“The whole aim of practical politics,” the journalist H L Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”. The fears may be irrational but politics is fuelled by emotions, not logic – it’s an art, not a science. The amplification of risk is, therefore, a cunning tool to be used and abused.
And as I watched Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson launch their party’s election campaigns I couldn’t help but notice that the dominant narratives, the stories that were told, sought to alarm and menace the public. “Vote for me!” they cried, “or hordes of hobgoblins will descend upon your homes”.
The scare cycle has started again.
I may, of course, be slightly over-egging the pudding but only slightly. The defining shift in British politics that may well define the 2019 general election is the emergence of a powerful brand of populist politics – done “UK-style”.
Johnson’s statecraft hinges upon a narrative of “them” versus “us”. It’s the pure against the corrupt, the masses against the elite, the people versus politicians/parliament/judges, the visionary versus the pragmatic – all wrapped up in a logic that suggests the need for a strong leader. Johnson’s credentials as a man of the people are certainly thin but maybe one of the oddities of populism “UK-style” is that it arguably carries with it a peculiarly British reserve, bordering on eccentricity.
Meanwhile, on the left, we have populism wearing a cardigan. Corbyn is vowing to protect the NHS from the capitalist hobgoblins, warning at his campaign launch that a future trade deal with the United States means the health service is “up for grabs by US corporations”. This was met with rather polite chants of “not for sale! not for sale!” from the audience. Spontaneity has never looked so suspicious – but that should not distract us from the manner in which Corbyn’s rhetoric is also increasingly populist in tone.
So we’re going after the tax dodgers. We’re going after the dodgy landlords. We’re going after the bad bosses. We’re going after the big polluters. Because we know whose side we’re on … You know what really scares the elite? What they’re actually afraid of is paying their taxes. So in this election they’ll fight harder and dirtier than ever before. They’ll throw everything at us because they know we’re not afraid to take them on.
The tactic is simple: demonise “the other” and use as many emotional triggers as possible. It’s easy to be against “dodgy landlords”, “bad bosses” and “big polluters”, just like it’s generally easy to be in favour of motherhood and apple pie. But it’s all – on both sides – grievance politics of the highest order “to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety)”, as Mencken would suggest.
The most bizarre element of the opening skirmishes of the election is the manner in which the two main parties are already trying to out-compete each other, not just on who can make the most ridiculous public spending promises (a ploy destined to disappoint) but who can most effectively place the other on the wrong side of the moral barricade that populism seeks to erect.
Johnson rails against the injustices of a Remainer establishment coup, Corbyn rails against the injustices of a Bullingdon boy seeking to wrap himself in an anti-establishment cloak. “The prime minister wants you to believe that we’re having this election because Brexit is being blocked by an establishment elite,” says Corbyn. “People aren’t fooled so easily. They know the Conservatives are the establishment elite.” Both sides are fuelling frustration for partisan gain.
Where are the ideas?
If we really want to understand what’s happening to British politics and why the current crisis of democracy may be distinctive, then it’s important to appreciate that British society itself has simply become more complex and multifaceted. Some might argue it has even become more European.
As the analysis of Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker has revealed, the UK’s (and particularly England’s) traditional class-based social cleavages are now overlaid with a number of competing tensions (inter-generational, territorial, cultural, digital). The social demands and expectations this tangle of tensions creates simply cannot be addressed within the confines of an artificially engineered two-party system. Britain is now a diffuse multi-party polity trapped within a cumbersome, outdated constitutional framework. The “social bandwidth” that each of the two main parties is now expected to mediate is simply too wide, which explains why both have effectively splintered.
It used to be so simple: The Tories were the party of the upper classes and Labour of the working classes. But today Labour’s support base stretches from the middle-class metropolitan masses and a slice of the working classes. The Tories retain support in the shires while appealing to an increasing number of deprived communities.
The inability of the nation’s existing constitutional framework to keep pace with a rapidly changing socio-political context, a form of “democratic drift” explored in the existing research base, also helps explain the emergence of populism “UK-style” and a paranoid style of politics. The British political tradition has, to a large extent, evolved on the basis of an underlying confidence – bordering on an arrogance – about the principles and structures that would deliver strong and stable government. It’s this underlying political confidence, this certainty, that appears to have been lost, making the electorate all the more in need of reassurances from their leaders. When faced with uncertainty the populist temptation intensifies.
But the promises being made so far in this election are little more than a political safety blanket. Strong rhetoric and warnings of calamity mask a lack of ideas about how to cope with the pressures unleashed by social change and the UK’s role in the world. Pulling emotional triggers is far easier than engaging in sensible conversations about what Brexit, or the future of the union really look like.
And maybe that brings us to the root of the problem, the core contemporary challenge: democratic politics demands that politicians somehow achieve popularity without becoming populist. My concern is Johnson and Corbyn no longer recognise this critical distinction or understand why it matters.