Monday 21 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'The beginning of the end for populism'

Political centre must learn lessons of populism which began, and may end, with Trump and Johnson

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

It started with Donald Trump and Brexit and so it will end. In a decade's time we will look back on last week as the moment populism as a political movement died.

For that to eventually happen, other events must also occur. For two: capitalism must renew its purpose other than to further enrich the wealthy; and agreed regulation must be brought to bear on the internet.

There were hopeful signs last week that we are moving in those directions, although the arrival point is still some way off.

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When we get there the global order will have changed for the better; and when we do, it will probably be the environmental movement that will have taken us there. Some things are bigger than Trumpism and Brexit, and the future of the planet and of mankind is one of them.

The issue of global mass migration also needs to be resolved. There are several issues…

But until they are worked through the chastened political centre ground has a more immediate part to play.

The Democrats in the US last week took the right decision to commence impeachment proceedings against Trump.

The decision was correct for several reasons, primarily because in any democracy a line must be drawn in defence of a core constitutional principle - the rule of law.

It has been a while coming. In 2016, Russia worked to help Trump win the US presidency, and Trump was aware of that. No collusion was established, however, although the president did repeatedly attempt to thwart the inquiry set up to establish such collusion.

This time it is different: this time there is evidence that Trump has crossed the line to directly attempt to induce a foreign government to dig for dirt on his political rival, Joe Biden, or risk losing US military aid.

The Democrats must now find a candidate to defeat Trump in next year's election, no easy task - and therein lies the test: has the political centre learned the key lesson of populism? Which in a word is "radicalism".

Joe Biden was never the right candidate. The shortening odds are on Elizabeth Warren, who, among other policies, intends to break up the large anti-competitive tech giants such as Google, Facebook and others.

Warren is to the left of Biden and to the right of Bernie Sanders.

In the UK, the chastened political centre in Labour also must replace Jeremy Corbyn, in acknowledgement that he has moved the dial; or he must step down as is speculated within Labour he intends to do.

The prospect of Labour defeating Boris Johnson's Tories is far lesser with Corbyn as leader, whose economic thinking has hardly evolved in 40 years, and, on foreign policy, has been described as a threat to national security.

Last week Johnson was also found to be no upholder of the rule of law. And he displayed the instincts of a populist leader by setting "people against parliament".

Tom Watson's time may have come. Labour's deputy leader is also to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Jeremy Corbyn.

This is key. Warren and Watson are both to the left of what I call the old centre. To understand how populism has changed politics is to realise that, since the crash, a more radical new centre has evolved 13 degrees to the left of that old centre ground.

And the realignment has left Third Way centrists, such as the Clintons and Blair, Obama and Biden, bereft and out of kilter.

It also poses a problem for the likes of Leo Varadkar, an unreconstructed classical liberal - big on civil liberties and the rule of law, but politically out of tune with the times, on the wrong side of history: for example, he believes the welfare state is abused and defrauded by hordes of the feckless, who refuse to get out of bed early in the morning; and that the free market will resolve a decade old housing crisis, or the decades old faults in the health service.

In general, though, Ireland is more fortunate, better served than the US, UK and elsewhere recently.

We have two political parties in the centre, currently to the left (Fianna Fail) and right (Fine Gael), from which both are flexible; with smaller "mainstream" parties such as Labour, the Social Democrats and the Greens.

Whatever their respective faults, at least they do not make us feel that we do not recognise our own country anymore.

We have our own version of populists too, which have had a loud hailing effect, calling out the faults of the established order, the old centre. In their own way, most of our elected populists are also recognisable.

At an more disquieting level, populism has not made much headway at all in Ireland. That is not to say it never will, which in due course will return us to the issue of immigration...

Ireland reached peak populism when Joan Burton ran the gauntlet of protesters in Jobstown; or when water charges were removed from the political agenda; or later still, when Sinn Fein threw in the towel and said it would go into government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, neither of whom intend to accept the kind offer; or at some point in between related to economic recovery. Whenever it was, it has passed, or is passing, and, for all the criticism, populism Irish-style has left the country a better place.

At the more extreme end, though, at the alt-Right, there exists online growing demagoguery about immigration and denial about climate change and it is feeding into the national discourse.

On immigration, which elected TD has said? "It's very easy for us to be self-righteous about these things. I'm not sure where Irish public opinion would stand if we did have large numbers of boats, large numbers of people arriving on our south coast." And on immigrants here: "Some certainly are genuinely refugees who need protection, many are not."

Was it Noel Grealish? No. It was Leo Varadkar. So what is Europe's policy? Shall we say, a "forward-looking and comprehensive European immigration policy, based on solidarity, to prevent and reduce irregular immigration, in particular by means of an effective return policy, in a manner consistent with fundamental rights," has yet to be fully developed in Ireland and Europe. Until it has, the fight against populism will not be won.

There are positive signs though, evident last week through the workings of various institutions set up to safeguard democracy.

Depressing as last week may have seemed, it was a week of real hope at the UN Climate Action Summit, the US House of Representatives and the Supreme Court in the UK.

As such, in our lifetime, last week may go down in history as the beginning of the end of populism.

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