The rise of Trump and the shock of Brexit have set the chattering classes to lamenting the rise of ‘populism’. What they decline to understand is that these upheavals happen when voters realise governments are not their servants but insufferable masters. Populism is what comes next
Is there a spectre threatening Europe? That was the question put to a panel (on which I served) at Joao Espada’s twentieth annual Estoril Political Forum on the Portuguese coast in late June. The Forum is always an important event because its founder, Professor Joao Espada of the Catholic University of Portugal, takes great care to ensure that the speakers represent the full range of respectable political opinion in the Euro-Atlantic world and that an atmosphere of good-humoured tolerance suffuses the most contentious debates.
How different, how very, very different from the home life of our own dear university vice-chancellors.
As a result of Professor Espada’s stewardship, those who have attended earlier conferences—they include some of the brightest students from good universities on both sides of the Atlantic—are among the very few people not astonished by such events as the British vote for Brexit or the defeat of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France’s election. The freer and more open the debate, the better informed both the debaters and their audience will be.
On this occasion the speakers were quick to agree that a spectre was threatening Europe, if only because there is always a spectre threatening Europe (indeed usually several). On this occasion “populism” was the spectre they had in mind. But other spectres were on hand.
When Karl Marx coined the phrase in the Communist Manifesto, the spectre he saw threatening Europe was communism itself. Two or three years ago, we might have assumed that this spectre belonged strictly to the history books. Surely 1989 and memories of the ruin that communism had inflicted on Russia and Europe—not to mention China and Asia—would guard us effectively against returning to it. But if memories are short, the memories of people born after 1989 don’t exist at all.
Accordingly, communist ideas—generally deriving from softer forms of communism such as Trotskyism rather than Leninism—have revived in Greece, in Spain, in Italy, and most recently in Britain where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the surprise celebrity-hero of the recent election by coming second. These new Left movements have been rendered less threatening culturally, moreover, by the success of playwrights and screenwriters such as Dario Fo, author of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, whose fun-anarchism is the main ideological inspiration of the Five Star movement. The modern social democratic state has played its part too by accustoming people to following bureaucratic instructions to obtain free goods. To borrow what Marx said of history: communism repeats itself—the first time as genocide, the second time as therapy.
All this has meant that Corbyn is regarded by the young left-wingers who cheered him at the Glastonbury pop festival as Gandalf—a gentle white-bearded leader of humble country folk against the dark satanic mills of corporate Toryism and into a promised land. That’s to be expected at a pop festival perhaps. But his name is winning cheers and debates at the literary festivals where older, centrist and moderately Tory audiences generally fill the hall. And then most ordinary voters simply tune out Tory themes that despite his grandfatherly looks, Corbyn is a dangerous radical leftist.
Consider the positions he has taken both now and over the years. Today, he wants an end to “austerity” and greatly increased public spending at a time when Britain has very high levels of public debt. Such policies would risk the kind of stagflation that in the 1970s compelled the then-Labour government to call in the IMF for help. They would also require massive tax increases on people at all levels of income.
Second, he is soft not on communism only but on almost all the enemies of Britain and, more broadly, the West, including radical Islamists. He will almost never issue an unqualified condemnation of a terrorist atrocity, instead preferring to condemn the violence “on both sides”. On such grounds he maintained a friendly relationship with the Provisional IRA when it was bombing London and Manchester and murdering the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland. He has since refused to retreat from that support.
Third, following the recent election and the Grenfell Tower fire, which made a febrile political atmosphere even more unstable, Corbyn talked loosely about “requisitioning” the houses of the absent rich for rehousing people made homeless by the fire. He urged people to hold protest marches against the government. He predicted that he would be in power within six months.
Given that Theresa May is unlikely to hold an election in the next six months, how is this going to be brought about? Almost certainly it’s little more than loose talk in an over-excited post-election atmosphere. But it increases the sense that Corbynite socialism is an unsettling force in an already unsettled politics.
Finally, Corbyn has followed the venerable leftist tradition of giving moral support to socialist dictatorships in the developing world, in his case Venezuela. And that may have doomed him.
Venezuela’s collapse into both extreme poverty, including shortages of basic foods and medicine, and violent mass repression has led to calls for Corbyn to disavow his backing of President Maduro. He followed his usual practice of blaming both Maduro and the opposition, both perpetrator and victim—and in addition the fall in oil prices. He is losing his halo in consequence, and will probably enter into a gradual decline as a political leader.
He will remain a spectre for some time, however, but a communist spectre, not a populist one. Corbyn belongs to a long-standing tradition in British politics: the “Keep Left” wing of the Labour Party that in normal times is distrusted by the rest of the party as not fully committed to democracy because it wants socialism at all costs. It serves no good purpose to place him in the ranks of populism, which is anyway a protean and shifty term.
Populism is usually seen as a set of political ideas that are personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the “regime of the parties”, and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis. If that’s so, then the most successful populist leader in Europe today is President Macron of France, who left the Socialists, condemned all the traditional parties as corrupt, set up his own movement loyal to him personally (En Marche = Emmanuel Macron), and was elected on a manifesto blending pro-business and left-wing rhetoric.
Of course, Macron is nothing like a populist. The EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker has even hailed his election as the beginning of the end of populism. Juncker is surely right. Not only is Macron a banker and a former cabinet minister, but he also embraced policies that represent the opinions and interests not of “the people” but of the European and French establishments. Its major provisions include multiculturalism, open borders, an EU banking union, and a kind of militant Euro-nationalism. This is a strong and radical agenda, but not a populist one.
Macron represents a very different spectre, namely the spectre of utopianism—or the pursuit of ambitious high-minded policies that will almost inevitably arouse opposition and run up against political realities. His commitment to the euro, for instance, goes to the extent of wanting a single finance minister for the eurozone that would then evolve into a transfer union with “mutualisation” of debts.
Germans—who would presumably be Macron’s partners in this bold approach—would naturally like the idea of imposing fiscal discipline upon unruly eurozone countries. But they are determined to avert debt mutualisation which, as they see it, would amount to giving Greece and Italy the keys to the German treasury at the very moment when the UK will have opted out of subsidising Europe.
Macron’s proposed labour market reforms already face strong union opposition as his popularity falls. But perhaps his most utopian instincts are a passionate multiculturalism, a post-nationalism, and support for continued mass immigration. He seems to believe in the limitless capacity of France to absorb more migrants and more cultures to the extent of saying (in the election campaign) that “there is no such thing as French culture”.
Others see a very different France—a country divided bitterly between the native-born and migrants, facing another surge of illegal migration from the Mediterranean, disturbed by constant acts of terrorism. Scores of automobiles are burned in the major cities, the spread of “no go areas” continues steadily, and the imposition of Muslim rules on both Muslims and others living in these areas becomes increasingly oppressive.
Ominously for Macron, Marine Le Pen won 44 per cent of the vote of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds in the election—the largest share she garnered from any age group. So the next five years could see two versions of young France—a minority-multicultural one swollen by migration, and a native-nationalist one swollen by the arrival of a post-colonial-guilt generation—who find themselves on opposite sides of a worsening political divide. It is hard to see any of this working out well.
So where does the spectre of populism come into this picture? As this column has argued before, populism is what happens when the voters realise that governments are making their lives insupportable with their grand ambitious schemes of “change”. Populism is what comes next.