John Gloster-Smith examines the revival of populism in modern day society and how it is used in today’s tactics of European politics.

Just how democratic is early 21st century populism? It is a nagging question in the back of people’s minds as they watch the rise of populism in the US and Europe and the retreat from democracy occurring across the world. One is tempted to recall the that democracy was overthrown in the early 20th century by Fascism, National Socialism and authoritarianism in the wake of the First World War, economic dislocation and depression and the rise of Communism. Could this happen again, in Britain as it struggles with political deadlock and the ongoing impact of austerity, and in other Western countries?

Populism and Fascism

It is easy to get stuck in problems of definition when discussing this subject. For brevity’s sake, I could use a brief working definition of Fascism as the combined power of the state and capital in an authoritarian mould harnessing racial nationalism. It is not ideal however. There were lots of differences between early 20th century Italian Fascism and German National Socialism, and between those authoritarian systems and more traditional ones in say interwar Hungary. Many might say that Fascism was a unique response to a certain given set of circumstances in time connected with military defeat, economic depression, the threat from Soviet-led Communism and the birth pangs of new democracies. Typical in both Italy and Germany however was totalitarianism and one-party rule requiring obedience to a charismatic leader, aggressive-militaristic nationalism, an appeal to both left-wing social and economic radicalism and right-wing hierarchy and authoritarianism in politics, racial purity and a campaign against a perceived threat from an ethnic minority.

Today’s populism, by contrast, rather than replace democracy, aspires to re-connect government with “the people”. A recurrent theme is that of popular sovereignty and the “will of the people” often through direct democracy, such as frequent referendums and recall. As such it connects with an older tradition of popular sovereignty dating back to the French Revolution of 1789 and to movements such as Bonapartism or Boulangism in France or the People’s Party in the late 19th century USA. Populism seeks to express the popular will against perceived remote, self-serving and corrupt political elites. It also seeks to represent the “plain man” or “ordinary person” as against the educated, metropolitan elite. It opposes the forces of globalisation which it sees as destroying a traditional way of life and livelihood, and resists what it sees as unrestricted immigration which threatens the majority ethnic and cultural group. It considers that its supporters are being “left behind” by rampant inequality and economic and social change, and are deprived, neglected and ignored. Finally, it is a break away from traditional voting patterns and a shift of allegiance to new forces.

Not necessarily Fascist

Does this make populism fascist? Comparing the two forces in the above brief analysis would suggest not. Rather, it has been suggested, populist parties participate in elections and partner in coalition governments. Equally traditional parties have moved across to adopt some of their policies and rhetoric, such as on immigration. Equally too, populist parties have become more mainstream as they have participated in government.

The concern that has been expressed however is that these movements have adopted some approaches in certain quarters that could lead one to suspect a potential in populism for more extreme solutions. Recently in Italy for example, Salvini ,the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liga party, has been challenged by three magistrates over his immigration policy and his subsequent attacks on them has led to concern over a threat to the rule of law. Trump is under attack for his alleged interference with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election leading to charges of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offence. In Hungary there is concern that Orban is interfering with the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. He calls his system “illiberal democracy”. While not necessarily populist, Russia and Turkey are more examples of a rise in authoritarianism. In Turkey, Erdogan has set up a Presidential system of government, suppressed press freedom and imprisoned his opponents. Putin’s Russia has a façade of democracy but to all intents and purposes he rules the country as a “kleptocracy”. Most of these examples have included policies to restrain immigration and emphasise nationalism. Much has been made of a global pattern of the emergence of a “strongman” system of political leadership and the reduction of democratic rights and suppression of opposition.

In these examples, one can see how leaders have built up power at the expense of representative government, such that observers consider that there is a very definite trend away from democracy. This does not necessarily equate with the key features of Fascism, such as totalitarianism, the primacy of ideology, racial purity, aggressive nationalism, or the absolute leader-principle (Führerprinzip), although with some of the regimes mentioned above, there are echoes. Yet, under pressure and opposition one might wonder if the example of the 20th century might prove too tempting. A shift towards greater authoritarianism might be one such example.

Britain and the Brexit crisis

The evolution of the Brexit crisis in the country that considers itself to be “the mother of Parliaments” gives cause for concern that, as the deadlock continues, a government up against the wall might be tempted to more extreme solutions.

The fact that it keeps being said draws attention to the possibility that the current Conservative government might just try it, and force through Brexit on 31 October, by proroguing Parliament, who have voted against a No Deal Brexit, and implementing Brexit as the legal default position in the absence of an agreement with the EU. Dominic Raab, one of the Tory hopefuls in the current party leadership contest, repeated this idea again recently, despite it having already been denounced by many, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

This exceptionally unwise tactic draws immediate comparison to James II’s 1685 prorogation of the English Parliament to suspend laws and allow Catholics back into public office in an age of extreme anti-Catholicism. He was rapidly ejected by an incensed Protestant nation aided by the Dutch in 1688, the “Glorious Revolution”. His father, Charles I had tried for 11 years to rule without Parliament, impose unparliamentary taxes, Ship Money, and introduce religious changes known as Arminianism that many saw as Catholicism, and the ensuing conflict between the rights of Parliament and that of the divine right of the executive resulted in a bitter civil war and Charles’s execution in 1649.

The Tory party politics of denial

There is an extraordinary level of denial in the Tory party, as it elects its next leader, each seemingly out-bidding the other in a shift further to the right. One might suggest that one cannot ignore the expressed wishes of Parliament, who have voted against a No Deal Brexit, or avoid a general election or other public vote. It would be foolhardy, many say, to try to steamroller through a massive change in the country, while at the same time being without a majority since Tory moderates have said they would oppose it. It would be seen as a coup attempt and, crucially, an action by a government without authority, both moral and practical. That way lies chaos and resistance, especially considering that a No Deal Brexit would bring massive disruption and recession. One can almost hear the echo of history down the ages from 1688.

Yet, such is their irresponsibility that such a course of action can be contemplated by people aspiring to public office. This brings me to underline the seriousness of the situation posed by populism and its impact on the governing party. Mr Farage is parading a far-right populism, exploiting a Great Betrayal Myth with echoes of the “Stab in the Back Myth” in Germany after World War One. Parliament and Remainers are alleged to be “betraying” the 2016 referendum result and “the will of the people” by opposition to a No Deal Brexit which he favours. He has focused his attack on Parliament and the “political class” in the name of “the people”, and has attempted to portray his Brexit Party’s nearly one-third share of the vote on a low turnout in the recent EU Parliament elections as a popular vote for Brexit.

Of course, people say “it can’t happen here”, but such liberal complacency is the fertile ground in which such extremism can be nurtured. The Tories are terrified of Farage, fear he could annihilate their party at the polls, and want at all costs to avoid an election, and yet their membership wants Brexit and the EU refuse to negotiate further. May’s negotiated deal with the EU has been rejected by Parliament, who have also as has been said rejected a No Deal Brexit. So how can they get their Brexit? This dilemma is existential for the Tories. If populists and their right-wing Tory apologists can’t get their way through the means of elections and elected representatives, then there is the option of a more authoritarian solution.

Could it happen?

This does not mean it will happen, in the UK or other “Western” democracies, but one has to be alert to the risk and be willing to challenge the populists and their fellow-travelers, to call out what they assert and in place of such extremism to unite and assert a higher democratic and reformist cause. Such assertion seems at present to be strangely weak, again an echo in some quarters of the enfeebled Weimar Republic before Hitler’s seizure of power. Opinion seems divided as to whether populists made significant inroads into mainstream European politics in the recent EU Parliament elections or whether the attack was contained and the populist threat was running out of steam. Liberal complacency can in effect contribute to the problem.
Also, one should ask, where is this populism headed? Populism might swing in an authoritarian direction: the discontents that fueled populism do not seem to be effectively addressed and the anger is palpable. Who knows what might happen in a severe crisis, given this level of unrest. In the past populist movements have run out of steam and their demands effectively met through enlightened legislation that addressed the root causes. The populists aren’t fascists – yet. Past performance is not indicative of future results, and this can run both ways.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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