Pelican, £8.99, 384pp
October 21 2018 / Sunday Times
In November 2016, as he was preparing to intensify his campaign against Brexit, I interviewed Tony Blair at his offices in London and asked him a direct question: why are liberals losing everywhere? An unashamed optimist who believes that the arc of history bends towards progress, Blair posited that the answer to the crisis of liberalism was not less but more globalisation.
He seemed unable or unwilling to consider why so many had rejected the liberal progressivism he espoused with such fervour.
These are challenging and perplexing times for liberals such as Blair as parties of the centre-left are routed across Europe and the post-Second World War rules-based order fragments. From the Netherlands to Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, France and Italy, the established parties of the mainstream left have collapsed or been heavily defeated. In the Swedish general election in September, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, formerly a neo-fascist party, won 17.3 per cent of the vote as the once-hegemonic Social Democrats recorded their worst result in a century. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland is now the official opposition in the Bundestag.
Emmanuel Macron, an ardently pro-EU former Rothschild banker who founded his own movement and swept to power in France in 2017, is often cited as a symbol of hope for liberals. But he too campaigned as an anti-establishment populist change-maker. After breaking from the moribund Socialists, he owed much of his success to the vagaries of the French electoral system (he won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election) and to the fact that his ultimate opponent was the National Front’s Marine Le Penn, who was simply unacceptable to many, on both left and right.
So, what is going on? Many commentators and politicians on the left, not least the hapless Ed Miliband, who led Labour to defeat in the 2015 general election and then watched in bewilderment as his party was captured by the radical left, believed that the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed would create the conditions for a revival of social democracy in Britain and the rest of Europe.
But this was a misreading of the present moment. What we witnessed instead was the rise of what the academics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their fascinating new study call “national populism”, which, in their definition, prioritises “the culture and interests of the nation, and promises to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites”.
Eatwell is an expert on fascism and Goodwin, co-author with Robert Ford of Revolt on the Right (2014), was one of the first academics to track the rise of Ukip and seriously explain the challenge Nigel Farage’s so-called people’s army posed to the established party system. Concentrating on Europe and North America, the authors use economic and polling data as well as extensive market research to analyse the long-term demographic and socio-economic trends shaping our age of upheaval. The four “historic shifts” they identify are: rising inequality, growing distrust of elites and institutions, the effects of mass immigration and the fraying of old party alliances.
The gaps the authors identify are substantial, and growing. As the metropolitan left across Europe and in America have embraced what the writer Mark Lilla calls “identity liberalism”, many working-class voters felt “left behind”. The class culture gap between them and the parties which once purported to represent their interests widened. As Steve Bannon, the chief ideologue of Trumpism, put it, “The longer [Democrats] talk about identity politics, I’ve got ‘em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism we crush the Democrats.”
Much of the rhetoric of national populism is understandably offensive to liberals, especially the xenophobia and social conservatism. But too many liberals have only got themselves to blame for their complacency and eagerness to dismiss as racist or reactionary people’s anxieties about immigration and the erosion of social cohesion. Recall Gordon Brown’s unhappy encounter with “bigoted” Mrs Duffy while he was campaigning in Rochdale in 2010.
It’s fair to say “populism” has become a convenient catch-all term to characterise any anti-establishment movement or party that challenges an elite consensus and rejects liberal values. But the attraction of this book lies in its cool, dispassionate tone. The authors’ intention is to explain and inform rather than polemicize and provoke. Too many of us, they write, “are too quick to condemn rather than reflect, buying into stereotypes that correspond with their own outlook rather than challenging claims by consulting the actual evidence”.
Among the stereotypes challenged is the notion that Brexiteers are mostly old and white and not particularly bright. But Brexit was delivered by a “diverse alliance of people who shared a few intensely held concerns”. Above all, the authors argue, Brexit voters wanted to restore control over the forces that govern their lives. They did not just vote against the EU but for far-reaching change and a new political and economic settlement. That much is true.
Our era is characterised by tremendous political volatility, porous borders, entrenched wealth inequality and astounding technological disruption and innovation. And national populism promises protection from the havoc being wrought by globalisation and simple solutions to complex problems.
In many ways, even where they are without power, the populists are already winning – because, as Farage did, they have transformed the political discourse. For Eatwell and Goodwin, national populism is not a passing phenomenon and will have a “powerful effect on the politics of many Western countries for many years to come”. Prepare for more shocks.