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Analysis #44

The Limits of Populism

Peter Ramsay

19 December 2019

The Brexit Party has made a significant contribution to the election of a pro-Brexit government with an unambiguous mandate to leave the EU, and to the historic realignment in British politics that has followed that election. Its populist politics, however, cannot solve the underlying political malaise that led to Brexit in the first place.


The Brexit Party’s intervention in British politics began with a bang at the Euro elections in May but appears to have ended in something of a whimper at the general election in December. Nevertheless, the party’s impact should not be underestimated. It may only have gained about two per cent of the overall vote, but it had a very significant effect on the outcome.


The Brexit Party’s big victory in the European elections played a decisive role in ending Theresa May’s premiership, bringing Boris Johnson to power, and seeing off the threat of a second referendum. It also supplied the new Tory leader with a lot of his political programme. Johnson proclaimed a determination to see through Brexit, if necessary without a deal, and added “the people’s priorities”, a list of big spending promises lifted in large measure from the Brexit Party’s manifesto.


By standing down his candidates in seats held by Conservative MPs, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage avoided splitting the Leave vote nationally, and hoped that the Conservatives would reciprocate by giving his party a shot in Labour seats where the Tories seemed to have little chance of winning. However, the Conservatives were canny enough to know that they could win without an alliance, and so it proved. Nevertheless, on election day itself, the Brexit Party assisted Tory candidates to victory in as many as 20 Labour-held seats by taking votes from Labour, although it also helped Labour in other seats by splitting the Leave vote. The Brexit Party has played its part in the electoral defeat of Remain resistance to the 2016 referendum by bringing to power a Conservative government that is going to take Britain out of the European Union. That’s no small achievement, especially for Farage, who has long sought to achieve exactly this.


The Brexit Party has also had an important effect on the content of the political debate around Brexit. By drawing in figures who were not traditional right-wing Eurosceptics (such as MEPs Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen and Claire Fox, and Full Brexit supporters Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert and James Heartfield), the party was able to focus the Brexit question as being first and foremost about democracy, marginalising the issues often favoured by the populist right, like immigration, which barely featured during the election campaign (see Analysis #26 - Why I’m Standing for the Brexit Party).


In forcing the Conservatives to “Get Brexit Done”, and to do so in the name of democracy, the Brexit Party has been the catalyst for a major realignment in British politics. Its focus on respecting the votes of Labour Leavers fuelled the revolt of working class Labour voters in the north, the Midlands and Wales, effecting a defeat for the Labour Party of historic proportions (see Analysis #43 – The Workers’ Revolt Against Labour). This has produced a Conservative government with a large number of predominantly working-class constituencies. In the effort to hold on to this new constituency, Johnson appears to be on the verge of abandoning Thatcherite economic policy.


However, the Conservative and Labour parties still dominate the electoral scene. The Brexit Party has not broken the mould of British politics and nor is it now in a position to go much further in its stated aspiration to “change politics for good”. Although left-leaning Brexit Party supporters have sought to articulate a distinctive “left case for sovereignty”, for as long as this democratic case is wrapped up in populist politics, it cannot capitalise on these efforts to develop into anything more than a Brexit pressure group on the Tories.


The Limits of Populism

Part of the problem is that the Brexit Party is a party in name only. Legally it is a company controlled by Nigel Farage. Even if Farage and his close collaborator Richard Tice are not the “far-right” bogeymen of left-wing imagination, nor are they going to provide the forum in which a new radical politics is going to develop, a politics that can get to the root causes of Britain’s political malaise. The undemocratic character of the party prevents it from doing anything more than promoting democracy in name only.


But the Brexit Party’s corporate legal structure is only the form taken by its substantial political limits. The substantial problem is the Brexit Party’s populist outlook. Its central political demand was that the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum be implemented notwithstanding the resistance of the political elite to that prospect. That has been unquestionably the key democratic demand of the moment. However, this territory was easily occupied by a Johnson-led Conservative Party, and from the summer onwards Johnson had little difficulty in stealing it from Farage’s party. While the Brexit Party had some more radical demands, like abolishing the House of Lords, these were part of an overall platform designed to be immediately appealing to the electorate, rather than offering a systematic alternative to the political traditions of either the Labour or Conservative parties. Johnson’s team could opportunistically pick and choose the bits they liked, discard those they didn’t, and wrap it all up into a revived “One Nation” Conservative package.

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The problem for the Brexit Party lies in the intrinsic thinness of the underlying populist worldview. Populism understands society as divided between ordinary people, on the one hand, and a self-serving, unrepresentative elite, on the other. At first sight, this idea of politics seems to explain the politics of Brexit. But the populist outlook is a misleading half-truth that will prove to be a dead end for those who want to realize the democratic potential of Brexit.


The true part of populism is that we really are ruled by a self-serving, unrepresentative elite (see Analysis #18 - British Politics in Chaos: Brexit and the Crisis of Representative Democracy). This has been the dominant view among the population for decades but became completely undeniable following the EU referendum as the majority of the political class, supported by the civil service, the public service broadcasters, the judiciary, the professions and academia, openly mounted a determined effort to ensure that the referendum result was not enacted. It was not simply that Remain was the project of a social and political elite; the political content of the project was nakedly elitist. Hardcore Remainers did not accept the legitimacy of the 2016 vote and demanded a rerun ever since. The leaders of the Remain cause claim to have access to expert knowledge that allows them to know that leaving the EU will be an economic disaster and that the electorate was duped in 2016. Remainers’ technocratic belief in their own superiority over the ignorant masses drove their resistance to the decision.


Moreover, in the face of this elite resistance, Leavers claimed the mandate of the people. And we had strong grounds for doing so. In the 2016 referendum, with a historically high turnout, a majority of the electorate voted to Leave the EU. The Brexit Party, like almost all other Leavers, therefore made the fundamentally democratic claim that their position is “the will of the people”. And in this way Brexit populists appear to have prevented our technocratic elite from following many of their Continental confreres into entirely trashing the tattered remnants of parliamentary democracy with a second referendum (Analysis #20 - Parliament at the Cliff-Edge: Why a Second Referendum Could Destroy its Authority).


Nevertheless, the false part of the populist outlook is any claim that the overall “people vs elite” framing can provide a practical politics for the future. It is particularly ironic that British populists should rely on the opposition between the people and the political elite to pursue the cause of sovereignty and Brexit, since to do so is to ignore a key insight of England’s greatest political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Back in the seventeenth century, Hobbes pointed out that without political representation there is only many people, a multitude; but there is no singular people, no “the people”. The existence of “the people” is dependent on effective political representation. That representation does not have to be democratic, Hobbes argued. He was a supporter of the royalist cause in the English civil war, and, in a characteristically blunt formulation, he asserted that “The King is the People”. But his key point was that it is only through effective representative institutions that a multitude, divided among itself, can nevertheless imagine itself to be a unity, imagine itself to be a singular “people”, part of a sovereign nation. As it turned out, Charles Stuart failed to do that in the mid-1600s while parliament succeeded. That the binary of “people vs elite” should now appear to provide an accurate description of the politics of Brexit only tells us that the representative institutions and processes through which we imagined ourselves to be a people – the institutions that gradually emerged after the seventeenth century civil wars – have decayed to the point of breakdown.


By the middle of the twentieth century, the British had developed various institutional forms of representation that constituted the nation. Those institutions were a Protestant, constitutional and imperial monarchy that ruled through a democratically elected parliament and (after 1945) ensured a welfare state. All of these elements of the state are in advanced decay. The Protestant element is long gone, along with the empire. A ghost of the imperial element lingers on in the form of Britain’s relentless military interventions around the world. But even these are no longer pursued in the name of national glory but of humanitarianism, peacekeeping and counterterrorism. The union with Ireland is on its last legs (Analysis #40 - The Flaw in the Crown). The welfare state survives, but it is withered and much diminished as an element of national identity, and subject to constant partisan political dispute. The current monarch enjoys the support of most citizens, but the future of the institution after her passing is widely debated. Most importantly, the Brexit process has exposed the decline into impotence of the democratically elected parliament (Analysis #39 - A Delinquent Parliament Begets the Rule of Lawyers).


In the face of this decay, simply to reassert “the people” against the failed elite is not enough actually to reconstitute representative institutions through which the people might recognise itself and assert its sovereignty. The Conservatives may have won an election by stealing the Brexit Party’s populist clothes, but this is not likely to be enough to reconstitute the deeper ideological and institutional relations between the citizenry and the state that make true sovereignty, even if we do formally leave the EU. To revive our sovereignty, we still need to reimagine the people through richer, more specific ideas about what unites us.


Populism and the Neoliberal Era

Populist politics have prospered in the void created by the historical decay of the old representative institutions, but populism cannot reverse that decay. (Analysis #27 The Brexit Party: Creature of the Void) To understand this more fully, we need to think about the circumstances in which contemporary populism has arisen.


The influence of contemporary populism has grown over the past 30 years alongside the triumph and subsequent failure of the neoliberal order in which “there is no alternative” to the market, as Margaret Thatcher notoriously put it. When there is no alternative to the market, individual citizens come to be imagined, along the lines of neoclassical economics, as consumers. Neoliberal politics therefore constructs the citizen’s relation to the state as that of a consumer to a supplier. Citizens reimagined as consumers have withdrawn into the private sphere; they busy themselves as curators of myriad identities and lifestyles through which they seek self-esteem and self-fulfillment. The consumer-citizen is also a consumer of public services and of politics. As a result, politics in the neoliberal era decayed into a “post-democratic” charade in which technocratic elites sought to produce attractive political products for consumer-citizens to choose between: “a tightly controlled spectacle managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams’ in which “the mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part”.[1]


Governments in this post-democratic order were vividly described by Peter Mair as “ruling the void”. The void opens up when the state-citizen relation is modeled on the market relation. On the one side are private consumers seeking the fulfilling realisation of their identities in their private lives; on the other side, political suppliers live the life of the increasingly technocratic state.


What is voided is the truly political space in which we are represented as a people by political leaders who seek to mobilise the state around competing ideological visions of what we have in common, visions that inform a host of mediating institutions that in the past took the form of mass membership political parties, trades unions, churches, political and professional associations and so on. The neoliberal representation of us as individuated consumers and makers of personal identities is apolitical. The only thing it claims that we have in common is our difference. In the dominant left-neoliberal (or “intersectional”) version, we are represented as a rainbow of identities sharing only our vulnerability to each other’s hostility or indifference in the struggle to maintain our self-esteem and security. Our purported mutual vulnerability invokes the relentless policing of our words, our opinions and our consumption habits. Corbyn is sometimes thought of as a populist, but in truth “the many” in the Corbynista slogan is precisely the rainbow coalition of the vulnerable, who need protection not only from the capitalists but from each other as well. No singular people is either possible or desirable in this vision.


The assertion of the interests of the people by populists is a reaction to the neoliberal void. Its appeal is that it offers a way to hit back at post-democracy’s substitution of the technocratic policing of our lifestyles for the democratic politics of representing our interests. On the face of it, “the people” is exactly what is missing from neoliberal politics. But simply asserting the interests of “the people” in the abstract offers no alternative to the well-established neoliberal representation of who we are. Without that alternative vision, we are still just individuated consumers, and policy still has to be cooked up by some wonk as a product to be brought to the electoral market place, not thrashed out in the political engagement between political leaders, party members, and the wider coalitions of interest that the parties struggle to represent as the people.


Not only does populism fail to offer the richer vision of the people that we need if we are to reconstruct an idea of our common interest in a living political movement, it also often misleads voters as to the source of the problem. Lacking a positive vision of the people, it is easier to construct the people negatively, by reference to what we are not. While the technocratic elite relies heavily on the politics of fear (as the Remain campaign has amply demonstrated), populists are also drawn to the divisive politics of identity and vulnerability. Lacking a positive ideological vision of the people, they often find a shortcut in the threats posed by crime, immigration or vocal religious minorities to “ordinary decent people“. In this way, the people can be simply defined as the (potential) victims of criminals or foreigners. At its most extreme, this tendency can produce a defensive racialised vision of the people as those victimised by the claims of uppity minorities, intensifying an identitarian culture war.


This particular weakness of populism was marked in the Brexit debate, even after Nigel Farage dropped his anti-immigration rhetoric. In discussing the EU itself, the Brexit Party has for the most part promoted the longstanding Eurosceptic understanding of the EU as a foreign super-state that rules over Britain, suppressing our sovereignty. However, as The Full Brexit contributors have pointed out, this simply isn’t true (see Analysis #1 - The EU’s Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit Is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). The EU is one of the ways in which the British elite rules Britain by voluntarily ceding its legislative power to the European institutions, where it collaborates with the elites of other member states, appointing EU Commissioners and meeting in the Councils of Ministers. Law is made in these European institutions by British officials, collaborating with the executive branches of other member states, and then automatically becomes binding in the UK, by-passing our elected representatives. The heart of the sovereignty problem posed by the EU lies at home. The past three years of elite resistance to Brexit have revealed the truth of this in practice, but populism struggles to articulate this practical experience into a coherent political alternative because that would require a positive vision of the people and of how the people might be institutionally reconstituted.


This lack of clarity about the central problem of contemporary politics leaves populists misdiagnosing the weakening of national sovereignty and obscuring its real source. Unable to recognize the problem that creates populism, let alone provide a solution to it, populists are unable to fill the political void, and find themselves reliant on the very technocratic expertise to which they are apparently opposed. In Italy, for instance, we have seen the populist 5-Star movement appointing arch-technocrats and collaborating in government with the parties of the hated la casta. In Britain, the Brexit Party intervention has served to revive the fortunes of the oldest political elite in the world: the Conservative Party.


The populist Brexit Party has played an important role in ensuring that the issue of democracy has been at the heart of the struggle over Brexit. In so doing it has helped the working class of England and Wales to achieve something unique: forcing its own ruling class to implement the result of an EU referendum. Nevertheless, populist politics cannot resolve the underlying problem of post-democracy by closing the void between the state and the citizenry.


The task remains to construct a positive idea of who we are as a people, of what unites us. Society is systematically divided in numerous ways. It is this that creates the need for political representation and the state. The critical challenge is to identify the categories through which the interests of the majority can be articulated in a way that can adequately take account of the real differences of social class, gender, ethnicity and so on. The Brexit process has, in particular, put class back at the centre of political life. In a divided society, any effort genuinely to re-present the people ideologically (i.e., as being united by this or that characteristic) is bound to create political argument among the supporters of the cause of the people. A populist politics that restricts itself to reiterating the opposition between the people and the elite evades the hard and divisive arguments that ideological representation entails. But these arguments are essential if we are really to revive the political authority necessary for us to be able to act as a people.


Brexit itself, the Brexit Party’s intervention and the provincial working class’s rejection of Labour’s anti-democratic position have demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to democracy in Britain. This experience demonstrates that there is a real basis for a new democratic political ideology through which we can represent ourselves as a people, and close the void that populism cannot. Radical democracy imagines us not as vulnerable individuated consumers but as self-governing citizens. It entails a politics that puts democracy at the root not only of the state, but of the economy and of individual life as well. We need to bring those radical democratic politics into existence, to develop a democratic ethos that encompasses all aspects of our collective life, an ethos which can inspire citizens to reject the fearful, divisive identity politics of the failed neoliberal order.

About the Author

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


[1] Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), p. 4.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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