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Populism seems now the most dynamic political force in many liberal democracies, following Brexit, Donald Trump’s election victory and the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. But what is populism? Some say that a populist is merely a politician who proves unexpectedly popular. But perhaps we can try a more precise definition.

A populist is someone who believes that the traditional governing parties of moderate Left and moderate Right, which claim to oppose each other, in reality form a consensus, since they agree upon basic issues. In Britain, France and the United States, for example, the main parties agreed on the benefits of immigration and the advantages of globalisation. In Britain, the three major parties favoured Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. The people did not.

The real debate, so populists claim, is not between Left and Right, but between the people and the elite, the political class which has interests in common which separate them from the people.

Until recently, the political debate in the West was based broadly on the role of the state in economic affairs. The left sought an expanded state, the right a more restricted one; and whether a voter found herself on the left or the right depended primarily on her social class.

But, with the rise of populism, the debate has shifted from economics to identity. The populists stress national identity as against the transnational allegiances of the elite. The elite, so they argue, is more familiar with Sardinia than with Sunderland, knows Biarritz better than it knows the banlieues of Paris, and prefers Palm Beach to Pittsburgh.

UKIP’s main criticism of David Cameron was not that he was too right-wing or too left-wing, but that he was insufficiently British. The SNP’s criticism of Labour is not that it is too right-wing or too left-wing but that it is insufficiently Scottish. That is why the election of Corbyn has done so little to help Labour north of the border. Donald Trump’s criticism of Obama and Hillary Clinton was not that they were too left-wing or too right-wing but that they were insufficiently American. Marine Le Pen similarly assails the traditional parties in France with the cry that they are insufficiently French.

The populists divide voters on the basis not primarily of class but of education. The key indicator for a UKIP vote is an absence of educational qualifications. The same is true of support for Trump and Marine Le Pen. The elite belong to the exam-passing classes. Most supporters of populist parties do not.

Populists stress the identity of the indigenous majority who, so they say, have become strangers in their own land. Whereas the Left tends to identify with ethnic minorities whom they see as alienated and subjects of discrimination, populists say that the victims are the white working class whose status has declined in an era of globalisation, meritocracy and minority rights. Yet, so the populists say, these are the very people who have built up the country and played by the rules. By contrast, the ‘elite’, the bankers and their political backers, did not play by the rules. Welfare beneficiaries did not play by the rules. Minorities, who have benefited from affirmative action, have not played by the rules. Women, benefiting from another form of affirmative action – tokenism in the populists’ view – do not play by the rules either.

Modern populism has historical antecedents. In Britain, the speeches on immigration and Europe by Enoch Powell in the late 1960s presaged the swing of blue collar workers away from the Left. In the United States, the revolt of George Wallace in 1968 was a first sign that the New Deal coalition was coming to an end and that many of its under-privileged supporters were seeking a new allegiance. Responding to Wallace, Richard Nixon spoke of the ‘silent majority’, those whom the American commentator Ben Wattenberg called, “The unpoor, the unblack and the unyoung”. This group is once again fearful and angry. In a PEW survey carried out in March, 75% felt that `discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities’.

The appeal of the populists is primarily to those left behind by social and economic change, the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing. In Britain, fifty years ago, educational qualifications were not absolutely essential for secure employment. One could leave school at 16, move into a job with the confidence that one would never be out of work. But with the decline of, for example, coal mining and the steel industry, that is no longer the case. There is therefore a sharp cleavage between those who have the skills to benefit from globalisation and those who have not. That is a new cleavage and not only in Britain. The ‘left behind’ feel a strong sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness. believing as they do that the political class makes its decisions without consulting their interests, and looks down on them as unreconstructed bigots.

Leaders of the moderate Left such as Ed Miliband hoped that the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a fundamental change in attitudes to the free market. They hoped that there would be a strong electoral constituency for greater regulation of markets and the banks and in favour of redistributive taxation. They hoped that 2008 would prove a social democratic moment. But it has turned out instead to be a nationalist moment. It has strengthened national feeling while weakening class feeling and social solidarity. The alienation and sense of disenfranchisement which has arisen has benefited the Right more than the Left, as it did in 1930s Europe when Marxists wrongly predicted the collapse of capitalism. But although the financial crash has benefited the Right, it has given rise to a mood which is radical and anything but conservative, benefiting not so much the traditional conservative Right but a new radical populism.

In September, 2014, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, told a lunch at the Financial Times that she was “particularly concerned about what she sees as a structural disconnect between economic and political structures.” The world economic system was becoming increasingly integrated, but the world political system was fragmented and becoming more so because of a backlash against globalisation.

Lagarde’s interlocutor, Gillian Tett, responded that “this makes for a dangerous cocktail, since it creates a world that is interconnected in the sense that shocks can spread quickly but nobody is actually in charge.”

Radical populism which is fiercely nationalistic is nothing new in western politics. Twentieth century Europe was dominated by the struggle between liberal democracy and the forces of radical nationalism, as represented by Fascism and National Socialism. At the beginning of the century, Franz Kafka was asked to explain how he reconciled the growth of nationalism with the facts of economic integration. Kafka replied – “Men always strive for what they do not have. The technical advances which are common to all nations strip them more and more of their national characteristics. Therefore they become nationalist. Modern nationalism is a defensive movement against the crude encroachments of civilisation.”

Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE is professor of government at King’s College London
This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘The End of Establishment?’