The false promise of populism

, by Andrew Howe

The false promise of populism

Across the European continent, our respective democratic systems are engaged in a tug-of-war of values. We are currently experiencing an unprecedented battle – a battle that lies at the heart of Europe and our diverse and complicated societies. Questions are arising, including: what it means to be European? What are our common values? What does it mean to be a patriot? This is also the very same question that is at the very heart of the European elections in my country, the United Kingdom.

Populism is currently a phenomenon that has swept across Europe, born in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis and the subsequent crisis of the euro. Neither our national leaders, nor many of our fellow citizens comprehend or recognise that we are all undergoing a revolution, with the eventual outcome of this revolution being uncertain.

It is no secret that populist forces contesting these elections will do well in some countries by exploiting popular anger of a variety of ills, whether they be a lack of economic prospects, stagnating living standards or inequalities in our society that are simply not justifiable. I have profound sympathy for those sentiments. I grew up in a society where your geographical location and your socio-economic background usually pre-determine your life chances and prospects, including health, education, wealth and careers. Indeed, we are very far away from obtaining a true pluralist and inclusive meritocracy.

However, populist factions across the world have seized on these grievances and seek to exploit them for their gain. Such movements profess to be against “the establishment”, claiming to be the defenders of the ordinary people against the wickedness of globalists – defenders of European civilisation from the legions of migrants that supposedly want to destroy our way of life and our culture to replace it with their own. Like many fascists movements in the 20th century, they seek to create a common “enemy of the people” to divide and conquer the nation in order to enact their often paranoid and conspiratorial worldview.

Brexit, for example, did not occur in isolation, but rather as a result of decades of anger and resentment in our regions, northern towns and cities that experienced deindustrialisation and the subsequent loss of well-remunerated and stable employment for life, pride and solidarity. Deindustrialisation marked an end of a way of life of many communities and a loss of social contract between a society and a government that was meant to protect their interests. This, combined with a political system that only gives a binary choice between two political parties that did not represent the country as a whole, has increased this sense of alienation from the parliamentary democracy that is meant to serve our communities – leading to a vacuum for these populist voices to gain traction a vacuum for these populist voices to gain traction.

When the 2016 referendum result was declared and my area voted overwhelming to leave the European Union, I was not surprised. However, I was also uncertain regarding what this actually means and what the implications are. Admittedly, I was ambivalent at the time. Like many others, I never had an elected official or a source of information that ever stood in the public area and explained in good faith and honesty why we are in European Union, what our common values are, what the function of Europe is and what the benefits are.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have seen much more alarming and significant changes occurring than I had previously realised. I have felt more compelled to speak out about the danger of a gamble that many people are taking by playing into the swindle that these populist parties are perpetrating.

Initially, I saw European populist parties such as the AfD, Party for Freedom, National Rally, Vox, UKIP and now the Brexit Party as fringe fanatics who could never be pacified via good faith dialogue in a political process. All these parties know full well that they cannot take power and use the instruments of the state in a unified country. Instead, they have begun to split their own countries as well as Europe into small groups that can be manipulated to achieve their objectives. They have systematically weaponised age-old prejudices against minorities to divide their respective countries. Whether it be on the topic of immigration in the UK, France and Germany, whether it is anti-Semitism in Hungary or national and cultural identity in the case of Spain. Of course, this was not easy to achieve, they have had to work very hard to do it.

The gamble that many ordinary people are participating in is that if they elect these movements into high office, they hope their businesses will flourish and their living standards will improve. They want to feel represented by the political class, they want politicians to resemble normal people rather than represent a small, usually prosperous group in society. To feel European is to feel represented by our political systems and to have the confidence that they will work in our interests.

This, sadly, hasn’t materialised in reality. Let’s observe how this gamble has paid off for many people. Many workers in Hungary wished to be protected from the effects of globalisation and to have a better life for themselves. They were hit with a labour law allowing employers to force workers to take on hundreds of hours of overtime unpaid, with ills blamed on immigration, all the while implementing state persecution against refugees and initiating an online anti-Semitic pogrom against George Soros, the elderly philanthropist. Their prospects has not improved, neither has their quality of life.

These populist movements, once elected into power also show their true colours, as seen by the recent revelations from the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering bribes for state contracts to foreign “oligarchs” in exchange for funding and positive media coverage. This is also a trend in Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Salvini’s Italy - a strong tendency of not respecting the rule of law and undermining individual rights and protections. This has resulted in the easily preventable, and completely avoidable deaths of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean, attacks on refugee centres and increasing intolerance towards minority groups, blamed for all the ills of the nation. Communities have not been made any safer by pursuing ineffective, brutal and incompetent policies designed to fracture society even more.

All these promises to clean up politics have instead led to increased corruption within government, and increased anger towards how our democracies are functioning. The bitter pill to swallow is that these populist movements, in promising to address the ills of society, simply want to use you for their own purposes and ambitions. They lied, they never intended to fulfil their promises and they never will. These populists have no answers to offer anyone, they simply want to take you for a ride at your expense, leaving you with nothing.

What lies at the core of this issue is that the electorate are gambling with other people’s freedoms. Scapegoating has increasingly become a device to enact policies which restrict your personal freedoms, dismantle the rule of law, allow the personal enrichment of corrupt individuals at the expense of everyone else, and enact laws that infringe on the rights of minorities.

We must not forget that we are all minorities in our own way, and to be allowed to belong to a minority is a very precious thing. Whether it is being a foreigner, or whether is to follow a religion or creed, or to be able to express love for someone. We have a right to be who we are and have the freedom of conscience as we currently have personal freedoms. These are not abstract ideas – these freedoms matter and we must guard them jealously. By gambling other people’s freedom, you also run the risk of losing your own. The day the first minority lost out, was the day we all lost out.

We must not let ourselves to be divided, whether it be on nationality, race or religion. This is fundamental to our values and ethos, and our way of life. This is what it means to have common values: these values connect us all. To be a patriot is to stand up for these values and never let anyone undermine them. We must not let anyone’s freedom or dignity be threatened by any act or word on the promise of fixing our society, our political and economic system and restoring justice. Let us not think this in terms of ‘you and them’. Let’s be selfish about this: let’s think about ‘us’.

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