Populism has a long and less than noble political history in many countries, but has never taken hold in Britain. The closest we ever came was Oswald Mosely in the 1930’s with his rather diluted, anglicised version of Mussolini’s Fascists.
But this week Nigel Farage leads UKIP into its annual conference, riding high in the opinion polls and having just announced the defection of a second serving Conservative MP. UKIP has long been viewed as little more than an offshoot of the Tories; a home for those who feel that the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. My analysis of UKIP’s policies are that they are less a reincarnation of those propagated by the likes of Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit in the 1980s, and more akin to classic political populism.
By populism I mean that curious mix of elements of small “c” conservatism pulled from both left and right, and brought together in a way that plays on the insecurities of the masses, and whose leaders are always in search of some bucolic paradise that exists only in the collective myth. Populism is often branded with the Fascist tag, a term which itself is rather too liberally (no pun intended) applied to any political views seen as being to the right of mainstream conservative parties. True Fascism was peculiar to Mussolini’s Italy, but following its deemed success in its early years, many of the policies were adopted, adapted and combined additional elements, most famously by Hitler and his National Socialists in Germany, adding “racial purity” to the mix, Franco in Spain, who absorbed the Fascist inspired Falange into a mix of Catholic conservatism and old style military dictatorship, and Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal, which shared many similarities with Franco’s Nationalist regime, but rather less military inspired. Although Mussolini’s Fascists started with a populist agenda, it soon headed down the authoritarian path; a model followed by the others mentioned.
Much better examples of populism are Juan Peron, the former president of Argentina, democratically elected three times in 1946, 1951 and 1973, and Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela, also elected three times, in 1998, 2000 and 2006. Both had enjoyed successful military careers, an attribute that is frequently a prerequisite for political success in Latin America. Both drew on the socialist policies of social welfare and unionised labour, combined with what would be viewed as more right wing policies in terms of nationalism and militarism, and an autarkic approach to economic development.
So is Nigel Farage Britain’s Peron or Chazez? Well at first glance the answer would be a clear “no”, as all the media coverage portrays UKIP as simply a repository of dissatisfied, grumpy old Tories who just think the current Conservative leadership who have strayed from the path of righteousness. This is backed up by the disgust with which the leading lights of left wing of British politics treats UKIP; you only have to listen to trade union leader or read to Guardian to see this. However the modern left wing is greatly different from that of years past; the Labour Party is dominated by well educated professionals and the trade union movement by the public sector. This has been a natural evolution, and as evidenced by Tony Blair’s three election victories, not an unsuccessful one.
But this success has meant that the Labour Party often finds itself distanced from the views of blue collar, white working class (especially men) who were once the bedrock of its support. While this group may certainly distrust the Tories and share Labour’s views on public services, there are other policy areas where neither of the major parties (or the Lib Dems) appears in tune with this demographic. In particular, this group sees itself as having been particularly hard hit by the impact of mass immigration and globalisation, the effects of which were felt just as much (if not more) during 13 years of Labour rule as they have been during the current administration; the European Union provides a simplistic target for both these factors.
Can Nigel Farage encourage this group to vote in large numbers for UKIP? Well that is the 650 seat question. Can a manifesto be put together that can appeal to both the blue collar white working class and Tebbit Tories? So far UKIP has failed to put together a coherent policy portfolio of any kind, and has shown itself to be lacking in the kind of detail required of a government, but equally, are their target groupings those that are interested in such detail? Policies that have universal support amongst the major parties (overseas aid levels in line with the Millennium Development Goals, gay marriage and other LGBT equality issues, free trade (such as EU and WTO memberships) and environmental policies) appear to carry little interests for these voter groups.
Populism generally appeals to if not the lowest common denominator, certainly to one that is not far up the scale, but as any TV scheduler or tabloid newspaper will tell you, such an approach can be very successful. British politics (of all mainstream shades) has always worked and succeeded on the basis of “we know best”, and this patrician (in a non-gender sense) approach will be hard to break. Will the British people fall for populism over patrician politics in 2015? It may become the defining question of the forthcoming election.