Review

The Divided Kingdom

A Review of  National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, Pelican (October 25, 2018), 336 pages.

While reading National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, I got the impression authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin were betting men. They point out—in the first few pages—had you bet £100 on Leave winning the 2016 Referendum on the day of the vote, June 23, you’d have won £300 in the morning and £900 in the evening. That betting markets tacked against Leave during the course of polling gives one a sense of the groupthink among much of the UK’s commentariat—something Goodwin, in particular, doesn’t share, even though he voted Remain.

I suppose I should confess to being a betting woman. The day before Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered, I put AUD$100 on Leave. After her murder, however, I changed my mind. Like some of the pollsters, I thought a single, terrible event would change the course of an entire political campaign, something that’s actually quite rare—although I didn’t know it then. Remain, I suspected, had succeeded in painting Leave as “the side that murdered Jo Cox.” I couldn’t change my bet, however, so when Leave won on June 23 I received a pleasant text. I took a friend to an expensive supper.

At the time, I was living in Australia and working for a politician. And it must be said, I was focussed on Australia’s July 2 Federal Election—I wanted to get my boss re-elected. Nonetheless, paying attention to one campaign forced me to take note of another. I kept a watching brief on Brexit from February 20 onwards, when David Cameron announced the Referendum date.

Unlike Goodwin, I voted Leave, and long suspected Leave would win. I’d seen so much Euroscepticism while living in the UK—even when studying and working in Oxford and Edinburgh—that I was willing to trust a distinctly unscientific poll consisting of “all the people I know” (I do know a lot of people).

Brexit for Dummies

In National Populism, Eatwell and Goodwin have clothed hunches like mine in rigorous and careful scholarship. Their book—coupled with a thoughtful piece Goodwin wrote for Quillette — is the best explanation for why Leave won in 2016. Interestingly, one thing that emerges from polling data the authors have compiled over decades was how well Remain did to get to 48 percent. If anything, Euroscepticism is the UK’s default position, and “Project Fear” probably shifted 5–10 percent of people inclined to vote Leave across to the Remain column:

Contrary to rumour, Brexit was supported by a broad and fairly diverse coalition of voters; large numbers of affluent conservatives; one in three of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters; almost half of 25-49 year-olds; one in two women; one in four graduates; and 40 per cent of voters in the Greater London area. Brexit appealed to white pensioners in England’s declining seaside towns but it also won majority support in highly ethnically diverse areas like Birmingham, Luton, and Slough. You don’t hear much about these groups in the media vox pops in retirement homes and working men’s clubs in poverty-stricken communities. Had these other groups that are routinely written out of the debate not voted Leave then Britain would probably still be in the EU.

[…]

Brits were the least likely to hold a positive image of the EU; the least optimistic about the future of the EU; and, though few observers noticed at the time, were only behind the Cypriots as the most likely to believe that their country “could better face the future outside of the EU.” Given such findings, one might ask not why Leave won the referendum but why it only attracted 52 per cent of the vote [Footnotes omitted].

However, National Populism does a great deal more than explain Brexit. It’s a splendid field spotters’ guide to populism as a global phenomenon, drawing together clear-eyed analysis of individuals from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán and parties like Poland’s Law and Justice to Italy’s Lega. Relatedly, it also dispatches the fashionable notion that populism emerges only on the right, and points skillfully to those aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour program with clear populist roots.

If National Populism has a flaw, it’s that it scoops up entirely legitimate parties with genuine platforms and a respect for liberal democratic norms and practices (Podemos, UKIP, the Sweden Democrats, Movimento 5 Stelle) with movements and individuals that probably or certainly don’t (Jobbik, Orbán, Chávez). Nonetheless, relevant similarities and differences and internal disputes are all addressed carefully and comprehensively in either the body text or the book’s detailed annotated bibliography.

Other reviewers have focussed on the four factors Eatwell and Goodwin argue are feeding populism globally: distrust, destruction, deprivation, and de-alignment. The Economist—in a recent Bagehot column—summarizes this “four factor” argument neatly:

Messrs Eatwell and Goodwin also emphasise the importance of immigration, which they somewhat ominously classify under “destruction”, one of four Ds that they believe explain populism.

The second is distrust, of established elites. Some 58% of Britons who thought that politicians “do not listen to people like me” voted for Brexit, compared with only 37% of people who thought they did listen. About 2.8m habitual non-voters, who had given up on politics during the Blair-Cameron years of identikit politicians with interchangeable policies, turned out to vote Leave.

The third D is deprivation. It is important not to exaggerate this problem. Many people, rich and poor, voted for Brexit because they worried about democracy and accountability. But a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation nevertheless tipped the balance for significant groups of voters, particularly in Labour territory, where local MPs fought a losing battle against the Brexit tide.

The fourth D is the “de-alignment” of politics, meaning the abandonment by voters of their usual party. This is the most counterintuitive of the authors’ claims when it comes to Britain. In the election last year, Labour and the Tories won 82% of the vote, their highest share since 1970. But the potential for de-alignment is there. In 2015 and 2017, 43% and 32% of voters respectively changed their votes from the previous election. Brexit cuts like a knife through both main parties: Labour represents the most passionately pro-Remain constituencies in the country and the most passionately pro-Brexit ones.

No reviewer, however, has paid close attention to what (for me) is the book’s standout achievement—the 100 or so pages Eatwell and Goodwin spend comparing populism and fascism, pointing out how different they are from each other, and explaining just what populists represent.

Populism v. Fascism

Key to understanding populism—of both left and right—is its desire “to give a voice to ordinary people and curb powerful elites who threaten their interests” (p 47). Populist thinking is ancient: Pagan Rome had Populares senators (yes, that’s the Latin term) who gave off more than a whiff of what we would now call caudillismo.

This desire for an amplified popular voice should not be mistaken for a form of Rousseau’s “General Will,” however—something characteristic of fascism, as Eatwell and Goodwin go on to discuss. The “General Will” makes possible a mystic identification of the leader with his people, something with no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box. By contrast, populists of all stripes have detailed policies designed to give “the people” an improved hearing, the most important of which is the use of direct democracy—Swiss-style citizen-initiated-plebiscites; US-style legislative propositions; and Australian-style referendums. Populists want more democracy, not less.

The desire to use procedural and ballot mechanisms in this way is premised on the belief that elites—sometimes sneeringly referred to as “the Davos set”—in parliaments, commerce, and the civil service are unrepresentative of the wider electorate. This claim can seem strange when one considers the extent to which such bodies in the developed world now include many women and members of ethnic minorities. However, as Eatwell and Goodwin note, sexual and racial diversity among elites can be both misleading and superficial. Half of Clement Attlee’s Cabinet in 1945 had previously held blue-collar jobs, while by 2017, the percentage of MPs who had held blue-collar jobs had fallen to just 3 percent—half the number of those who had once been lawyers—and none were in the Cabinet. And before you say, “but we have a Tory government,” it’s wise to remember only a single Blair Cabinet minister in the late 1990s had ever worked in a factory. Representation is a mirage if parliament is this wonderfully diverse place where everyone went to Oxford or Cambridge or a Russell Group university.

Across the West, liberal democracies are increasingly dominated by highly educated and liberal elites whose backgrounds and outlook differ fundamentally from those of the average citizen, a development that has been exacerbated by the rise of a new ‘governance elite’, connected through formal and informal networks that cut across elected national governments. Linked to this has been the growth of ‘politically correct’ agendas, driven by degree-holding liberals and the young, which are especially focussed on identity issues [p 85].

Members of this meritocratic managerial class not only share an increasingly homogenous social background and life experience, they have similar views. They are pro-free-market, but they also want people to behave in a certain way (they would rather not shout, though, hence the popularity of “nudges”). Their core belief is in the power of expertise and the notion that all will be well if Really Smart People (RSP) are in charge.

Right now, RSPs are panicking thanks to an upsurge in populism, so the obvious move is to try to mobilize the centre (all Macron, all the time, basically). Unfortunately, RSP support for particular candidates makes those candidates toxic in the eyes of many voters, plus they often misdiagnose the causes of social and economic problems. On this point, Macron’s current unpopularity is instructive because his situation is precisely thanks to RSPs getting things badly wrong.

EU countries (including France and Britain) taxed diesel fuel at lower rates for decades on the grounds that it was less damaging to the environment. This shifted market preferences such that many people bought diesel cars on the basis their fuel was “cleaner”—after all, RSP scientists and environmentalists told us so. Renault and Peugeot spent a small fortune shifting manufacturing across to diesel rather than petrol engines. In France, all tractors and most cars run on diesel.

The irony, of course, is that we always knew nitrogen oxides (NOx) in diesel fumes were nasty, even if we were not fully aware of the extent to which they are dangerous to human health and ruin the built environment. However, hysteria about climate change drove political targets for CO2 reduction, which meant the better mpg from diesel was foregrounded. This forgets, of course, that a significant reason for diesel’s greater fuel efficiency is that it is denser than petrol (one gallon of diesel has more mass than one gallon of petrol).

In the UK, it was the Volkswagen emissions scandal (which involved engines producing NOpollutants at up to 40 times above permitted rates) that forced the issue into public consciousness. And, because it has turned out not to be environmentally friendly, Macron has put the price of diesel up. Little wonder French people who expected good governance from Macron’s team of RSPs are tearing up cobbles in the Champs-Élysées and lobbing them at police.

Eatwell and Goodwin argue strenuously how important it is not to assume all populism is either recent or a function of the refugee crisis. People will tolerate RSP rule as long as peace, order, and good governance continues. And there has indeed been quite a lot of that in Western countries since 1989. Voters have limited tolerance for incompetence, however, particularly when it comes with the discovery that RSPs don’t actually know what they’re doing (e.g., the Iraq War, the Global Financial Crisis, austerity, etc.). And RSPs on all sides have made an absolute hash of negotiating Brexit. The point of handing the levers of power to RSPs is that expertise is meant to lead to skilled manipulation of those levers. When it turns out Jack down the pub with his three very average GCSEs could have done a better job, voters get angry.

Many populists, but notably Movimento 5 Stelle’s Beppe Grillo, have also noted how technocrats who purport to have superior knowledge are susceptible to exactly the same sort of cognitive biases and systemic errors as the rest of us. For this reason, Grillo supports using sortition—the method by which juries are selected—to elect Italy’s Senate. He argues that it will break the ability of cognitive and governance elites to control Italian politics.

Coupled with populism’s sincere support for democracy is thus a belief that Jack is as good as — if not better than — his master. Populists take aim at “rule by experts,” whether in central banks or supranational bodies that want nation states to admit large numbers of refugees and immigrants. One particular populist bugbear is the creation of “arm’s length” bodies and QANGOS that aren’t accountable to electorates. Immigration policy, for instance, is not something British electorates have had any control over since Britain’s membership of the EU means Her Majesty’s government has to accept freedom of movement. Leave argued for an Australian-style “points-based” system during the EU referendum campaign, despite the fact Australia takes many more immigrants than either the UK or any EU member state (both proportionally and, most of the time, in absolute terms).

This meant that many Leave voters were not voting against immigration (the huge numbers of immigrants Australia accepts is widely known, in part because so many British people have relatives there). They were voting against unaccountable power. This is what happens when a state outsources a policy that should be in the hands of the electorate and then spends 25 years failing to ask the electorate what they think. (Australians get asked every three years, by contrast.)

Historically, the political entities willing to accept high immigration and ethnic diversity have been empires (e.g., Rome, China, Ottoman) and city-state republics (e.g., Florence, Singapore, but also the Roman Republic), not nation-states (which combine sovereignty, territory, ethnicity and democracy). So if you want high immigration and ethnic diversity in a nation-state you either go down the imperial route (unaccountable power) or the “Roman republican” route (rigid distinctions between citizens and non-citizens and the citizenry gets to decide who joins the club). Australia did the latter and has enjoyed success; the UK did the former and botched it.

Elite Theory

Populists are not fighting an imaginary enemy, either, before those of us who went to Oxford and Cambridge and les Grandes Écoles start wondering if we’re being unfairly maligned.

The idea that the state ought to be governed by experts or the “best people” has been around for a very long time. In Greek, Roman, Enlightenment, and contemporary political thinking, this belief often does represent a mixture of distrust and contempt for “the masses.” Eatwell and Goodwin outline how Plato’s “Guardian” class was meant—through a program of education, training, and selective breeding—to rule as “Philosopher Kings and Queens.” (To his credit, Plato was not sexist; most historical arguments about those “fit to rule” or “government by expert” peremptorily exclude women.)

Aristotle—making a point that would please many Corbyn supporters—argued that democracy could only work if there were a high degree of economic equality. Otherwise, there was a real risk the rich and talented might finish up with their heads on pikes. Roman jurists, meanwhile, suggested direct democracy and the rule of law were contraindicated, looking down their aquiline noses at the Greeks they’d just conquered and observing snippily that the “popular mob” killed Socrates, “and he was smarter than you.” Romans also invented the Electoral College “of notables” during the course of their own constitutional development, something that in modified form is the source of considerable contention in current US politics. One can already see in antiquity the process by which representative democracy supplanted direct democracy.

Even very great proponents of liberal democracy and the free exchange of ideas—John Stuart Mill for example—were worried what would happen if people they considered stupid or ill-informed misused their ballot. Mill supported the existence of university constituencies, whereby graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, and the ancient Scottish universities got two votes: One in their university seat, and one where they lived. Those constituencies were not abolished until 1950. It was meant to be a force multiplier for the clever, to allow them to guide the ship of state out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population. Really Smart People find democratic politics a bit of a nuisance because all those ordinary people are too cognitively impaired or biased to get things right (unlike RSPs of course).

A belief in democracy, in the capacity for governance among “ordinary people,” and a distrust of cognitive elites is what definitively sets populists apart from fascists. And, as Eatwell and Goodwin argue, it is absolutely vital that critics and opponents of populism understand this. Fascism—like Leninist communism, with its “intellectual vanguard”—is profoundly elitist. It does not want populism’s “plain, ordinary people” anywhere near the levers of power. It wants its great leader (and his hand-picked lackeys) grasping those levers instead.

This elitism is one reason why a significant number of really quite impressive intellectuals—Martin Heidegger, Giovanni Gentile, Paul de Man, Carl Schmitt, Ezra Pound, Robert Michels—were attracted to fascism, much as on the other side of the aisle communism generated its own trahison des clercs. Liberalism, of course, has a truly stellar cast of great minds on the books, stacked like lumber going back to antiquity and even more so since the Scottish Enlightenment. Populism, despite being a serious political tradition in its own right, lacks support among those it derides as “eggheads.”

The Divided Kingdom

One of the reasons the 2016 EU Referendum was so disruptive is because Westminster is a system of representative democracy. We elect our MPs to do a job: They make law on our behalf, and it is their role to deliberate in Parliament and make decisions on behalf of those they represent, but not at their behest. This insight forms the core of Edmund Burke’s famed “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” Voters, as Burke says, choose their MP. “But,” he adds, “when they have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”

If MPs constantly come back to the people, asking “but what do you think about x?” we are meant to find ourselves ever so tempted to respond, “you have one job; please go and do it now.” This is why UK political parties have election manifestos where they set out a legislative program should they be victorious. Politicians are not supposed to keep picking at some electoral scab or another using direct democracy.

Consistent with Burke’s insight, Eatwell and Goodwin document how the Westminster system over a period of many centuries drained anything even vaguely populist out of the UK’s constitutional architecture. Populism then came roaring back in the form of four referendums, each more disruptive than the last (in 1975, 2011, 2014, and 2016).   

In jurisdictions where referendums are a long-standing part of the constitutional order—Australia, say, or (even more so) Switzerland—it is not unusual to have multiple polls on similar questions. New South Wales voted not to join the Australian federation the first time, so they had another vote where they voted yes. (Mind you, if they had voted yes the first time, Canberra would not exist. Sometimes things are not improved by having a second vote.) Referendums aren’t inviolable statements of the will of the people that must be followed always and forever—they are simply “part of the process.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with a second one, if it will form a productive part of the process.

However, it won’t in the UK. 2016 was a horrible disruption of the constitutional order. The original vote undermined representative democracy and the institution of Parliament, and coming on the back of Scotland’s acrimonious “Indyref” (2014) and the “AV” vote (2011), a second referendum would damage the reputation of Parliament again and cement the divisions the first created. 2016 was the first time in a long time RSPs didn’t get what they wanted: Now they simply have to deal. There is something to the argument (typically made by constitutional lawyers like Glasgow University’s Professor Adam Tomkins) that if Parliament can abolish the Corn Laws, abolish slavery and enact women’s suffrage, then it should be able to resolve the UK’s relationship with the EU.

However, lots of RSPs have caught the populist bug—or at least its fondness for direct democracy. Demands for a so-called “People’s Vote” in the UK (a second EU Referendum) are gaining ground, but a bill to bring it forward will likely fail in the Commons because MPs will be unable to agree the wording of the question on the ballot. If one does somehow sneak through there is a real chance of French-style civil disorder.

That said, many Leave supporters are quite sanguine about a second vote, especially if its language echoes the in/out 2016 Referendum. They’re offended by the idea, of course, because they think it too close in time to the previous poll and that it represents a classic case of the EU’s attitude towards votes that don’t go its way: “We’ll make you vote again until you give us the right answer.” Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign and now a member of Theresa May’s Government, is on record with this view, stating, “Leave would probably win a fresh referendum by an even larger margin but holding one would damage faith in democracy and rip apart the country’s social fabric.”

Whatever happens—currently anyone’s guess—Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism provides a reliable guide to the way we are now.


Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and was Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Follow her on Twitter @_HelenDale.

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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award in 1995, read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and was previously Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published by Ligature in October this year.