I have been reading a book about populism. It’s a word that I keep seeing written and which I’ve never properly understood. It usually appears in the phrase ‘a wave of populism’, which sounds like rather a lovely thing. A wave – something you can surf on or swim in, which comes crashing down in splashes of fun – unless it’s a tsunami, of course, when the splashes are less fun – or perhaps a friendly greeting of hello or goodbye, or ideally, a Mexican wave where everyone stands up and sits down in turn, possibly holding a bottle of Sol or Corona with a slice of lime in it, even more fun than the Conga, what’s not to like? And then there’s the ‘populism’ bit. Okay, the ‘ism’ is a bit intimidating, but ‘pop’: who doesn’t like pop music?[1] And everyone wants to be popular, right?

It turns out that words can be confusing things. Populism, it seems, for liberal democrats (note the use of lower case) like me, is not a Good Thing. According to the author of this book, who is a Professor of Politics at Princeton, and who is presumably no slouch in these matters, as well as regularly winning paltry prizes in pokey pubs for alliteration, populism is characterised by two necessary aspects, being critical of elites, and being anti-pluralist: populists claim to be the sole spokesperson for a group of people who are unrepresented, or whose views are not taken seriously by a political elite, and claiming that they, and only they alone represent the views of those people; with a move whose illogicality is rarely challenged, they then often go on to claim that only those people represent the true constituents – of the country or party or whatever – and that any others must by definition be enemies of those people. Is some of this sounding familiar? Populists like to insist that elites are immoral, while the people are moral, homogeneous and their will cannot be wrong.

Müller claims that populism is the shadow of representational democracy, where the ‘people’ whoever they may be, vote for representatives, who, if they appear to ignore or fail fully to take account of some large constituency of the country, can come to be regarded as an out-of-touch or condescending elite. The stage is set, then for some political ‘actor’ to claim to represent the people against such an elite, and to promise to fight on behalf of the people against it. In so doing, they do not acknowledge the potential for a variety of opinions among those they represent – anyone who disagrees with them is by definition an opponent, and not a true member of the ‘people’.

Once this definition has been coined, the examples proliferate almost to the exclusion of others. The UK Brexit vote was initiated by a Prime Minister who, for all his many faults (the fact that he initiated it being chief by far) was not a populist in this sense. His rhetoric was not anti-pluralist, and he would not have been in any position to criticise elites, being himself an Etonian millionaire, and, as recent unfortunate publicity demonstrated, rather too closely associated with off-shore accounting and one-rule-for-us sleaze for comfort. He initiated the vote in the expectation that it would put paid to the divisions in his own party over the power than had been seen to be exerted over the UK by Brussels, and the threat to Tory votes represented by the distinctly populist Nigel Farage and his fledgling UK Independence Party. He expected, in short, that the majority would vote to Remain, and his failure to anticipate a Leave vote, to make any plans to respond to it, or indeed to stay in office for any time after the referendum vote was delivered, will be his squalid legacy.

However, the response of his successor Theresa May, in the days after the vote, have distinctly populist overtones. Though scarcely more able to be critical of parliamentary elites than Cameron was, and despite having been (very) quietly pro-Remain during the campaign, she was able at once to characterise the Remain lobby as the elite which was the problem, and her meaningless soundbite ‘Brexit means Brexit’ could only have been designed to pander to the arrogant anti-pluralism of the victorious Leavers. Meaningless though it was, it could be used to bludgeon opponents into immediate submission. Whatever objection may be raised that, for example, parliament had remained silent on the question of what legal force the outcome of the referendum had, or whatever question may be asked of whose role it was to trigger Article 50, whether Article 50 was reversible, and what value there is to a negotiation process that could ultimately lead in Parliament being presented with a take it or Leave it choice, an opponent, red in the bibulous face, with jowls wobbling, could shout ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and put an end to the matter. Even the pusillanimous response of parliamentarians who, despite being convinced that leaving the EU is a mistake, and in many cases buoyed up by constituents who overwhelmingly voted to Remain, have caved in to the notion that they must give effect to the will of the people and abandoned their duty as representatives and voted with the government, are implicitly critical of their standing as members of the elite, and anti-pluralist to the extent of not even believing their own alternative principles. Even parliamentarians, it seems, can be populist if they are cowardly enough.

The idea that a single vote following a disingenuous (in fact, mendacious) campaign produced a slender majority in favour of one outcome somehow represents the infallible will of the people, when 29 million people did not vote for it, and that this will must be carried out, despite its being incoherent to the point of being almost impossible to deliver[2], carries all the hallmarks of Müller populism.

Now, about this Donald Trump…



[1] Well, I have known a few, but there aren’t so many around these days


[2] If you took a referendum one whether people should be able to teleport, it would doubtless get a much bigger majority. That doesn’t mean it would be coherent to legislate in its favour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s