It was enough to make you puke. There on our TV screens was Nigel Farage, the boomerang President of UKIP, his ego already over-inflated, getting a further boost from the cheers of the Trump rally as he declared “We took on and beat the Establishment and so can you”. The grin with which he responded to their applause looked like the wagging of a mongrel’s tail as it chewed the bone thrown to it by his master.
Farage’s support for Trump was unequivocal, and placed him alongside Trump as one of the “populists of the Right”, who President Obama will have had in mind when he spoke in his final speech to the UN Assembly in New York recently.
While Farage has sought to distance himself from Trump following the allegations of the latter’s sexual harassment of a number of women, there have been no “ifs or buts” about his shared role as the enemy of the Establishment in their respective countries. Farage has yet to go as far as Trump, who has even attacked “the Establishment” of the Republican Party, whose Presidential candidate he happens to be, but that may be because he is not quite sure who is “the Establishment” in the current in-fighting for the future leadership of UKIP.
But are Trump and Farage really entitled to be described as “populists”, if you accept the dictionary definition of a populist as “a politician or other person who claims to support the interests of the ordinary people”?
Indeed, what we need to question is the looseness with which the term “populism” is used, or misused, in the media and elsewhere.
Commentators apply the term to describe any event or movement which appears to threaten or challenge the established government or traditional political parties in a given country, regardless as to whether such threats or challenges can be said truly to be in the interests of “the ordinary people”. It would be my contention that at the present time what has been happening in most of the countries where “populism” is manifesting itself is, in reality, moves to the Right, or Hard Right or neo-fascism. While the leaders of such movements may well claim to be acting in the interests of “ordinary people”, I would contend that they are anything but that.
In the second of this year’s Reith Lectures, Professor Kwame Appiah spoke of “the wave of Right Wing nationalism which is sweeping across Europe”, and it may be that that is a more appropriate term to apply than “populism”. That is why, before returning to what is happening in the UK and the USA, it is important to refer to developments in several parts of Europe.
In one or two cases they are not a recent development, but in most others much of it has been brought on by problems arising in the EU. The most serious challenge from the extreme Right comes in France. But the Front National has been in existence since 1972 and before it existed there were extreme right wing parties. Today, the Front National looks like being the leading party in next year’s Presidential election, but still likely to be thwarted by the other parties of Left and Right joining forces to defeat it in the second round. But unquestionably, the purging of its former leader, the Holocaust-denier Jean-Marie le Pen, by his own daughter has enhanced the appeal of the Front National while it retains its toxic policies. It is aided by the failure of the Hollande government to overcome the country’s serious unemployment and the threats and realities of terrorist activities.
In Austria the country is split down the middle and may well see the accession of the Hard Right to power, while in Sweden and Norway hard-right parties are in third place in each country, and in Norway are part of a coalition government. In Lithuania an anti-immigration party is now the largest in the country. Spain and Italy have also been undergoing considerable political upheaval, each with serious economic problems, and Portugal has also similar difficulties, though to a lesser extent.
It may be thought, and with some justification, that it was in Greece that the first eruption of “populism” in recent years was sparked off - by the massive opposition of most of its citizens to the severe austerity demanded by the EU as the price to be paid for saving the country from economic collapse. While the protests of the population caused major upheaval on the political front, including the emergence of a neo-fascist party, the population eventually had to accept the terms imposed by the EU – but unlike the National Front in France, the voters did not seek to leave the EU.
The big imponderable in the European context is what might yet happen in Germany, the biggest and most powerful economy in the EU. It has been the major influence on developments in the Community, but the first signs of growing dissatisfaction with the policies of the Merkel Government have arisen over the decision to adopt a liberal policy in respect of the entry of immigrants, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. This has resulted in severe defeats of the Christian Democrats in a number of recent elections, leading to speculation about the outcome of next year’s Federal elections. Should they result in the defeat of the Christian Democrats and the failure to install another coalition Government, the whole future of the EU could be threatened. At present that does not look likely to happen, but in this time of shock election and referendum results such a major change cannot be ruled out.
The same applies, at the time of writing, to the situation in the USA. The general prediction based on most opinion polls is that Hillary Clinton will be elected President, but such is the unpredictability of the behaviour of her rival, Donald Trump, that he might yet succeed in closing the gap between the two candidates, who are both about equally unpopular with the American voters. Should Trump win this would surely be the biggest political shock in decades, and it would leave the citizens, as well as the politicians, of the rest of the world aghast and, to put it mildly, very apprehensive.
That view would seem to be shared by leading figures in the Republican Party, many of whom have decided to withhold their support for Trump. Yet that view is reportedly not shared by millions of American voters and one needs to understand why.
Trump has recognised that millions of Americans have suffered, and are still suffering, the effects of the recent Recession and the effects of globalisation on many formerly prosperous parts of the country. He points to the derelict mills and steel plants, and the areas where many jobs have been lost, and tells the people that he will “bring the jobs back”. He tells them that he will “make America great again”, though at the same time proposing cuts in taxation, much of which goes on the maintenance of America’s military might.
For the blue collar workers and others who have lost the jobs and who feel that the “politicians” have no concern for them, Trump’s promises appear to them to offer hope, even though Trump has produced no evidence of his ability to reverse the effects of globalisation and de-industrialisation. It would seem that it is enough for them that Trump declares he is on their side, that he is for “the silent majority” and “the little people”, and that he is “not a politician”.
In a country where there is, in any case, an ongoing battle between individual States and Washington and the Federal Government, it is Trump’s stance as the enemy of “the Establishment”, even that of his own Party, that millions of Americans warm to, even more than many of them warmed to the near anarchy of the Tea Party.
Although he does not define who “the Establishment” are, or whether he will have an Establishment of his own should he become President, he wants the “little people” to know that he stands with them against the combined forces of all those they consider responsible for America’s lost greatness and their lost jobs and fallen living standards. In one of his campaign advertisements he says “The establishment, the media, the special interest, the lobbyists, the donors, they’re all against me. I’m self-funding my campaign. I don’t owe anybody anything. I only owe it to the American people to do a great job. They are really trying to stop me.”
The revelation that, in spite of his much publicised riches, he has not paid Federal income tax for years (because he is “smart”) appears not to lessen his appeal, and in any case he contrasts with the “crookedness” of Hillary Clinton, who is still enmeshed in controversy over her e-mails.
Not content with his denunciation of “the Establishment”, Trump also indulges in “scapegoating” those sections of the population who he thinks contributed to America’s decline. For him the principal targets are Mexicans and Muslims, rather than the more generalised scapegoating of “immigrants” which is happening in Europe, doubtless because that is likely to be less popular in a country built on immigration.
If there is one redeeming aspect of what is arising in the course of this utterly crucial election, it is the surprisingly high level of support that was given to Bernie Sanders, the 74 year old senator for Vermont. He sought support as a democratic Socialist, and posed an unexpectedly high challenge to Hillary Clinton. It is to be hoped that his supporters will give Hillary Clinton the backing she needs to offset her unpopularity, and that subsequently may proceed to build a major new force to overcome the deep divisions now so apparent in America. In that connection it is also to be hoped that the “millennial” voters (those voting for the first time), who are being reported as alienated by what has been happening in the election campaign to the extent of not wanting to vote for either of the main candidates, will nevertheless decide to vote. If such alienation was to become widespread it could lead to the undermining of the democratic process of which Bruce Springsteen spoke in a recent BBC interview.
That alienation from the democratic process could also develop in this country and other parts of Europe if, on the one hand, voters feel that they are taken for granted, and on the other cynicism spreads about politics and politicians.
Much was said about this in the wake of the EU Referendum result. Given that the majority for Brexit was considered to be a shock result, an explanation offered frequently in many quarters was that it had happened because many voters felt that for too long they had been ignored or taken for granted by politicians and that the referendum gave them a chance to put the politicians in their place. Theresa May did not describe this as an outbreak of “popularism”, but as “a quiet revolution” and one that had to be heeded. Jeremy Corbyn said, in respect of the surge in Labour Party membership, that it was evidence of “people looking for a new way of doing politics”. However, that could hardly be seen as an explanation of the extent to which parts of the country normally considered “Labour strongholds”, such as South Wales and the North East, voted in favour of Brexit, contrary to the policy of the Labour Party. That must surely be of concern to Labour, and evidence of the extent to which UKIP is winning support in such areas.
UKIP is, of course, an opportunist party, and it is reported that candidates for the Party are looking to win support from former Labour and/or Conservative voters. In this connection it can be seen as evidence of UKIP’s success with its calls to “give us back our government” and “give us back our laws” in the Referendum campaign. Those calls, repeated in the media by those proposing to vote for Brexit, showed how easily many could be misled. They seemed to show no awareness that virtually all the measures which were causing, or would be likely to cause harm, especially to the worse off, had nothing to do with the EU but were wholly home produced. The cuts in tax credits, the bedroom tax, the cuts to disability allowance, the staff shortages in the NHS and other public services, and the failure to launch a major public housing programme, were all the responsibility of our own Government, and in no way due to immigrants.
While Nigel Farage might not match Donald Trump in outrageous demagogy, he and his party activists match him in “scapegoating”. Unlike Trump, their scapegoats are the immigrants, and their success in this was reflected in the many times Brexit supporters were heard saying that immigrants are taking our jobs, our school places, our hospital services. There are undoubtedly problems in some parts of the country arising from an influx of immigrants, and these problems must be dealt with, but there are also parts of our public services, and especially of the NHS, that would be in danger of collapse but for the employment of personnel from other countries, EU and non-EU.
It also has to be recognised that the recent upsurge of concern about the “influx” of immigrants has not been due so much to our membership of the EU but to the wars in the Middle-East and parts of Africa. It is the plight of millions fleeing from these wars that has caused many tragic scenes and unremitting pressures which are beyond the control of our government and others throughout Europe, and none of that will be solved by attacks on “the Establishment” and the scapegoating of immigrants.
The reason for my contention that the attitudes and actions of the so-called “populists” are not “in the interests of the ordinary people” is my belief that the promoting of cynicism about politics and politicians (notwithstanding the shortcomings of some of them) could lead to the undermining of the whole democratic process.
And it is politics and that process which underlies and promotes the life and vitality of modern society. Without the readiness to share or support the collective effort and willingness to share responsibility and sovereignty, life as we expect to live it would become impossible. It is no answer to say that that would never happen in a democracy because “the ordinary people” would stop it.
If one needs to learn anything from history, it is worth recalling what happened in Germany in the 30’s when Hitler came to power. He did not seize power or resort to force. He was elected by German voters, and one of the principal means by which he sought their votes was fierce and sustained scapegoating of the Jews, at whose door he sought to lay the blame for all the hardships being endured by the German people. Today’s “scapegoaters” have no aims remotely comparable to those of Hitler, but the technique can not only create dangerous divisions in our communities but eventually endanger our democracy.