance is real or concocted. In June 1975, I voted against Britain joining the Common Market on the usual leftist grounds that it was a capitalist cartel, and therefore a conspiracy against the poor. However, as the years went by, I began to see great advantages in belonging to a grouping in which most of the population were citizens, not subjects. It made a difference to the tone of debate.

Because Britain, and England in particular, still took pride in a long-suffering culture eager to fall back on conservatism of all kinds, it was positive for us to join a club which led reluctant British governments towards a welcome emphasis on women’s rights, workers’ rights, consumer standards, equality, freedom and the rule of law. It was refreshing for our politics to have input from foreign politicians who seemed to have a scale and a vision ours lacked. We were in a group with a number of countries that were better governed than we were, and with a more urgent and accurate sense of history. European leaders such as Angela Merkel or François Mitterrand seemed like large figures, not least because they saw the future and weren’t frightened of it. 

***

Two aspects of European behaviour turned out to be attractive to any reluctant joiner like me. First, it was reassuring at a time when American foreign policy was getting daily crazier to be part, in letter if not in spirit, of an organisation which was neither craven towards, nor beholden to, the US. The EU acted as a counterbalance of sanity, particularly when, in the last century, American presidents were condoning illegality in Central America or the Middle East. During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq it was noticeable that, although the EU was not able to shake Tony Blair out of his school-prefect relationship with his headmaster, George W Bush, the sanest voices of dissent came from countries to the south of us. France, in particular, spoke nothing but sense.

If, as we believe, up to a million Iraqis may since have been killed by the consequences of the Anglo-American intervention, it ought to have been possible for us to be able to look across gratefully to well-meaning allies who were innocent of the damage and smart enough to foresee it. But rather than thanking them for warning against our foolishness, it is as if we are, through Brexit, intent on punishing our friends for being right.

The second unifying factor in Europe was a belief in multiculturalism. I had been brought up in an all-white seaside town in the 1950s, so I could see no downside to the tremendous vitality brought to large cities by immigration, at first from the West Indies, later from Africa. New arrivals cheered the country up, and did a lot to make it less smug and introspective. Later, when waves of refugees took to small boats in the Mediterranean, it was the Greeks, the Italians and the Germans who behaved heroically, doing their best by people whose only crime was to be born in places torn apart by invasion or by civil war.

But, to our shame in the UK, it had in the interval become necessary to the overriding Brexit cause to insist, against all evidence, that multiculturalism had failed and that “taking back control” must mean the same thing as closing down our borders. (This in spite of the fact that we were told at the same time that we needed to be part of something called the free market.)

Any Briton who has lived through the four years following the Brexit referendum and watched executive power being used to bypass parliament and yielded without conscience to unelected advisers in Downing Street will know just how hollow the promise to take back control has turned out to be. Was there no reason for it but spite?

When I was young, there was a very funny column under the pseudonym of Peter Simple. It was whimsical regressive fantasy in the old Daily Telegraph, full of attacks on motoring and housing estates. Peter Simple extolled an England peopled by sheep, aristocracy and peasants, and unspoilt by psychology, materialism or the weakening of the class system. When he railed against psychoanalysts in Hampstead, the dog whistle was at full screech. But in an interview with the column’s author, Michael Wharton, in the 1970s, he complained bitterly that, since his days at Oxford, it had always been assumed that such feudal attitudes must be a form of camp. It was amusing, of course, to want to take Britain back to the 18th century. It made good copy. But surely he couldn’t possibly have meant it?

Something of the same disbelief arises when we look with any serious attention at the arguments of populists all over the world, who are as outraged as Peter Simple that onlookers think they’re kidding. Is there a single person in the UK who today believes our country will be more prosperous outside the EU? Is there anyone in the US who believes that the building of a wall on the southern border will stop illegal immigration? Is there a single person in Brazil who thinks that it’s wise to take no account either of science or medicine when dealing with a lethal pandemic? Does any woman believe Andrzej Duda in Poland is banning abortion for anything but the most cynical of electoral reasons? And is there anyone in India who doesn’t know that Narendra Modi’s citizenship law was anti-Muslim in intention and racist in execution? 

***

Applebaum believes that Western countries are pulling out of democracy in a kind of intellectual funk, but surely these examples suggest that what we’re pulling out of is modernity. Anyone with half a brain can see that in the 21st century the most urgent and profound question will be how the seven billion people in the world who are poor will be able to share a degree of opportunity with the billion who are rich. Boris Johnson’s response is to put his head down and write books about Winston Churchill.

Again, one of the bleakest features of my adolescence in the 1960s was the ridiculous disparity between Britain’s claims to global status and the reality of its condition. Harold Macmillan was rash enough to say that Britain was in an alliance with the US which resembled that of the Greeks with the Romans. We’d do the thinking, they’d do the enforcing. It became clear at the time that even if you could dismantle at least some parts of an empire at unexpected speed, dismantling the imperial thinking that went with it was going to take much longer.

In the 20th century, British institutions continued to behave as if they were powerful and unique long after they had ceased to be either. I had never thought that in the 21st century such grandiosity and stupidity would return. I thought the empire was dead. But the rhetoricians of Brexit chose, not purely for tactical reasons but because some of them actually believed it, to revive the convenient idea of British exceptionalism. Their loathing for progress could be deodorised only if they refloated the notion that Britain was different.

It’s a challenge for any disruptive movement to maintain the energy of their grievance when they’ve achieved what they wanted. In 2021, this is the dilemma which faces populists all over the world. In many countries, self-styled outsiders have taken their turn at the heart of establishments from which they claimed to be excluded – at which point it gets harder to go on saying that everything is rigged in a terrible conspiracy against them.

[see also: An age without qualities]

Trump, like Thatcher, passed his time as leader railing against his own administration, and even propagated the myth of a deep state which stole the election from him. But nothing could hide the fact that he had been the person in power. If he didn’t like the weather, sorry, it was he who had made it. Trump was left, at the end, in the same position as Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, of deliberately inciting disorder in the form of an insurrection against the country he led and the institutions over which he governed.

In the UK, a similar loss of comforting paranoia continues to confound Brexiteers. They won. They have control. The government is led by one of their own. What happens is their fault, and nobody else’s. If the United Kingdom does, as a result of Brexit, fracture either in Ireland or Scotland, if the economy falters, if the departure has already turned out more costly and disruptive than they predicted, they have no one to blame but themselves. 

***

No wonder, therefore, that our friends, the would-be populists, are suddenly bereft. They must use all their ingenuity to summon up ever wilder grievances to power their motivating sense of injury. If overdogs are to go on pretending to be underdogs, they must dream up demands as impossibilist as possible. The first of these demands, outlined above, is suitably unlikely. Modern Britain must return to the 1950s. But the second demand is more sinister. The reason repeatedly advanced to explain the failure of the populists’ endeavours to deliver paradise has been that although the priorities of the government are right wing, the underlying culture still is not.

It is in this context, created by the urgent desire to shift blame, that sustained and irrational attacks on the BBC and on the universities can best be understood. When Michael Gove says he is sick of experts, what he means is that he is sick of facts. In order to represent Britain as a hell of excess tolerance, which needs shaking up and made more verbally violent, it is vital for the Brexit victors to pretend that its broadcast media are biased, its civil servants are useless, and its teaching anti-imperialist. (If they thought they could get away with it, they would throw in their contempt for the NHS: only the NHS’s universal popularity during Covid leaves them grumbling behind their hands.) When writers from the Spectator form a Free Speech Union, its aim is not, as you might hope, to expand the range and quality of public expression by attacking the ruthless no-platforming of non-conformists in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Sun and the Times. Nor is its interest in addressing the covert problems of censorship caused by minorities being under-represented in the mainstream. No, its purpose is to concentrate its efforts exclusively on protecting the right to give offence.

[See also: The Covid reset]

As someone who has spent the last 50 years writing, I, too, care about giving offence. It’s vital. Whether doing it intentionally or unintentionally, I could hardly have worked without it. Nor would I ever forgo the chance to write about any culture or race or class I choose, trusting that I will be held to account by the far better-informed people I write about. As Cate Blanchett said, if she’s not to be allowed to act people different from herself, she doesn’t want to act. But it’s precisely because these freedoms are so essential to me that I don’t want to see them weaponised in a tedious culture war, waged for no honest reason except to divert attention from far deeper political failures.

This is at the heart of the problem for populists everywhere. They are not actually very popular any more. Yes, there are individuals within the electorate who feel fenced in by what they see as political correctness. But a far greater number of people believe that in our daily dealings with others, whatever their beliefs, we should show a degree of common courtesy, which corresponds to how we ourselves would wish to be treated. Yes, there are people in Bristol who would prefer the statues of slave-owners to be removed by the city council, and not toppled by students. But they are as nothing to the number of people in Bristol who are horrified by the slave trade in the first place. Yes, there are people in the United States who would like to see fewer immigrants from Mexico, but if the price of their exclusion is to be the separation of parents and children, they are not sure they want to pay that price. Yes, there is indeed in Britain an industrial working class that has been viciously hard done by in the shift from manufacturing and the years of public squalor and austerity. But polls show that they are already beginning to regret being talked into believing that their neglect ever had much to do with Brussels.

Applebaum believes that the answer to the question “Why is the right moving so far right?” is philosophical. I believe it’s tactical. There’s nowhere else to go. For a right wing that are failing to deliver either the freedom or the prosperity they promised, the only possible route is towards the fantasy that they are being frustrated by hostile powers stronger than them. That’s the alibi, that’s the excuse. If only it were true. 

David Hare’s new book of essays and poems “We Travelled” will be published by Faber & Faber in August

Sir David Hare is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and theatre and film director. His last play was I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special