The rise of populism – what caused it and how the centre right should respond

2019-05-09T09:48:55+00:00 May 9th, 2019|Event|

On Thursday 9th May, Rt Hon David Gauke MP gave a speech for Onward on The rise of populism – what caused it and how the centre right should respond. His remarks are republished below.

 

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Thank you, Richard for hosting us and Will, for that introduction.  And may I thank Onward for the opportunity to make this speech.

And I think I should begin by stating what this speech is not.  It is not, predominantly, a speech about Brexit – although it certainly touches upon it.  

It is not a leadership campaign speech, for two very good reasons.  First, I do not believe that we should change the leadership of the Conservative Party until we have addressed the manner of our departure from the European Union.  Second, when it comes to any future leadership election, my position is to resist the clamour to stand. I remain confident that my resistance will be greater than the clamour.

But it is a speech about the future of the Conservative Party.  And, indeed, the future of British politics as a whole. It is a speech that sets out the choices of direction for my party, a choice that will define the Conservative Party – and British politics – for a generation.

I set out how the rise of populism, the fragmenting of traditional party loyalties and the impact of Brexit means that there is a case for the Conservative Party to become a more populist, anti-establishment, culturally conservative party.  But I argue that such a choice would limit our electoral appeal and leave the UK badly placed to take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st century.  In other words, this is a speech that argues for a Conservative Party to be a broad church and an advocate for mainstream values.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in an era of extraordinary political turbulence.  

Around the rest of the world, we have seen new, populist parties quickly finding themselves in government.  In the US, we have seen someone who has never held public office elected as President.

One of our two great political parties is led by Jeremy Corbyn, someone who spent his first 32 years in Parliament on or beyond the fringes of British politics.  And a new political party – the Brexit Party, led by someone who has stood unsuccessfully for Parliament seven times – is currently riding high in the opinion polls.

Policies and politicians that, not that long ago, could be dismissed as extreme, divisive or impractical are succeeding in winning large numbers of votes.  Mainstream politicians (as that term has generally been understood for decades) are on the defensive.

We live in a period when the forces of populism are strong.  Anti-establishment messages resonate. Whether of the left or of the right, whether Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage, the politician that argues that much of the public has been let down by the ‘elite’ will strike a chord.  

That ‘elite’ might be defined in cultural terms – the ‘liberal elite’, seen as putting the interests of migrants or international institutions ahead of the indigenous population.  Or the ‘elite’ might be defined in economic terms – the ‘rich and powerful’, the ‘beneficiaries of neo-liberalism’, who put their interests ahead of the interests of wider society.  

Either way, the populist politician of left or right will argue that his policies will diminish the power of the elite, redistributing it to their supporters.  

There is no doubt that this populist mood contributed to Leave’s victory in 2016.  That is not to say that all Leavers were populists or that all Leave arguments were populist arguments.  They weren’t. But there is no doubt that the 2016 Leave campaign tapped into a sense of grievance that the elites were not listening to those who felt disenfranchised and that the referendum enabled those voters to ‘take back control’.

The emergence of populism raises two questions, in particular, which I will attempt to answer.

  • Why is this happening now?
  • How should mainstream politicians respond to it?  Specifically, how should British Conservatives respond to it?

So, the first question: why now?  Or perhaps it is worth asking, why not before?

There have always been plenty of people who think their interests are not best served by those in positions of power, angry about foreign competition or immigration, sympathetic to a strong man willing to break the rules. And, on many measures we were less liberal – attitudes to capital punishment, homosexuality and racism, for example – than we are today.

Yet, in the past, the voices of populism were marginalised.  People voted for mainstream parties and the leadership of mainstream parties robustly resisted populism.  There were a limited number of media outlets some of which certainly flirted with populism but were never fully captured by it.

The emergence of social media has enabled those with non-mainstream views to find the like-minded.  The once marginalised find reassurance in digital echo chambers. The views of extremists can be disseminated to the susceptible as online communities where they won’t face challenge.  It should concern us all that Tommy Robinson had nearly twice as many Facebook followers as the Prime Minister.

This has played out in a period of moderate increases in living standards.  The financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession resulted in a collapse in trust for those in authority and a significant hit to real incomes.  Our public finances were predicated on a level of growth that proved to be illusory. The adjustment – what some describe as the years of austerity – was made no less painful by the fact that it was both necessary and inevitable.

Add to that, we are living through a period of substantial structural change.  The emergence of China as a major manufacturing power has, as a whole, been beneficial to Western countries as it has helped lower the cost of living.  But those dispersed benefits don’t take away from the fact that there have been concentrated costs for those who worked in now uncompetitive industries.

A similar point can be made about new technology.  Even without foreign competition, the number of manufacturing jobs would be falling as robots allow us to do more.  This trend will only continue, except it won’t just be manufacturing jobs. That is not to say that employment will fall – I am optimistic that technology will mean different, more productive and interesting jobs, not fewer jobs.  But it does mean disruption and insecurity.

There are many who argue that rising inequality is a driver for populism.  I am a little cautious about this, at least in the context of the UK, simply for the reason that inequality (contrary to what nearly everyone thinks they know) is not, in fact, rising.  As the IFS has pointed out, income inequality has remained pretty consistent since the 1990s and, since the Great Recession of the late 2000s, earnings growth has generally been greatest for lower earners.

Nonetheless, economic insecurity is clearly a contributing factor.  But I would place greater weight on cultural insecurity – the fear that their culture is under threat and being marginalised.  Parts of society not only feel economically disadvantaged but culturally disadvantaged.

In recent decades, we have seen dramatic changes in the nature of our society – changes which, I would argue, are overwhelmingly positive.  Conservatives should welcome changes that have made society more open and diverse and have meant that life has become much better for women, gay people and ethnic minorities.  

But elements of society look back to a period where their position in society was more secure and stable, their culture dominant and with an expectation that that culture would remain dominant throughout the life times of their children and grandchildren.

These concerns are too often dismissed and sneered at.  For example, it is often said that older Leave supporters voted with no concern for the long term consequences for their grandchildren.  On the contrary, what strikes me about many older Leave voters was that they were concerned that the country future generations will grow up in will be different – and, in their eyes, worse – than the one they grew up in.  I don’t agree with that pessimistic outlook, but it is a sincere and well-motivated point of view.

This sense of a changed cultural orthodoxy is often felt strongest in those communities that have traditionally voted for centre left parties, parties that have, in recent decades, been perceived as being more focused on furthering the interests of disadvantaged minority groups rather than on the centre left’s previous principal objective – furthering the economic interests of the working class.  The desire to protect the interests of vulnerable groups is entirely laudable but the change in priorities has been noticed by some of the centre left’s traditional supporters. Whether it is the Democrat-voting ex-steelworker in the Rust Belt, or the Labour-voting ex-miner in the East Midlands, they don’t feel that they are part of a privileged majority. At best, they feel invisible to the concerns of their traditional parties.  At worst, they consider their traditional parties to be hostile to them.

This has led to a reaction.  The perception is that the once dominant culture is under attack and, unless defended, will no longer be around for future generations.

The disenchantment of the traditional working class with the left clearly creates an opportunity for the right, as we have seen in the US.  And it is argued by some that the Conservative Party needs to reinvent itself as a party that focuses on that part of the electorate – that the Conservative Party must become more of an insurgent, anti-establishment, anti-elite movement; determined to protect our nation’s cultural identity from cultural change and the challenges of globalisation.  It is an approach that has worked electorally elsewhere and, it is argued, the evidence suggests that it can work here.

It is an argument that deserves to be taken seriously.  It is true that there is an opportunity to appeal to voters who have not traditionally voted Conservative but feel ignored by the centre-left and repulsed by the resurgent hard left.  And, of course, we should seek to attract non-traditional voters – particularly as our economic policies should be designed to benefit all parts of society.

It is also the case that the concerns of those who feel invisible must be recognised by mainstream parties.  For example, a balanced approach to immigration – that recognises the benefits it has provided us but also accepts that uncontrolled immigration is unsustainable – is fair, reasonable and nothing of which to be ashamed.  If mainstream parties do not address such concerns, it will leave the pitch clear for others.

But the case I want to make is that it essential for the sake of the country that the Conservative Party resists the temptation to become a populist party.  

Populism would make us a poorer and a more divided nation.  Ultimately, it won’t satisfy the voters who feel most disillusioned with the current political system.  And it will result in the loss from the Conservative coalition of support of younger voters, more liberal-minded voters and pro-business voters.

If the Conservative Party becomes a populist party, it will drive away voters in metropolitan and suburban areas that will make the task of winning a Parliamentary majority all but impossible.  

London, the Home Counties and the Oxford-to-Cambridge corridor have rapidly growing populations and have, for the most part, been fruitful areas for returning Conservative MPs.  But we are already on the retreat in London. In the relatively tight general election of 1992, we achieved 45% of the vote in London and 48 seats. In the tight general election of 2017, we achieved just 33% of the vote and 21 seats.  

As last week’s local elections demonstrated, we should not take our support for granted in the wider South East, especially if we are seen to be hostile to the values of liberal, university-educated, centrist voters.

However, this is not just about electoral calculation.  The biggest problem with populist policies is that too often, they’re just plain wrong.

Let me begin with the economics.  The vast majority of Conservatives look back with pride at how Mrs Thatcher’s governments turned round the British economy from being the sick man of Europe to being a dynamic, enterprising powerhouse.

She did so not by embracing populism but by confronting it.  Whereas populism tends to seek to preserve existing jobs and industries, insulating an economy from foreign competition, the 1980s were a period when the government did not seek to prevent necessary structural changes.  She took steps to make our economy more open through both unilateral and multilateral measures, foreign investment was encouraged, structural change embraced.

And whereas populism tends to be fiscally irresponsible – it is the politics of saying ‘yes’ and rarely of saying ‘no’ –  the Thatcher governments’ fiscal approach was thoroughly conservative, ensuring that we sought to live within our means, tightly controlling public spending and even allowing the tax burden to rise when necessary to get the public finances under control.

A responsible government cannot agree to every spending proposal put in front of it.  Nor can it afford to pursue every proposal for unfunded tax cuts. I am the first to argue the case for a competitive, pro-business tax system – I am very proud to be associated with our corporation tax reforms – but the idea that cutting taxes inevitably pays for itself is simply the right-wing equivalent of the magic money tree.

And whereas Mrs Thatcher’s Government was essentially pro-business, populism, in the end, becomes an anti-business movement.  If populism involves standing up to powerful elites, populism of the right as well as the left will too often portray business – particularly disrupters and innovators – as creators of misery not creators of wealth.  

That is not to say that Conservatives should never criticise business – there are legitimate arguments to make about the wider responsibilities of business – but if the Conservatives find themselves advocating policies widely considered to be economically damaging by business, we should not be surprised if this has a damaging impact on business investment and our long-term prosperity, as well as diminishing our electoral appeal.

For the Conservative Party to become a truly populist party would mean abandoning our beliefs in an open, dynamic, pro-business economy and in fiscal responsibility.  Or to put it another way, it would involve shredding our economic credibility.

And there could not be a worse time to do so.  When the Labour Party has adopted an economic agenda that, when implemented elsewhere, has invariably had catastrophic results, diminishing our own credibility and deserting the economic battlefield leaves our country at risk and throws away a huge electoral opportunity.

So, does this lead us to maintaining a more orthodox approach to economics, but emphasising an agenda of cultural conservatism, wholeheartedly addressing the concerns of those who feel left behind and invisible?

It would be an agenda based on tough immigration rules and taking on political correctness.  It would be assertive and fearless in defence of traditional values and promise a return to a simpler, more innocent age.  

But even if we avoid the temptations of economic populism, cultural populism takes us down a dangerous path. So, let’s turn to the non-economic arguments.

First, populism leads to a more divided society.

Populism is one of the reasons why our political debate becomes coarsened, language more extreme, civility dismissed as weakness.

And a political strategy that seeks to exploit a sense of cultural insecurity would exacerbate divisions within society and send a clear message to minority populations and liberal voters that the Conservative Party was not for them.  It would leave us as a Party narrower and as a society angrier. We need to de-escalate the culture wars, not inflame them.

If we base our appeal on the distance we create from the ‘liberal elite’ by emphasising cultural matters, what is to stop someone else coming along who might be less restrained, less subtle, more forthright in taking on liberal opinion?  

If we validate a narrative that our country’s problems are caused by an out-of-touch liberal establishment, why won’t the most anti-establishment position become ascendant?  What is to stop relatively mainstream Conservatives from being, if you’ll pardon the pun, trumped? Aping populism won’t defeat populism. It is a dangerous trajectory.

Second, populism undermines stability.  Our political stability has been a great asset to this country but populism inevitably involves an attack on those institutions that have been essential to delivering that.  In recent years, we have already seen too much of this. Our independent judiciary has been described as ‘enemies of the people’ and our non-partisan civil service has been roundly abused.

And, third, populism would undermine the United Kingdom.  In the context of the United Kingdom, right-wing populism means English nationalism.  Such English nationalism repels voters in other parts of the UK, is neglectful of the importance of the Union and, consequently, encourages separatist movements.

So, a properly populist approach would be economically wrong-headed, increase division in society, undermine our institutions – and the stability that they bring – and destabilise the integrity of the United Kingdom.  In short, it is not where a responsible political party should be.

If our response is not to become a populist party, how do we respond?  How does a mainstream centre-right party survive and prosper in an era of populism?  How, ultimately, do we defeat populism?

This is not a speech designed to set out a policy agenda.  Nor is this an issue that is fundamentally about policy but about tone, attitude and ambition.  So here are seven points to bear in mind.

First, if we want to be a broad church, we should try to de-escalate the culture wars.  That means recognising that, within the Conservative movement, there will be social conservatives and there will be social liberals.  There always have been and, by and large, we have managed to rub along alright together. Historically, we have always found more to unite us than divide us.  

Second, our politics needs to be more civil.  Whether talking about fellow Conservatives or indeed decent people in politics as a whole, we should all try harder to speak in a more respectful way, not impugning motives without good reason, recognising that someone holding a different view doesn’t make them a bad person.  Liberal democracy requires a level of tolerance and civility in our political debate which is increasingly absent. A coarsened political environment is an environment in which the populist politician can flourish.

Third, we won’t defeat populist ideas by sneering.  People concerned about rapid changes in our culture and our economy are not ‘deplorables’, to use Hillary Clinton’s phrase.  We might disagree with them, but they should be treated with more respect than has often been the case.

Fourth, the arguments for mainstream politics need to be presented as benefiting society as a whole, not about furthering the interests of one group over another. We should believe in One Nation Conservatism. Too often, populists argue that if a policy is good for one group it must be bad for another – that we are in a zero sum game.  

A policy which encourages wealth creation is described as a handout to the rich at the expense of the poor.  Or a policy which reduces racial discrimination favours ethnic minorities over the majority population. But life is not a zero sum game.  

If people are encouraged to invest, to be entrepreneurial, to create wealth, the individual and society as a whole can benefit.  And if barriers to advancement are removed, if opportunities are widened, the individual and society as a whole can benefit.

Fifth, we need to be open and straight-forward that many decisions are complex, that life involves trade-offs and that an easy, simple answer is often the wrong one.  In response to the glib, easy answer, we shouldn’t be frightened to say that, “well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that”.

Those of us who are politicians should treat the public as adults and be prepared to set out that we may often face a range of imperfect choices, that most choices have costs as well as benefits. Over-simplifying issues – a tendency of the populist politician – only increases scepticism in our politics when claims turn out to be untrue.  If we want to rebuild trust in our politics, we should strive harder to communicate the factors that influence any decision or policy.

Sixth, the Conservative Party has to win the economic debate.  The economy should be at the heart of the centre right’s case to the electorate.  A focus upon creating prosperity is an approach that more often unites rather than divides the Conservative Party and has a resonance with voters who know that their living standards would be put at risk by our opponents.

Populism of left and right poses enormous risks to this country’s prosperity.  And, ultimately, those who would lose out from these economic failures would be those who already feel left behind.

We need to be confident in making the case for the market economy, for allowing business to create wealth, for being outward looking, for embracing technology.  Our economic record in government since 2010 is something of which we should be proud – the deficit slashed, employment at record levels – given the mess we inherited.

And seventh, our message has to be aspirational and optimistic.  We must be advocates for policies that benefit all parts of society, so that those who have voted Labour when it was anchored in mainstream values look again at us and see us as a party determined to protect and advance their interests. We should be driven by a desire to expand opportunity, to give more people a chance to have a good education, a good job, to own their own home and have access to world class public services.

In the course of this speech, I have merely touched on the issue of the era – Brexit.  And I don’t intend to dwell on it. But I believe the approach I have set out should apply to how we address Brexit.  

We should put the economy at the heart of how we deliver Brexit ensuring that we maintain strong trading relationships with our biggest trading market.

We should discourage a culture war over Brexit.  We need to cool the temperature of the debate recognising that the divisions in society need to heal.  We should make the case that honourable and decent people can hold strongly different views. And such views do not make them racists, on the one hand, or traitors, on the other.  As a political party, we Conservatives also need to make it clear that we want to win the support of those that voted for either side in 2016.

Indeed, if we focused on gaining the support of just one side of the debate, there is a risk that this support would fall away when Brexit becomes a less significant issue.

It will happen, one day.

And we need to set out more clearly and openly the trade-offs and choices that lie ahead of us as we establish a new relationship with the 27 member states of the European Union.  Reluctance by some participants in this debate to accept that some choices have costs has meant that the debate on our future relationship has been, too often, characterised by wishful thinking.  

This wishful thinking – that, for example, we could have the exact same benefits as membership of the EU but with none of the obligations – has not survived the collision with reality.  But it has left some voters bemused and angry that the simple Brexit they were promised by some has not been delivered. But over-promising, over-simplifying and failing to deliver will only encourage further disenchantment.

So let us approach Brexit as we should approach all issues.  Seeking to build broad support, respectful of those arguing in good faith, open and honest about the consequences of the choices ahead of us, mindful of the economic impact – particularly on those most vulnerable in society – and taking a practical approach in order to find a constructive way forward.

Brexit is a test for the country.  But it is a test for the Conservative Party.  What sort of party should we be? Do we succumb to populist arguments that may win easy applause but, in the end, will leave the public disappointed?  Do we have the courage and honesty to spell out the trade-offs, the risks as well as the opportunities?

More broadly, the Conservative Party will have to make a choice about its future.  We could become a populist party, defined by one particular position on the Brexit debate, seeking to exploit anxiety and resentment about a fast-changing world.  But such an approach would be inconsistent with the great traditions of Conservatism in the UK, would narrow our electoral appeal and take enormous great risks with our economic prosperity and the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The case I have set out today is that Conservativism should be broad, not narrow; open, not closed; forward-looking, not yearning for a mythical past.  It should be based on an appeal to the common sense, pragmatic instincts of the majority. We should seek to unite, not divide. In short, One Nation Conservatism.

Pragmatic, practical, reasonable but determined.  That is the character of the British people. That is the character of Conservatism at its best.