A Discussion Paper
Towards a Democratic Populism
Jeremy Gilbert September 2000
As the government's poll lead evaporates like spilt petrol, it must seem to Tony Blair that his biggest mistake has been, despite all his caution, to underestimate the power of tabloid sentiment. For months now The Sun has been agitating for just the motorists' tax-revolt which has culminated in the greatest crisis to face new Labour since its invention. Blair and Alastair Campbell, such ardent suitors of that paper's affections, are doubtless cursing their own weakness in allowing Gordon Brown to pursue even a vaguely pro-tax, pro-environment, anti-car agenda, the mildest manifestation of which has been sufficient to see all their work wooing Middle England undone overnight.
We already know how seriously Blair takes that mythical constituency, and what he takes to be the unshakeable and unreformable prejudices of its typical inhabitant, Mondeo Man. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out in an article in The Guardian, the most disturbing aspect of the summer's leaked memos from Blair to close colleagues was the irrefutable evidence they provided of Blair's true view of the country he governs. In the face of a rising tide of reaction in the press - in particular over the issue of asylum seekers - and a Tory leadership adopting the kind of bigoted rhetoric which first brought Thatcher to power, it evidently never crossed Mr Blair's mind that the answer might be to take on the racists and win the argument.
It is only a short time since the country was united in horror at a series of nail-bomb attacks aimed at minority communities, reminding us all of the logical conclusion to which such sentiments lead. The public does not have such a short memory that the name of Stephen Lawrence has been forgotten. William Hague is a nasty little man short on telegenic charisma who resembles physically the skinheads he seems to identify with politically. Under such circumstances, it could hardly be difficult for the leader who persuaded the labour party to abandon its life-long commitment to socialism to come out fighting, take Hague on, and beat the bigots. Blair could easily have fought back with a line which maintains that the white English - the British majority - are not, after all, a racist people indifferent to the suffering of millions and terrified of those different from themselves. And yet the mere possibility of making such a response was not aired by any senior Labour figure. Instead, we know from the leaked memos that Blair saw the only viable response to be one which demonstrated his own personal commitment to conservatism, authoritarianism and xenophobia. What became clear here was the fact that whatever Blair's personal views - and one cannot doubt the authenticity of his private liberal convictions- he sincerely believes the story about the British - and more specifically the English - which The Sun and The Daily Mail have always told him and us: that we are a small-minded, chauvinistic, intolerant and unimaginative people.
This version of Britishness was always central to the success and coherence of the Thatcher and Major governments. Despite the fact that a majority of the electorate persisted in voting for parties who had no investment in it, whose very existence was testament to its falsity, the strategic ineptitude and fractious sanctimony of those who remained committed to other visions always prevented them from cohering into a workable alternative. New Labour came into existence offering one which could succeed not because it inspired and united all of those who - for largely similar reasons - hated Tory England , but because it did not frighten the Daily Mail readership enough for them to be bothered to go out and vote against it. It should never be forgotten that the 1997 general election was won on the basis of the lowest turn-out since women got the vote, whilst in 1992 more voters had turned out to deprive Neil Kinnock of the premiership than had participated in any previous British election. Coming to power amid the vapid celebration of (white, heterosexual, male) British youthfulness that was 'Cool Britannia', the leader of this newly 'young country' has never sought to take on and refute the true core message of Thatcherism - that the British are a conservative people - and never sought to flesh out a different picture of what our national identity might be in the twenty-first century. This is not, apparently, because he would not like to do so, but because he does not believe it can be done.
There are several responses to be made to this. Firstly, it is clear that it can be done. The 1945 Labour government set the terms of political debate for 3 decades partly by popularising a vision of Britain as a modern, egalitarian, liberal and tolerant society; this was the explicit aim of the 1951 Festival of Britain, the success of which the Millennium Experience company has so conspicuously failed to emulate. It took more than a decade - from the moment of Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech in 1968 to that of Margaret Thatcher's election victory in 1979 - to successfully displace this consensual and democratic view with a different one. That version, propagated by Powell and Thatcher and the scions of the new right across the globe, and inherited now by William Hague, is characterised by what commentators such as Stuart Hall have called 'authoritarian populism': a potent combination of anti-bureaucratic, individualistic sentiment with nationalism and social conservatism; a politics which appeals to everything in common popular sentiment which resonates with an authoritarian political agenda.
The mistake made by so many critics and opponents of authoritarian populism is to misunderstand what is essential to it and what is not. It is not populism itself - the simple belief that people can and should govern themselves, and that popular culture contains positive elements - which is at fault. Nor is the essential, basic term of authoritarian populism its racism as such, its social conservatism as such, even its authoritarianism as such; rather it is its assertion about the relationship of the British people to those ways of looking at the world. The founding statement of authoritarian populist discourse as it circulates in the UK is simply that: 'The British people (meaning, in the main, the English) are by nature incorrigibly conservative, intolerant, individualistic and ignorant'. It is Blair's complicity with this statement, rather than any commitment to these values on his own part, which characterises his government as, in effect, a continuation of the authoritarian legacy of Thatcher. It is a complicity which seems utterly futile, however. For even if it were true, even if The Sun and The Mail did reveal the truth about what the English are really like, there would be little point in a labour government pandering to them for any length of time. For who seriously believes that the labour party could ever compete with the Tories on such terrain? Who could really expect even Tony Blair to last long in a battle with William Hague to see who was the more violent in their expressions of anti-democratic, backward-looking bigotry? Take a policy area like education: who can really believe that even David Blunkett will ever be crass enough in his reactionary elitism and his contempt for public-sector professionals to satisfy Chris Woodhead, the ultra-right-wing inspector of schools who consistently and publicly argues for an educational agenda quite different from the government's and somewhere to the right of the conservatives'?
The only hope of survival for the government under such circumstances is to do what all history-making governments do: re-write the agenda. But so far they have shown little desire or capacity to think in this way. Instead their response - from the London Mayoralty debacle to the fuel-pump crisis - has been to ditch the populism - paying no mind at all to democratic demands or popular wishes - whilst keeping the control-freak authoritarianism. No-wonder the poll lead has disappeared.
This is not only a problem for the government, but for all who fear the consequences of a return to Tory rule. A different notion of Britain, a different political mood, a different idea of politics cannot be generated solely or even primarily by government or party. Rather, this vision would need to be created and celebrated in as many ways and as many places as that cherished by the right, who routinely succeed by making conservative Englishness a common cause from the terraces to The Times.
But if unpopular authoritarianism is not the progressive answer to the problem of authoritarian populism, then what is? The answer is simple enough: a non-authoritarian populism. A populism which seeks resonances with all in the lives and ideas of ordinary people which is conducive to the egalitarian, collectivist, liberal, tolerant, forward-thinking outward-looking spirit of democracy could be at least as popular and at least as powerful as one which appeals only to our selfishness and our fears. A politics which does not patronise the public by assuming it to be incapable of rational thought or liberal feeling would have the courage to tell us all a different story about ourselves, and would seek to involve us all in its telling.
The fact is that phenomena like countries, like publics, like the moods of populations, are not fixed and inert entities which can be simply 'reflected' by agencies like the press and which politics can only respond to. Public opinion never simply exists; it is always a battleground, a complex and contradictory field criss-crossed by frequently-incompatible, always-fluctuating lines of force. Peoples, like individuals, very rarely have self-images which are as fixed as they appear on the surface. There are many positive and progressive sentiments rising in the British breast which run counter to the assertion that we are an incorrigible nation of Tories. It is this fundamental assertion which must be challenged at every level if the long-term hegemony of authoritarian populism is to be displaced, and there are many democratic elements in contemporary culture which the government, if it offered leadership, could help to amplify and focus into a force which would marginalise of the conservative party and the tabloid right for a generation. The popularity of Ken Livingstone, the rich multiculturalism of contemporary music culture, the remarkable rise in the self-confidence and academic success of young women, the continued belief of the public in their own, their childrens and their parent entitlement to education, health care and a comfortable retirement, even the spirit which almost saw an out lesbian win Big Brother (so the lad vote swung it, just: but can anyone believe that 10 years ago Anna would have even been in the running?) are all elements of a potentially different image of the British to that of a nation of white van men. Indeed, even the hostility to the EU, the fuel blockades and the despicable mob violence which followed the Sarah Payne case bespeak a sense of collective disempowerment which might not be expressed only in demagoguery and violence if a genuinely democratic and democratising alternative were available.
To speak of potential moods and alternative visions is easy, but what would the concrete manifestations of such an agenda be? What I am advocating here is not so much a specific programme as a type of strategy. A democratic populism would be a means to a variety of possible ends, although all of them would be informed by a fundamentally democratic egalitarian, collectivist, libertarian set of principles. It would be a way of bringing together principles, policies and the means by which to popularise them. It would be a politics which was democratic in the widest sense: not merely in favour of a few liberal institutions, but driven by a dynamic tendency to break down hierarchies and concentrations of power political, economic, cultural, social big or small, wherever they may be found, in the recognition that this is the only way to guarantee the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As such, its consequences could never be fully predicted in advance. Nonetheless, it is worth thinking about what some possible examples might be.
One of the great obstacles to making any progress with a political agenda which places our mutual collective responsibilities to each other and our children above myopic individualism is the prevalence of the car culture. Of course the fundamental step which must be taken in overcoming it is the renovation of the national public transport infrastructure. At the same time, however, attitudes need to change. The reason the fuel blockades turned into a crisis was that The Sun and the Tory party have been gearing up for months to consolidate motorists never previously a recognisable constituency amongst the UK electorate into a coherent constituency identified firmly with anti-tax, anti-public-sector xenophobic individualism. On the other side of the argument, the typical rhetoric with which agencies governmental or otherwise address the public on this issue is one of vague and hectoring moralism. Unfocussed and intangible pleas to consider the environment are never likely to challenge the Mondeo mindset. Why not learn the lesson that the tabloids have always known, that nothing swings an argument like a threat to the safety of children? Why not hit the public and the news media hard and repeatedly with the frightening statistics about the number of children killed, injured, or subjected to illness by the internal combustion engine? Far tougher legislation against speeding and reckless driving would be just one consequent element of a long-term campaign to change public attitudes to motoring in general as they have already been successfully changed on drunk driving.
Why do agencies ranging from the teaching unions to the government continue to allow Chris Woodhead to terrorise one of the most dedicated and undervalued bodies of professionals in the country? This man thinks youre children arent good enough to go to university Sack him now! No campaign could be easier to mobilise. The public would never follow the anti-liberal, anti-intellectual paranoia which characterises the press attitude to teachers if it was made clear to them what the elitists who peddle it think of their children. A genuinely democratic, genuinely populist approach to education would encourage a real dialogue between teachers who would be treated as the dedicated and well-trained public servants that 99% of them are and parents few of whom want to see their children tested rather than taught, driven into competitive hysteria in under-resourced classrooms rather than allowed to develop as human beings- and would not subject both to the diktats of a class of managerial technocrats.
The very possibility of a popular pro-Europeanism seems off the agenda in Britain, yet Blairs commitment to the Euro is well-known. It is obviously unthinkable that the tabloids and the Tories will abandon their campaign against the Euro or that the British public will simply decide to ignore them without a positive case being put. A democratic populist approach to the issue would present just such a case, but in the context of a programme for democratisation of the EU, challenging both the spurious myth of national sovereignty in a global economy and the technocratic centralism of the current EU agenda. The wholly justifiable fear that some measure of politico-economic autonomy will be lost with the pound, the wholly accurate assessment that trans-national institutions undermine the authority of national polities, should not be patronised with assurances as to the beneficence of unaccountable bodies. The demand for a peoples Europe is one which shouldnt be confined to the far left, and it is one which has yet to be articulated with any force in the context of British public debate.
The position being taken here is far from new. It is the same one articulated by Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s as the basis for radical politics in a mass democracy and recommended by Raymond Williams in the earliest days of cultural studies. It is the position advocated by Stuart Hall throughout his career. It was the politics of the GLC at its best. It is a position which simply refuses to equate the popular with the conservative and seeks to make positive social change something which large numbers of people feel themselves to have a stake in.
Of course, it is not only the government which is unwilling or unable to articulate such a position. The self-styled defenders of radical politics in the UK today either lack any conception at all of what it might mean to be popular or actively refuse such an aspiration. When, in the mid 1990s, Reclaim the Streets appeared to be on the verge of popularity, at the height of the convergence between the anti-roads movement and public concern about transport policy, their instinctive response was to reinvent themselves as anti-capitalist purists in the best anarchist tradition, smugly satisfied at their success in alienating any member of the public who was not already a member of the same ultraleft subculture which organised the Stop the City actions and the anti poll-tax protests in the 1980s. The shrilly self-righteous rhetoric typical of publications like Schnews and Squall bespeaks a world-view which is far happier to stay safe in its cultural ghetto than to risk the responsibility of actual historical relevance. If the self-appointed saints of the direct action movement allowed themselves to think in such terms for even a moment then they would be forced to confront their utter failure to sustain a single political victory or even to maintain a minimum of public support. As for the remnants of the revolutionary left, their decades-long record of failure to inspire a popular following speaks for itself.
Not that there is cause for complacency in any quarter. The Williams-Hall tradition of the New Left and Marxism Today has been saying much of this in different ways since the 1950s: who has listened? The tradition which I am writing in right now is probably at least as guilty of self-satisfied sectarianism as any other on the left, and if that is so then it is a habit which we can ill-afford to persist in this new century. The question which this tradition has often been unable to answer is the same one which my analysis here still begs: who are to be the agents of this new politics? What are to be the sites at which it is practiced? There are no simple answers to these questions but there are a number of possible ones. Probably the institutions with the most power to take it up would be still, despite the waning of the class struggle, the trade unions. Indeed, if the long-rumoured divorce between the trade unions and the Labour Party were ever to come about (unlikely unless the British public could be persuaded the support the state funding of political parties) then the union political funds would become the greatest potential resource for progressive campaigning that there has ever been in this country. Rather than bankrolling new labour, the unions could sponsor a range of campaigns aimed at popularising a truly democratic politics, much as the TUC has already done invaluable work in organising campaigns against racism. A range of other bodies with investments in such a politics could also play a part, from the liberal democrats to the non-Tory press, from the revolutionary left to Friends of the Earth and even (who know?) Reclaim the Streets. It is not as if this campaign would require a co-ordinating committee, a common manifesto, or a paid-up membership. All that would be required would be a common insistence by whatever means necessary that The Daily Mails version of Middle England is not representative even of the English (never mind the rest of Britain). This sounds simple enough, but it is not. Those with a psychic investment in the idea of themselves as rebels and outlaws would have to divest themselves of it, learning a language which did not automatically alienate the majority, understanding that there is no a action as effective as persuasion. Those who have trained themselves never to breathe a word that might alienate Middle England would have to learn the courage to tell Middle England to its face that it might not, after all, always have to be Middle England.
Above all, it would require all of those who dream of a green and pleasant land not entirely overrun with white vans and Mondeos never to forget who the true enemy is: not those who drive them, but those who tell them that they can never do anything else; not those who seek a different degree of social transformation, but those who oppose it all together; not those whose methods and tactics are different, but those whose fundamental message is that the British should never be anything but jingoistic denizens of a post-Imperial backwater. It is the pernicious message of the Tories and their allies in the press which must be resisted with an alternative set of values, democratic values to which everyone from Charles Kennedy to the anarchist anti-capitalists already subscribe. Whatever the very real differences between us cultural, political and ideological they are as nothing compared to the gulf, the moral void, which separates us from Portillo and Hague. If we could remember that then all our energies might still not go to waste, and real democratic progress might be possible. It could be done. It has happened before, with the election of the Atlee government in the 1940s, with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The failure to keep that revolution popular was what opened the door for the rise of the new right: only its reconnection with the people will consign Thatcher and Powell to history
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