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Politics In 2017 And The Rise Of Populism

02/12/2016 13:40
Chris Radburn/PA Archive

I find it interesting that in the modern age the term 'populism' is mostly used to describe on a pejorative basis; the rising tide of populism and populist politicians are bad things and need to be stemmed.

The definition of populism is "support for the concerns of ordinary people."

Throughout history, there have been many such movements, many objecting to high food prices like the Anti-Corn Law League, objecting to a lack of Governmental support like the Populist Movement of the Mid-West America, and some were popular campaigns for the expansion of democratic rights, like the Chartists or the Suffragettes, or for nuclear disarmament, and even for the right to hunt foxes on horseback.

Not all populist movements in history have spilled over into violence, and populism cannot be defined as being specifically Left or Right Wing.

In some cases, what began as Populist Movements have become established political parties, like the Green Party, SYRIZA, Podemos, UKIP, Five Star and so on. Often they maintain their populist roots, but others, notably SYRIZA, have become ruling parties prepared to make political decisions based upon pragmatism and real politik. Often against the direction of their original movement.

In the Internet age, and the huge expansive flow of information, opinion, and debate Populist movements are more easily able to attract supporters from all different ages and backgrounds. However, with populist movements it is vital to keep the messages simple and straight forward for easier absorption. While this can create half-developed arguments, it remains the responsibility for the individual to take a point of view, consider it in the light of opposing as well as supporting arguments and make a decision.

Both Left and Right wing parties heavily use the Internet to broadcast their message, and chat rooms and social media have become the new town halls for public meetings. It is not a free-win for enlightenment, of course, and there are plenty of ill-thought out and resentful, even hateful, arguments made. 'Twas ever thus.

But the key to Populism is that support for the cause is a matter of free will.

Then the movements, as they are, require political resolution one way or another. And here it becomes tricky. Taking as our base case, the movement is popular with the ordinary people, but not with the elite. Without an intransigent elite there would be no need for many of these movements. In order to perpetuate their ownership of the political system the elite are forced into a compromise and grant a plebiscite. In the UK in 2016 this was the EU Referendum, the eleventh one to be held since 1975. Problematically, the terms of the Referendum were not clear, nor were the boundaries or a valid time frame made clear. What was the post-Brexit Britain going to look like? The question was a simple one, but the consequences were far from simple.

Interestingly, the Referendum debate did cross the Left Right, rich poor, North South divides, and here is part of the problem, many people were voting the same way for different reasons and with different expectations. Arguably, this diversity of expected outcomes created more problems than it solved. But the problem lies not with the result per se but within the framework of the vote itself.

Despite problems post June, it was a valid one to have had, because like all other ten UK plebiscites it addressed the constitutional matter of how we are governed. This was not a referendum on immigration, the funding of the NHS, the security of the people or how we engage in trade; this was a question of the independent sovereignty of the nation state versus the expansion of the supranational. That constitutional question, in my view, made this an appropriate referendum to be held, and while many of the arguments given - like in all political discussions and debates - were fallacious and fanciful - the result was a clear representation of the will of the people on the nature of their relationship with Government.

The Referendum was, then, the result of populism and the results was a true and clear representation of the wishes of the ordinary people. It had its flaws, that's for sure, but the fault of that was the nature of the question itself and the lack of parameters; and the fault for that lies firmly with the elite. This was not mob rule, this was a confirmation of the expected social contract, with its inherent rights, privileges, guarantees and responsibilities, between the people and the State.

Italy faces a Constitutional referendum this weekend, which may well bring down the Government (the centre Left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has threatened to resign if the No vote wins). This raises the possibility of an early General Election in 2017, and it is possible that the populist party 5Star could make solid gains. But the threat of 5Star gaining seats should not affect the Constitutional matter to be decided by the Referendum. That is not a definite consequence, and should not be used as a reason to vote Yes on Sunday, the two matters are separate issues, and should be treated as such.

It seems that we are being told, across Europe, that we should not support populist movements because they are not in the interest of the elite.

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