Hoping that the fall of the UK prime minister will kill off populism is wishful thinking as a global recession looms
Some people seem to hope that the fall of UK prime minister Boris Johnson represents, if not the end, then at least the beginning of the end of a fractious, divisive age.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s former Brexit coordinator, is one of them. Last week he crowed: “Boris Johnson's reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump. The end of an era of transatlantic populism? Let's hope so.”
That seems to be Dublin’s hope too: that sensible, middle-ground politics is reasserting itself after the craziness of recent years. They would date the craziness back to 2016 — when Britain voted to leave the EU, and a few months later the US elected Trump as president.
Those celebrating the end of populism should probably put the party on ice. They said the same when Joe Biden got into the White House. It wasn’t true then either.
Centrist politicians may keep wishing that populism runs out of steam. It would save them from having to develop a strategy to counter it.
But the belief that the interests of ordinary people are disregarded by (as one definition puts it) “incompetent, corrupt and self-serving” political and economic elites has deep and durable roots — and it’s difficult to understand why anyone expects it to go into reverse.
The effects of the financial crash are still playing out more than a decade on. People’s incomes remain fragile. Growth is stagnant. Rising inflation looks unstoppable. The cost of living crisis is getting worse by the week, and is set to get even worse. The economic projections are terrifying.
Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight last week, money-saving expert Martin Lewis warned of a “very, very bleak winter” ahead, with up to 10 million people in the UK “moving into severe levels of poverty” due to rising prices.
“We are getting close to a position of… civil unrest,” Lewis predicted.
It’s already happening in other parts of Europe. Dutch farmers are threatening to bring the country to a standstill. Similar mass protests look set to get underway in Italy.
Meanwhile, in Ireland last week, the ESRI published a stark report that was summarised grimly on the front page of the Irish Independent under the headline: ‘Generation Rent faces an old age of poverty’.
To inflict electoral carnage, the Opposition need only put that on a poster at the next election — and hang it in constituencies where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs are vulnerable.
Because it’s not just UK Tories who are at sea. Complacent centrist parties everywhere are drifting dangerously.
How is this going to get anything but worse for the political establishment? As one writer put it last week with astonishing understatement: “Trying to win elections against the backdrop of everybody becoming poorer in real terms is hard.”
That’s why, across Europe, populists remain ascendant. Parties considered far left and far right both made gains in the recent French elections. The largest single party in Italy right now is the Brothers of Italy, some of whose members openly admire Mussolini. Biden is in trouble in US states which the Democrats need to win in 2024.
Everywhere, dissatisfaction festers — and it all keeps coming back to the central idea that elites don’t represent the people. And are those who argue that really wrong to do so?
Globalisation brought many benefits, but it suppressed wages for all but a privileged technocratic class — and now they too face the runaway inflation that reduces the real value of household incomes still further.
This waiting storm was exacerbated when Covid lockdowns devastated Western economies — keeping people isolated, indoors, glued to screens where their fears were amplified.
As political scientist Vernon Bogdanor argued in the Financial Times last week, the economic crash “weakened class feeling while strengthening national solidarity” — much as it did in the 1930s, following the Wall Street crash.
One doesn’t have to buy into the idea that there is a new fascism on the rise, to be concerned.
It’s happening in Ireland as well, with the rise of Sinn Féin. That party also peddles the populist idea that mainstream politicians have no moral legitimacy, even when democratically elected, because they don’t serve the needs of ordinary struggling people.
Some in Sinn Féin are happy to embrace the populist label. In 2013, Eoin Ó Broin, their housing spokesman, published an essay, ‘In Defence Of Populism’, in which he explained how the party’s “entire political project” is populist, and “unashamedly so”.
As long as it was “progressive”, he was happy to own the populist label.
Asked for comment at the time, Sinn Féin officially denied they were populists — and the way the term has become tied to Brexit and Trump in the years since has probably made them even more wary of the label.
But any objective analysis of the Sinn Féin project would have to conclude Ó Broin was correct, not only in his description of his party’s appeal, but in his belief that “populism isn’t a flash-in-the-pan thing. It’s here to stay for quite some time.”
In a way, populism has been held back because the men who became its figureheads (Trump and Johnson) weren't up to the job. They had flawed personal characters, and also didn't actually do much of substance with their huge mandates.
Johnson was mocked recently for saying he intended to serve three full terms as PM. Clearly by that point it was a deluded ambition — but it wasn’t in December 2019, when he won the Tories’ largest electoral majority for 30 years. The next decade was his to dominate.
Sympathetic biographers will say Covid derailed his premiership, and there is some truth to that. But his own flaws would have undone him anyway.
Part of his appeal in 2019 was that his disdain for convention chimed with a public tired of the status quo. They wanted change, even if they didn’t know what that change should look like.
In the end, his carelessness tripped him up. He was never one for details, but details matter.
Still, this doesn’t mean other leaders in the same vein won’t emerge to take his place — and they may even be worse.
Populism can easily shift into authoritarianism, and Covid showed that there is an appetite for strong, paternalistic government.
The idea that any country is immune to these trends — Ireland included — is farcical. Populism has a long way to go before it’s done.
The fall of Boris Johnson isn’t the end of populism, or even the beginning of the end. It may only be the end of the beginning of a new and daunting and unpredictable phase.