Is Britain ready for a populist prime minister?

The forces of nationalism are on the rise around the world. They could carry a demagogue to Downing Street

Could he be the British Trump? Boris Johnson has confirmed his interest in running for the Tory leadership when the beleaguered Theresa May steps down this summer.

On the day that Britain was supposed to leave the European Union, the far-right gathered in Westminster. From a stage overlooking the Houses of Parliament, the Islamophobic campaigner Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—better known as Tommy Robinson—ranted about betrayal and humiliation, dismissed as traitors those MPs who opposed Brexit, and issued a warning that there would be trouble if “the will of people” was not respected. As night fell, the mood turned ugly. Some in the crowd of several thousand turned on journalists, while others went on a minor rampage through town. Several arrests were made.

The far-right is on the rise. In the past three years, one MP has been murdered by a far-right activist and a plot to murder another was uncovered, while a man radicalised online launched a murderous attack on Muslims in London, killing one and injuring many more. Robinson has gained notoriety, helped by parts of a media that has covered his rise with barely disguised fascination. Standing as an independent in the European elections he is also an adviser to the leader of Ukip, Gerard Batten, helping to turn what is now Nigel Farage’s former party into an unambiguously far-right force.

We are living in a dangerous moment. We have a white nationalist president in the US; a deputy prime minister in Italy who promises a census of people of Roma descent and stirs up hatred towards immigrants; anti-semitic leaders in Poland and Hungary; a deputy leader in Austria warning about migration by using the far-right term “population replacement;” ministers in Estonia flashing a “white power” sign while being sworn in; a fascist senator in Australia talking about a “final solution” for Muslims; and success for prominent far-right politicians in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France and most recently Spain.

Britain is not immune. More than a decade of scandals and crises, from the Iraq war to the financial crash and the expenses scandal, have destroyed trust in our institutions, ensuring that politics in the paranoid style has no shortage of potential targets. From a referendum that whipped up fear of foreigners and immigrants to the messy failure of the Conservative Party to deliver on the vote, Brexit has created a ready-to-use stab-in-the-back myth. Nine in 10 respondents tell Sky Data that Britain has been “humiliated,” while trust in politicians has become so low that in a recent survey by the Hansard Society, more than half of voters said that Britain now “needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules.”

It’s easy to worry about Tommy Robinson, street thuggery and the new-and-nastier Ukip. But the real threat may look more respectable. When nativist populism comes to Britain it will be wrapped in the flag and, very likely, holding a Conservative Party membership card. And it might just have a mop of unkempt blond hair.

Former English Defence League leader and prominent far-right figure, Tommy Robinson.

Boris Johnson can take or leave bigotry, depending on whether it grabs a giggle or any other advantage. He is urbane when he wants to be, but his back-catalogue of jibes about “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles” attests to an ability to snap into a very different mode if the moment requires it—not to mention his chilling quip in 2017, while foreign secretary, about how the Libyan city of Sirte could become a Dubai-style beach resort once they “clear the dead bodies away.” And he is the overwhelming favourite with the Conservative Party membership.

The Daily Telegraph, which of course publishes Johnson’s columns, opined recently that if, after Theresa May finally quits the scene, the Tories are “to survive they need a populist leader.” It is not only Johnson, but also virtually every other hopeful who is dabbling in populist posturing—from Jeremy Hunt likening Brussels to Cold War Moscow to Sajid Javid cheerfully stripping citizenship from Shamima Begum.

Elderly, overwhelmingly white, and driven to an uncharacteristically intemperate rage by the failure on Brexit, the Tory grassroots who are set to choose the next leader are likely to follow the Telegraph’s advice. Britain would then, ironically without the populace being consulted, have its first populist prime minister. So how worried should we be? Would there really be any connection between those braying street mobs on the cancelled Brexit day and the populist premiership that is in prospect?

Us v them

A great deal, of course, hinges on definitions. As a political epithet, “populism” often signals little more than the distaste of the person who uses it. It is a label that gets slapped on everything from socialist economics in the Jeremy Corbyn mould, to immigrant-baiting à la Donald Trump, and sometimes folksy centrists too.

Besides, to court popularity is not in itself a fault in a democracy. And while some politicians can do so without lapsing into the distinctive “us versus them” populist style, others including those among the greatest and most progressive of leaders have used that style (just glance at any of Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches). After a crisis of high finance translated into a decade of stagnant pay, a dash of populism against the bankers is only to be expected, and could even be healthy.

It is not the populist style in itself that’s the problem, however, but the deployment of the style in pursuit of arrogant and divisive nationalism. The issue lies in the definition of “us” as the “real people,” whom Farage in his beer-fuelled referendum victory speech claimed to be those who had voted Leave, and the “them” as all those minorities deemed insufficiently integrated to belong, plus their supposed protectors in the elite.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. His new Brexit party is expected to perform well in the forthcoming European elections.

Add a dash of authoritarianism and nostalgia for lost greatness, and it’s a potent mix that has already shown how it can play havoc with established politics in Trump’s United States. And this mix, which for brevity I’ll refer to simply as populist in the rest of this piece, is the one in which it is not just Farage but also Johnson and his rivals sniff opportunity.

What distinguishes the outright far-right from mainstream populism in this mould is not ideas, but sociology—and attitude. Robinson flouted the law by filming people involved in criminal trials, getting locked up and painting himself as a martyr. Farage, who couldn’t be bothered to walk the distance on his own Brexit Betrayal March, is not cut from the same fanatical cloth; nor, more obviously, is Johnson, a profoundly frivolous man on every question apart from his own advancement. While Robinson cultivates working-class street supporters with nothing left to lose, Farage and Tory populists mostly draw their strength from anxieties in the suburbs and golf clubs about clinging on to what you’ve got.

Intellectually, and rhetorically, however, the distinction is not clean-cut: at rallies for his new Brexit Party, Farage speaks in the same language as Robinson, describing May’s Brexit deal as the sort of agreement signed only by a country “defeated in war.” While Farage has been careful in his latest iteration to avoid anything that could be construed as racist, his record suggests this is a matter of tactics, not conviction. This is a man who in the recent past raged darkly about hearing too many foreign languages on the train, said he didn’t want to live next door to Romanians and floated the idea of internment camps for Muslims.

Deepening the confusion further are the curve-ball policies many populists throw. Marine Le Pen’s economic platform is in some ways to the left of the mainstream. Sometimes they can even sound liberal on social policy. The Dutch far-right, first under Pim Fortuyn, then Geert Wilders and most recently with Thierry Baudet, whose party won March’s provincial elections, have long backed gay rights. Why? Because it allows them to argue that Muslims don’t accept “our” way of life. Baudet, incidentally, deploys Latin quotations, has written columns in established newspapers, and yet still rails against the elites.

As Farage’s new vehicle eats into the Tory vote, the attraction of wading into the culture wars—and winning those votes back—will only increase. Being up against a Labour leader who doesn’t sing the national anthem, believes the monarchy should be scrapped and is iffy in his support for the armed forces only redoubles the temptation. The itch is already being scratched.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, has taken to promoting speeches by the leader of the Germany’s hard-right Alternative für Deutschland. Both he and Johnson have been in contact with Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who is now trying to build a far-right network across Europe. Two weeks after it emerged that the former foreign secretary had been talking to Bannon, Johnson wrote his now-notorious article branding Muslim women in burkas as “bank robbers” who look like “letter boxes.” Islamophobic abuse spiked in the immediate aftermath according to the Muslim civil rights group Tell Mama.

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is trying to build a far-right network across Europe.

Nor should we forget that while the unofficial Farage-led Leave.EU campaign was more openly xenophobic, Johnson himself happily promoted fears about Turkey joining and a spike of Muslim immigration following. He understands the pull of nostalgia, whether that is defending the empire, or bringing back the Routemaster bus to London. He also has a decidedly Trump-like relationship with the truth: presentation counts for more than reality. While he was mayor of a capital city with a serious air pollution problem, a sticky salt spray was used to take dust from the atmosphere right next to monitoring stations.

But regardless of whether it is Johnson or someone else who triumphs in the end, everything points—says Conservative Party historian Tim Bale—to this being the “most populist campaign for the Tory leadership” ever. “Most candidates will be sensible enough to steer clear of explicit Islamophobia,” he suggests, “but there will be an unmistakable sense of us versus them.” The stage seems set for a programme of authoritarianism, nativism and—perversely, given the educational backgrounds of most of the main contenders—anti-elitism arriving in No 10.

British jobs for British workers”

While modern Britain may not have had a government whose animating mission is nativism before, neither racism—or the temptation to pander to it—are anything new. Both parties have dabbled in it, and so created the conditions in which populism could now flourish. Labour’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968, described by the writer Kenan Malik as the “most nakedly racist piece of legislation of postwar years,” prevented Kenyan Asians threatened with expulsion coming to Britain, despite holding British passports. While Ted Heath sacked Enoch Powell from his frontbench for his lurid predictions about rivers of blood, a decade later Margaret Thatcher pointedly dropped in the word “swamped” when discussing migration, in the face of a National Front surge.

Immigration from the EU may have increased under New Labour, but the party’s stance on asylum seekers was often incendiary. In one of many “crackdowns,” the Home Secretary John Reid claimed in 2007 that “foreigners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits.” Two years later, Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers,” a slogan previously found on BNP leaflets.

But there is a difference between a populist slogan and adopting an overarching populist narrative. This, too, has been tried before—but only in opposition. In the run-up to the 2001 general election, William Hague was desperate. Unable to find a winning argument on the economy or public services Hague, Bale recalls, “moved onto unashamedly populist territory, resulting in a series of authoritarian and nativist interventions.”

Three months before polling day, Hague made a speech, asking his audience to “let me take you to a foreign land,” the supposedly unrecognisable country that would be produced by another four years of Tony Blair. “Talk about asylum and they call you racist,” he said. “Talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders.” Bale judges that “in a blind taste-test,” this could “quite easily have come from the leader of a radical right-wing populist party.”

But Hague, of course, failed. So, too, did his intermittently populist successors, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, whose most-talked about billboard asserted “it’s not racist to talk about immigration,” before winking “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” The Tories only managed to return to power once David Cameron corrected the course after 2005. The last best way to pull the next Tory leader back from populism might be to persuade them it will not work. But is that any longer true?

More liberal, less white, still a bit racist

This sort of deep demographic change is supposed to inoculate the body politic against the lure of populism. The same assumption has often been made in the US. As Paul Mason recalls in his new book, Clear Bright Future, the Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg told him and a group of other journalists in 2016 that a new American majority—which Greenberg defines as including single women, Hispanics and others—would inevitably lead to Hillary Clinton winning the White House. We all know what happened next. But why?

Things were never meant to play out like this. Britain is incomparably better educated, and more diverse than it was a generation ago, as new research by the political scientists Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford underlines. When Blair took office in 1997 more than 60 per cent of English residents were white and poorly educated, leaving school with fewer than five GCSEs. Two decades on, that figure was less than 40 per cent; conversely, the proportion who are graduates, ethnic minorities or both rose from 17 to 40 per cent.

One undoubted part of the story—and a big difference with the 1990s—is that the mainstream seems out of ideas for bettering the lot of ordinary people. The model that was supposed to deliver prosperity went pop in 2008, and the self-appointed “grown ups” still haven’t decided what they think might fit in its place. After nine years in government, the Conservatives feel the lack of any positive offer particularly keenly: cuts to education are biting in a serious way, the NHS is palpably over-stretched, and despite May trumpeting of the end of austerity, the arithmetic reality for town halls is still tight budgets for as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile the Conservatives no longer seem to think their traditional trump card is worth playing. As Stian Westlake, a former government adviser has recently written, a party that was once defined by its economic policy has stopped talking about economics. When Johnson’s own most eye-catching line on this turf has been “fuck business,” it’s best not to hold your breath for a coherent economic message any time soon.

The election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 buoyed white nationalism across the West.

Into this void, the immediate lure of nationalism is that it gives the party something to say. But the new populism also has deeper social roots. Every revolution is, after all, met with a counter-revolution. As Sobolewska and Ford explain, “demographic change is slow, and large sections of the electorate are uncomfortable with identity change and rising diversity.” An angry, older voting bloc frustrated at what they see as a country changing too fast, could be strong enough to win one election, particularly in an atmosphere poisoned by a Brexit debate that Sobolewska and Ford warn “could further politicise and polarise those identity politics divisions,” sparking a culture war.

There is a reason why racism, especially if carefully packaged, is not necessarily a career-ending electoral strategy: a significant minority of Britons remain racist. For all the social progress Britain has made, according to a report by NatCen, which produces the British Social Attitudes survey, just over a quarter of Britons admit to being “racially prejudiced,” and—as the report also delicately notes—that figure is likely an underestimate given that “prejudice is not generally perceived as a positive characteristic.” What’s more, over 40 per cent of Britons believe that some ethnic groups are “born less hard-working,” and one in five believe they are “born less intelligent.”

Then there is the country’s uniquely problematic attitude towards its Muslim population. A significant minority of Britons—28 per cent in a Pew Research survey, 40 per cent in a YouGov survey—admit to unfavourable or negative views towards Muslims. In a 2016 Populus survey, more than half of those polled said there was a “fundamental clash” between Islam and the values of British society.

Could he be Britain’s first Muslim Prime Minister? Home secretary Sajid Javid.

Pundits and academics can pussyfoot around and describe voters as “diversity sceptic” and “identity conservatives.” This sort of language is great for the populists, allowing them to pose as moderates: some diversity is fine, they can say, but let’s not go overboard. For minority ethnic Britons, such pandering to prejudice poses dangers that the writer Afua Hirsch has poignantly summed up, when she describes how she finds herself invited onto television and radio programmes to debate race issues: “There’s this need to put me on against a racist as if racism is a legitimate opinion,” she said. “If we were talking about the problem of rape, you wouldn’t have me on with a pro-rape activist.”

The moral force of her argument is undeniable. The urgent task though, in pulling the Tories back from the populist brink, is to persuade them that they might be supported by an electoral logic too.

A tolerant future?

Fortunately, many Tory MPs are sceptical, fearing that populism could ultimately prove a cul-de-sac for the Conservatives. “A younger generation of people have stopped voting Conservative en masse,” one former cabinet minister told me. Populist rhetoric, they said, “simply makes no sense.” Another senior parliamentarian described the current direction as “madness.” The parliamentary party—battered, bruised and horrendously split—could now be one of the strongest anti-populist bulwarks. It mostly accepts the socially liberal orthodoxy, from support for gay marriage to opposition to the death penalty.

The other bulwark is the electorate. The Conservatives might discover that electing a populist leader doesn’t work for the same reasons as it didn’t in 2001 and 2005—there may not be enough votes. Authoritarianism may appeal to some traditional Labour voters, but it always did, and yet they have come out for their tribe on polling day because, in the end, their concerns about work, wages and public services have counted for more than crime, immigration or race. At the same time, the emphasis on populist policies could lead to some liberal Tory voters deserting the party.

For all the nastiness of the present moment, and despite a stubborn residual of prejudiced views, there is no denying Britain has become more tolerant. Our views on gender and sexuality have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. In 1987, 48 per cent of Britons believed that “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family,” while just 33 per cent disagreed. By 2017, just 8 per cent agreed and 72 per cent disagreed. In 1985 just 12 per cent of the population believed that same-sex relationships were “not wrong at all”—by 2016 that had risen to 64 per cent.

As for ethnic diversity, “what’s changed,” Ford says referring to both Britain and America, “is that an intolerant minority has seen its intolerance mobilised by Trump and his British equivalents.” This minority is large, “perhaps a third of the electorate,” but it is also shrinking which is why the populist mobilisation is “always defensive in tone, pitched to voters who rightly fear that they are losing the argument.” Crunch decades of data and what you find is, Ford attests, “a grindingly slow but inexorable shift towards greater tolerance in every new generation. It looks no more reversible than the death of the cohorts that came before.”

Cameron embraced this change. The number of ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats increased dramatically, he apologised for his party’s past support for homophobic legislation and for siding with South Africa’s apartheid regime rather than Nelson Mandela’s ANC. Tory support among BAME voters rose dramatically, reaching 33 per cent in 2015, votes which helped the Conservatives to win a majority for the first time in more than two decades. At that point, the virtues of tolerance seemed like a political no-brainer.

Former Tory leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Elections, however, are choices. It is soothing to be told by political scientists that populism is bound to fail because there is no majority of voters who would back such policies. Liberal America comforted itself in a similar way in 2016. Many of those who voted for Trump actually disagreed with him on race, immigration and his attitude towards women—they just hated his opponent more. If it’s Johnson versus Corbyn, a mirror image scenario could play out here, particularly as the Labour leader’s own inability to deal with anti-semitism could compromise any counter-attack over racism.

Whatever the demographics, if politics is about us versus them, there always needs to be a them. Populism has become a force in other countries casting foreigners and immigrants in that role. There is nothing special about Britain that means the same cannot happen here. – Prospect.

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