Easy emotion and rational argument
When a politician says the same thing three times in the course of a four minute interview I begin to suspect that there is not much depth to the idea he is proposing. The Tory MP Robert Halfon this week proposed that the Director of the BBC should be elected by the general public “to democratise the BBC Licence Fee”. When pressed on what he meant by this grandiloquent phrase he confessed that it would mean that voters could chose between candidates offering more Formula One or more arts programmes. If only life were so simple.
The temptation to reduce complex matters to simplistic choices is at the heart of populism. It can be a very effective political tool. We saw that this week when the bolshy Tory MP Nadine Dorries decried David Cameron and George Osborne as “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. It was stinging because it came from one of their own backbenchers but its potency derives from the way it sums up in a single phrase the whole catalogue of disasters emanating from the budget for the rich with its taxes on pensions, grannies, charities, churches, conservatories, caravans and pasties. As the formidable Ms Dorris fulminated: “They are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”
Coalition apologists will counter by saying that this is not fair or accurate. But those are qualities which are not essential to populist thought. The charge is that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are out of touch with ordinary people and the incremental detail is incidental. Populism offers easy emotion rather than rational argument.
It also gives the illusion of control where none exists. That extends beyond politics. Take the sad case of Claire Squires, the 30-year-old hairdresser from Leicestershire who set out to raise £500 for the Samaritans by running the London Marathon but who collapsed and died near the end of the 26-mile course. A shocked public responded by making donations on her JustGiving website. As I write donations have topped a quarter of a million pounds.
Why? It is not that the excellent Samaritans are any more worthy of donations now than before Ms Squires died. But giving is a way for people to express the impotent empathy they feel in the face of unexpected arbitrary death. It is the same elevation of emotion which characterises political populism – though those politicians who seek to exploit it try to disguise that with the specious flattery, parroted by Mr Halfon, that the British people, being very rational and intelligent, would make the right choice for the top BBC bureaucrat. The truth is that anyone rational and intelligent would soon see what a silly idea it would be to politicise a body currently at arms-length from government.
In the end populism founders because voters aren’t as daft as populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time – that the rich and the powerful do rig the system in their own favour and yet that superficial sweeping solutions might make things worse rather than better. So people indulge in protest votes – or George Galloway here or the National Front in France – or in protest activism like Occupy at St Paul’s or with the Tea Party in America.
Things may go beyond protest. The Dutch government has fallen as the people of Holland have rejected austerity. They now might do the same in France. The markets will exact a cost if that happens. Their blackmail may have to be faced down. But that would be a protracted and nasty business. And we will have to have a profound understanding of the difference between what is popular and populist before we begin.
The Church Times