Populism and corruption this side of the Atlantic

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Boris Johnson the Populist – Source: The Conversation

Ed: After Paul Ryder’s riveting treatment of Populism and Corruption in Trump’s USA, which we featured in March, here is a condensed version of his sequel showing how the UK is equally threatened.

A right wing party moves further right

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 Conservative Prime Minister Johnson.

The UK Conservative Party has “gone rogue” after decades of moving further to the right, supported by a predominantly right-wing media, a few wealthy donors and an electoral system which favours the Tories. The underlying principles of Conservatism go back to Edmund Burke and were cemented by Margaret Thatcher as:

  1. Prioritising the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of the individual
  2. A small but powerful centralised state with limited welfare and public service obligations
  3. Low taxes
  4. Respect for the power and freedom of the market
  5. Minimised standards and regulations
  6. Strong law and order
  7. A strong attachment to their own idea of nationalism and patriotism

These seven principles have their pros and cons:

1Individualism encourages self-sufficiency and aspirationAssumes an ability to be muscular in pursuit of self-sufficiency
2A small state prevents over-dependencyA larger state can improve society and life chances for many
3Who wants to pay high taxes? Low taxes mean less funding for essential services and functions
4A free market encourages entrepreneurship, efficiency and enterpriseThe marketplace can become distorted so that unfair or inefficient practices dominate
5Too many standards and regulations can be suffocatingWell-designed standards and regulations improve the quality of life
6We all need to feel safe from law-breakersLaw and order can be misused to suppress minorities
7We all have some attachment to the idea of a national identityPatriotism is good; nationalism can be jingoistic, nativist and manipulated

Although most governments since 1945 have been Conservative, the 1942 Beveridge Report and the post-war Labour government laid the foundations for our welfare system and National Health Service. Thus we now have a mixed economy and a regulated free market.

Recently we had the Cameron “austerity” measures which moved the political dial to the right, by reducing the size of the state, limiting the role of local government and continuing the outsourcing of public services to the private sector. Strangely the old principles of “The Union” and “The Constitution” seem to be sidelined.


Populism is defined by Wikipedia as:

“… a range of political stances that emphasise the idea of ‘the people’ and often juxtapose this group against ‘the elite’”.

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 (sometimes falsely) that it can take power away from this invented enemy and use it on behalf of the ‘common people’.

The UK Conservative Party first used populism in the Brexit referendum campaign to counter the threat from UKIP and to appease the far-right ‘European Research Group’ (ERG). Populism needs a grievance (see David Hare in The New Statesman recently) and the sometimes fabricated anti-EU rhetoric fed that grievance. Even if nobody actually believed that 70 million Turks were threatening our shores, or that we could give our NHS £350m a week, the grievance was fed.

Sylvie Bermann, former French ambassador to UK, revealed in an interview with The Guardian about her recent book:

It was “the demagogues and the populists”, however, who got Brexit over the line

After the referendum, Theresa May tried to appease the ERG by drawing red lines which reinforced the claims of Tory populism and the concept of ‘sovereignty’ was introduced. The UK would withdraw from the Customs Union and the Single Market. However May’s Withdrawal Agreement was not enough for the populist far right and Boris Johnson was duly voted in as leader. Johnson had none of the democratic attributes needed in a Prime Minister but he was a populist and had the persona which populism could exploit.

The populist agenda required a trade deal which preserved Britain’s perceived ‘sovereignty’ and in no way presented the interests of the UK population. Sylvie Bermann again on this:

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’.

So after more than four years of negotiating, the deal struck was what the far-right of the Conservative Party wanted, namely:

  1. An end to freedom of movement from the EU and the basis for a new immigration policy
  2. The right to establish separate UK trade deals around the world
  3. The right to diverge from EU rules and regulations on health, workers rights, the environment and safety
  4. Escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
  5. The continuing ability to treat the EU as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong

Thus the populist agenda had achieved its goal.


Again looking to Wikipedia for a definition of ‘Corruption’ we read:

Corruption, as defined by the World Bank, is a form of dishonesty or criminal offense undertaken by a person or organization entrusted with a position of authority, to acquire illicit benefit or abuse power for one’s private gain.

As the Opposition Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said in April:

sleaze [is at] at the heart of government”.

At the start of the pandemic, emergency measures were invoked to accelerate the often tortuous government procurement process. However the number of VIP deals for PPE, which the Good Law Project claims threw the procurement process into chaos, were enough to elicit cries of ‘chumocracy’ and corruption. The numerous lies by this government exposed recently are symptoms of a deeper malaise of possible corruption.

Whither UK now?

I turn to two quotes from our church leaders. Firstly from Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who told 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.”

Then there was The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Easter message, urged people to choose a “better future for all”, rather than live in a society that only benefits the rich and powerful.

We can go on as before Covid, where the most powerful and the richest gain and so many fall behind. We have seen where that left us. Or we can … choose a better future for all.

As responsible citizens we must challenge both populism and corruption and fight for a transparent and honest government which has the interests of all its citizens at heart.

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