When populism rules, and one party in a two-party democracy goes rogue, democracy is undermined and fair Government for all becomes almost impossible. This happened in the USA under Republican President Trump, and it’s happening here now in the UK under our Prime Minister Johnson.
Not only have the Conservative Party moved from the right to the far right, they are increasingly using populist tendencies to justify their undemocratic and authoritarian behaviour and secure their grip on power. For populists, grip on power is much more important than governing fairly in the interests of all citizens.
At the heart of populism is the idea that common or ordinary people are being taken advantage of by some privileged elite or some threatening group in society. A populist leader or Party is one that claims (falsely) that it can take power away from this invented enemy and use it on behalf of the ‘common people’.
Since the Tory Party have been in Government for most of the time since 1945, they have gradually shifted the political dial further and further towards the right. This has been achieved partly because the Party enjoys or has acquired an inbuilt electoral advantage. It also has immense wealth compared to the other parties, a result of generous business and other wealthy donors, and so can afford expensive election specialists and campaigns. It has the very pro-active support of the print media, 90% of which is in the hands of just three organisations and individuals who are themselves very right wing and have an agenda to keep a right wing party in office.
Another factor favouring the Tories is the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system which allows a strong Parliamentary majority to be gained from a minority (43.6%) of the total votes cast. In the December 2019 election the Tories won 56% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 44% of the vote. This advantage is enhanced because of the way Labour supporters are more concentrated in urban areas while Tory supporters are more widely dispersed across more rural areas. For an in depth review of our electoral system, see Philip Cole’s article in West England Bylines.
The main policy of the Cameron Government of 2010-2015 was to reduce the deficit and the national debt, which had increased substantially as a result of the previous Labour Government’s response to the 2008 financial crash. Reducing the deficit was mainly pursued by severely cutting public service expenditures. The policy caused serious hardship in much of society and many parts of the economy, but was judged worthwhile by the Government in terms of the public finances. This policy also helped to move the political dial to the right, by reducing the size of the state, limiting the role of Local Government, while continuing the outsourcing of public services to the private sector.
A few basic philosophies underpin the modern right-wing party, largely stemming from Margaret Thatcher, although with a history going all the way back to Edmund Burke:
- prioritising the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of the individual;
- a small but powerful centralised state with limited welfare and public service obligations;
- low taxes;
- respect for the power and freedom of the market;
- minimised standards and regulations;
- strong law and order and
- a strong attachment to their own idea of nationalism and patriotism.
It also claims to be strongly pro-Union. Along the way respect for the rule of law seems to have been abandoned.
All of these ideas have a respectable lineage, and individually they deserve consideration because they do have their advantages:
- Individual responsibility encourages self-sufficiency and aspiration;
- a large state can encourage over-dependency;
- who wants to pay high taxes?;
- the marketplace in theory encourages entrepreneurship, efficiency and enterprise;
- too many standards and regulations can be suffocating;
- we all need to feel safe from law-breakers and
- we all have some attachment to the idea of a national identity.
But these ideas become problematic when they are taken together, become ideological, and become pushed to their extreme, which is what has been happening, with Brexit being a prime example, though Brexit was actually ‘sold’ to the public on other grounds.
They also become problematic because there are strong arguments against those philosophies.
- Prioritising individualism leaves out of consideration those who are less able to be muscular in pursuit of their own self-sufficiency;
- a larger state has the power to change society and life chances for many for the better;
- low taxes means the state withdraws from funding many services and functions which people are unable to provide for themselves on an individual basis;
- the marketplace can become distorted so that unfair or inefficient practices dominate;
- well-designed standards and regulations can improve the quality of life of all citizens in many ways;
- law and order can be misused by Government to disadvantage or browbeat people and
- ideas of nationalism and patriotism can become jingoistic and manipulated,
Competition between these two conflicting interpretations of these basic philosophies has left the UK with a mixed economy. Thanks to the 1942 Beveridge Report and the post-war Atlee Government, it has had a functioning middle-of-the-road welfare system. However due to the Tory Party electoral advantages, and more recently through the success of the populism it has adopted, the overall trend has been towards the politics of the right.
Recent developments moving the tory party towards populism
The first move in recent times came when Prime Minister David Cameron designed the Brexit Referendum to stave off a split in the Tory Party, which would have ended the Party’s chance of retaining power at the next election. Since the Government’s policy was to remain a member of the European Union, this was an abrogation of its responsibility to govern in the best interests of the nation. But the Government put their own retention of power above this responsibility.
Within the country at large, there was no widespread dissatisfaction with European Union membership. But populism needs a grievance (see David Hare, Populism Without the People, New Statesman, 25 March 2021), and the populist Nigel Farage, through his UKIP Party, whipped up a hate EU campaign which gained extensive media coverage. A relatively small group of vocal Conservative MPs had for many years thought that the European Union was restricting the UK’s ability to do better in the world and wanted to leave. Cameron thought that he could buy them all off, and stave off opposition from UKIP, by granting a Referendum, which he was confident of winning, thereby shutting them up and winning the next election.
The Remain campaign which the Government ran was almost entirely negative, being more or less limited to pointing out that the UK would lose up to about 6% or so of GDP by leaving, so that every household would be much worse off. True, but uninspiring.
By contrast the Leave campaign, headed by Boris Johnson, was very positive, pointing out all the so-called advantages of leaving, such as recovering our sovereignty, taking back control of our own laws, borders, and money, restricting the number of asylum-seekers and immigrants, including keeping out 70 million Turks who would soon be coming; owning all our own fish; having our cake and eating it i.e. keeping all the benefits of membership but without any of the costs or obligations; and we could become ‘Global Britain’, giving full rein to our exporters to find new markets around the world. Costs associated with leaving were not mentioned.
In conjunction with this positive message about life outside the EU, came the populist smears and demonisation long associated with populist scapegoating. The EU had a huge democratic deficit. The EU was a massive, bungling bureaucracy and a burden of regulatory red tape preventing British inventiveness and success. By leaving we would stop wasting money in Europe and recover £350 million a week for our NHS. The Remain campaign was contemptuously dismissed as ‘Project Fear’, implying you were a wimp if you voted ‘Remain’.
52% of the UK electorate bought into the Leave campaign’s populist narrative, or ‘Torrent of Tosh’, as someone recently described it. Cameron resigned, Theresa May became Prime Minister, the UK Government policy changed from EU membership to leaving the EU, and UK politics became an unholy alliance between the lies, false propaganda and scapegoating of populism, and the cynicism, ideology and intolerance of far right Conservatism. Sylvie Berman, ex-French ambassador to the UK 2014-17, in her new book ‘Goodbye Britannia’ (reviewed in The Guardian 26 February 2021), described her shock, horror and disbelief at the result and the manner of it. ‘It was the demagogues and populists who got Brexit over the line’ she said. She refers to the bad faith of the now Prime Minister, Johnson, for whom ‘lying is no longer a sin’. Populist demagoguery won the Referendum for Leave.
‘Après le referendum, le déluge’ (citation de De Gaulle)
Populism thrives on division, and the divisiveness continued with the implementation of the Referendum result. Leavers insisted that as a matter of honour, and democracy, the result should be implemented in full, because that had been ‘promised’. They ignored all protestations that the Referendum was advisory, or that the Referendum had been won on the back of enormous lies and illegal manipulation of the voting, or that the cost of Brexit would be enormous and any possible benefits uncertain at best or non-existent at worst, or that Brexit was a policy just for the English. But populists don’t do compromise, consensus or proper negotiating, their modus operandi is grandstanding, sloganizing, ignorance (‘we’ve had enough of experts’, ‘it will be the easiest deal in the world’), juvenile machismo (‘Global Britain’, ‘F*** Business’), and deceit (‘take back control’).
But new Prime Minister Theresa May had been ‘captured’ by the minority European Research Group (ERG) of fixated, unbending and ideological Conservative MPs, and she quickly closed off softer options by triggering Article 50, and announcing that ‘the UK would be withdrawing from both the Customs Union and Single Market’, without understanding that the Northern Ireland border then became an insuperable problem. Clearly the Conservative Hard-Right now ‘owned’ the agenda, and following the ‘Chequers’ Withdrawal Proposal, which was considerably more business-friendly than the eventual deal Johnson signed two years later, the new Conservative Party got rid of May, and installed Johnson. Johnson then got rid of or silenced any MP who questioned the full Withdrawal policy.
During this time, there had been ample opportunity for compromise, cooperation, consensus and bi-partisan One Nation style politics. More facts had emerged about what Brexit might look like, and UK opinion was divided, polarised, and unsure. Scotland had voted ‘Remain’ decisively in the Brexit Referendum. Northern Ireland had voted ‘Remain’, though it was represented at Westminster by the DUP who as a Party wanted ‘Leave’. Wide swathes of the population in England and Wales had voted ‘Remain’. Opinion polling showed support for ‘Remain’ well over the 50% mark. International opinion was unreservedly hostile to Brexit. ‘Extremely self-harming and backward-looking’ was the general consensus from most foreign leaders, except the authoritarian leaders Trump, Orban and Putin, and the EU leadership expressed serious warnings, regrets and even sorrow.
Under the new Conservative Party rulers, ‘winner takes all’ (as David Blunkett put it recently), thereby jettisoning any suggestion of government on behalf of or in the best interest of all citizens. Any hope that Biden-style unity or bi-partisan politics would prevail over divisive, polemical, destructive, populist, extremist politics was rudely jettisoned. Welcome to the new Conservative Party, and UK democracy went further downhill. This was not One Nation Toryism, it was Populist Toryism. It maintained the ‘Them and Us’ divide which a principled governing Party would have sought to avoid.
Next came the Conservative Party’s choice of their new Prime Minister, Johnson. His election showed that the Party, like the Republican Party in the USA, cared little for anything beyond its own ascent to power, since his only recommendation was that he had won two elections to become Mayor of London. His personality, character flaws and lack of seriousness were well-known to everyone. His loyalty record to the Prime Ministers he had served under was poor, since he had left Cameron in the lurch over the Referendum, and he had resigned from the May cabinet, ostensibly over the Northern Ireland backstop. His political record of achievement was zero, both as Mayor and at the Foreign Office. His employment experience was more or less limited to writing amusing, fictitious articles about Brussels, with bawdy gags about the shape of bananas and sausages and hints of racism and misogyny. He had no record of public service or in business. He was prone to attention-seeking gaffes and Freudian slips, such as ‘Devolution has been a disaster’, ‘Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran training journalists’, and ‘Barack Obama is half-Kenyan’. He knowingly lied frequently and without subsequent apology, retraction or remorse. He lacked empathy, referring in the House of Commons to a female Labour MP, Paula Sheriff, who had described her fear in receiving death threats and online abuse deriving from the Prime Minister’s use of inflammatory language, as ‘humbug’. A worse candidate for Prime Minister you could not find.
A major Party in a democracy has a serious responsibility, as a vital functioning part of that democracy, to take great care to choose a responsible individual as leader who will bring understanding, vision, experience and a proven track record to the role, not a dilettante comedian or irresponsible lightweight joker with aspirations well above his ability. The Conservative Party failed dismally in this respect, choosing power before responsibility.
Get Brexit done
The major task for the Johnson Government was to complete the Brexit Withdrawal negotiations and then the final trade negotiations. From the outset, the negotiating style was irresponsibly flippant, juvenile, ignorant, arrogant and intransigent. Johnson had no experience himself of negotiating international treaties or trade treaties, neither had his senior adviser Cummings, nor his new chief negotiator David Frost. The brief Johnson gave to Frost appears (in hindsight) to have been something like, ‘Get it wrapped up before Xmas (so that I can announce a magnificent achievement in Getting Brexit Done), concentrate on getting the sovereignty, forget about any sharing or cooperation, and get tariff-free trade in goods if you can’. It was signed off, and approved by Parliament, despite being an 800 page document of major Constitutional and International significance, within a matter of days. Irresponsibility doesn’t come bigger than that.
The outcome from the Trade Deal (if you can call it a Deal at all) is still unfolding (see Toynbee, ‘The Brexit Deal was astonishingly bad’, Guardian, 16 March 2021), but the signs are that Johnson and Frost were not that bothered. Short of being a No Deal outcome, it was the weakest, thinnest and least-valuable Deal possible, a pale shadow of what was promised by Brexiteers in the Leave campaign:
- There is no control over ‘UK waters’;
- the fishing industry is left floundering with nothing of what was promised to them;
- the Northern Ireland Protocol is the subject of fierce in-fighting;
- there is nothing to help the finance and service sectors of the economy;
- goods importers, exporters and logistics firms complain loudly about all the extra customs declarations, import and export taxes and delays they have to contend with;
- UK security is weakened as access to police databases and arrest arrangements is lost and
- many jobs have been or will be lost as traders lose business or close their businesses or move abroad.
The final outcome after four and a half years of near-pointless debate and negotiation couldn’t have been worse, and couldn’t have been farther from the promises made by the Leave campaign.
It was all deliberately chosen by the Johnson Government to be like that, which has fundamentally failed the UK in almost every possible way.
The Brexit outcome
The populists and Tory right-wingers got five things they wanted. They didn’t care what these cost:
- First, an end to freedom of movement from the EU, and the ability to design a new immigration policy.
- Second, the right to establish separate UK trade deals around the world.
- Third, the right to deviate (albeit at a cost) from EU rules and regulations governing everything from health, to workers rights, to the environment and to safety.
- Fourth, escape from the European Court of Justice.
- Fifth, and most important for their populist agenda, the continuing ability to treat the EU as a scapegoat to blame for everything that goes wrong.
This has enabled Johnson to trumpet that ‘sovereignty has been reclaimed’, though there remain caveats and restrictions to some of these new rights. Sylvie Berman wrote:
‘The deal that was eventually arrived at is a deal in which Britain sacrificed everything to a mythical idea of sovereignty …. but absolute sovereignty does not exist….and Global Britain is a myth’.
The business, economic, trading, cultural, security, scientific and employment fallout from Brexit will be long, hard and painful. But the failure of the Government’s Brexit policy is not restricted to the world of business and society. The existence of the United Kingdom as a constitutional entity is now severely threatened. The interests and wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland were comprehensively ignored by the Westminster Government before, during and after Brexit, and as a result the movement for independence there has strengthened. And in Wales, the Labour leadership has likewise been ignored to great frustration, and there is now a strengthening of the independence movement.
The Conservative Party has always claimed to be the responsible party of security and law and order, of business, of prudent and competent management of the economy, and pro the Union, with the NHS safe in their hands. Nothing could now be further from the truth, and the Tories are now exposed as failing even on their own chosen turf. On law and order, their decimation of the police force by 20,000 officers and their abject failure to negotiate proper security arrangements with the EU during and after Brexit, and their reduction and semi-privatisation of the judicial system, leaves UK internal and external security weakened. Their reputation for supporting business has been destroyed by the way they ignored all advice and requests from business interests during the Brexit debates and negotiations, and by their neglect of the service and financial sectors. Their reputation for competent management of the economy is shattered by the mindless waste of taxpayer money that they have incurred in letting hugely expensive, wasteful and poorly contracted tasks out to the private sector during the Pandemic. And the NHS is not safe in Tory hands, as American Health companies buy up GP surgeries, NHS and Local Authority Health teams are bypassed during test and trace operations, and NHS interests are not protected in law during future trade negotiations with the USA.
Corruption reigns supreme in tory ranks
The Government abuses its power on a daily basis and has brought UK democracy to a new low. Johnson regularly lies to Parliament, without subsequent correction. Allegra Stratton, the Government’s new taxpayer-funded spokesperson, is now exposed as Johnson’s chief apologist, saying ‘he didn’t lie to Parliament’, and, ‘he is a feminist’, despite all evidence to the contrary. No minister ever resigns, or is sacked, despite being grossly inept (Williamson), corrupt (Jenrick, Hancock), a bully (Patel), a law-breaker (Hancock, Cummings), environmentally obtuse (Jenrick, Kwarteng, Eustice), or over-confrontational and inhumane (Patel). The House of Lords is packed with cronies, and contracts are handed out to cronies without competition. Freedom of Information requests are illegally rejected or ‘lost’. The list of corruption and breaches of democratic conventions is endless. Vote-rigging is now mainstream. Spin, lies, propaganda, tailored leaks and BBC hate reigns supreme. Public appointment scandals, breaches of Good-Governance codes and abuses of power occur daily. Lies, deceits and broken promises litter the news (unless you read the Daily Express), and trust in Government plummets.
Individually the cases are shocking enough, but collectively they constitute a sustained attack on honesty, decency, fairness and acceptable democratic behaviour within the United Kingdom. The corrupt and unprincipled Tory Party presides over a corrupt, unprincipled Government.
Whither the UK now?
Being a Party of Principle, and a Party of Populism, are incompatible, and the Tories have chosen the latter. A Party of Principle values honesty, decency, and truth-telling, and makes a serious attempt at least of representing and delivering for the whole country on an equal basis, and steering a path towards the best interests of the nation as a whole. This is the ideal behind ‘One Nation’ which the Tories used to claim for themselves, and a few Tories still do (Johnson does, but this is just part of his own deceitful self-promotion, as he lies about everything all the time and has no credibility). But there is little evidence of that cultural heritage in the current Tory Government or Party.
A Party of Populism rejects all Principle in favour of gaining and holding on to power at any price and by all available means whatever those means are. These include lying, cheating, deceit, playing and subverting the system, diversionary tactics, shameless propaganda, grandstanding, blaming the enemy and divide and rule. The Tory party are now corrupt through and through.
They are now stoking divisive wars with old and new enemies, which will give their media friends plenty to exclaim and write scandal about. Their favourite enemy is the EU, so there is unlikely to be a positive response to the EU Commission President’s offer to resolve issues through collaborative, pragmatic and constructive discussions. There are an infinite number of other new domestic enemies such as lefty lawyers, street protesters, free speech deniers, statue defacers, Nicola Sturgeon, devolved administrations, the BBC, people who don’t wave the Union Jack enough, university campuses and refugees and asylum seekers.
The new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, was moved to write recently in The Observer,
‘Our compass has slipped; we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that things can’t change, that this is just the way the world is. Politics has, I think, shrunk. There’s a loss of vision about what the world could be like’.
That’s putting it very mildly indeed.
The Conservative Party and Government are ruining this country, with their unnecessarily severe austerity, their diabolical Brexit, their incompetence and mismanagement of the pandemic, their lies, their wasteful expenditure of taxpayers money, their cronyism, their casual disrespect for the law, and their uncaring, dishonest, unfair, arrogant and anti-democratic behaviour. A Populist Government couldn’t care less about the citizens. The Opposition Parties, particularly the Labour Party, are desperately needed now to stand up much more strongly against these outrages and take the country in a much better direction.
Write to us at [email protected]