Populism is a dangerous game (FT)

Cada vegada que m’arriba notícia de l’última bestiesa perpetrada per Podemos, per l’Ada Colau o per Ciutadans recordo un article de Janan Ganesh que vaig llegir l’abril de l’any passat, quan Cameron encara semblava a la corda fluixa. Molta gent dirà que els partits independentistes són igual de populistes i és veritat. El populisme sempre és fruit de la impotència. El populisme espanyol s’alimenta de la frustració que va escampar Zapatero, i de la constatació que Espanya no és un país tan normal com deien els mites de la Transició. Pel que fa al populisme indepe, ha esclatat amb el simulacre del 9N. Tothom veu que sense enfrontar-se amb l’Estat espanyol la independència és impossible, però cap polític català no gosa encara assumir-ho obertament. Aquest article explica bé el fenomen i dóna algunes claus per intentar afrontar-lo.

The UK Independence party does not represent the start of a revolt but the culmination of it. A spirit of anti-politics began permeating the country around the turn of the millennium when Tony Blair, the last politician the British allowed themselves to love, broke their hearts by turning out to be a prime minister and not a miracle worker. The disillusion intensified after the Iraq war, a work of naive over-ambition forever remembered as an act of heinous deceit. Then came the crash, the expenses scandal and much more immigration than voters were told to expect.

Cynicism verging on nihilism is the closest thing modern Britain has to a national ideology. It has become common sense to assume the worst of anyone in public authority. Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, profits from this foul zeitgeist, not because he is a manipulative genius but because he is the nearest populist to hand. If it were not him, it would be some other jobbing demagogue with the dumb luck to be here now.

It is not obvious how to take him on. But it is increasingly obvious how not to. Hounded by the mood of anti-politics, Britain’s political class has become self-loathing and scared of its own shadow. Mainstream politicians ape the language and manner of populists. They vie to disown a “metropolitan elite” that they themselves constitute. They hope that nodding along as voters express their scorn for them will somehow spare them from it.

Politicians used to wound each other with accusations of incompetence, immorality or intellectual wrongness – all slurs grounded in substance. Now they try to define each other as “out of touch”. When David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, attacks Labour for indulging dependency culture or withholding a referendum on EU membership, he points to the party’s estrangement from public opinion. When Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, attacks the Tories for overseeing a fall in living standards, his point is that millionaires cannot care about the plight of the ordinary.

The measure of a politician’s worth is how much he is like “us” and not like “them”. Mr Farage’s real achievement is not electoral – his party has no MPs and runs no councils – but cultural. He has spooked the mainstream into emulating the values and priorities of its own tormentors.

As a ploy to neutralise Mr Farage, this self-abasement gets nowhere because it concedes his basic point – that Britain is run by a conspiracy of malign people – and radiates the most lethal weakness in politics: inauthenticity. Mr Cameron is the highest-born prime minister since Alec Douglas-Home half a century ago. Mr Miliband is a professor’s son whose main detour from north London’s cognoscenti was a year teaching at Harvard. They stand for major parties. When they or their similarly rarefied lieutenants play at being the man in the street, it looks craven and affected.

The political classes believe they are unpopular because of something they have done. Certainly, expense-fiddling compounded their scuzzy reputation. And their sheer narrowness is alienating, too. Parliament has become a job guarantee for apparatchiks and activists who relax by watching television dramas set in other political capitals. In Britain politics is not just showbiz for ugly people but for weirdly obsessive people too.

The rise of populism, however, is not primarily the fault of any person – even Mr Blair – or any event. It is powered by structural trends that have been in train for decades. Prime among these is the fragmentation of class loyalty, which has cut the vote share commanded by the two main parties from 97 per cent in the 1951 election to 65 per cent in 2010. More votes are up for grabs, giving rebel parties a look-in.

Another trend is economic. Wage stagnation and structural unemployment, themselves born of even deeper trends to do with global competition and automation, have cultivated a sizeable class of people who feel frozen out by mainstream politics and its economic orthodoxies. Ukip, which would have come to nought in the age of full employment, only needs to stand still to make gains among these voters.

Then there is Britain’s ageing population. Ukip relies on older voters, of whom there are more and more. Against all these trends there is not much mainstream politicians can do. They are as unlucky to be around in this phase of history as Mr Farage is fortunate. He will prosper at next month’s European elections but his test comes with the general election a year later, when voters will get serious.

And here is the rub. Instead of smearing themselves with tar and feathers, mainstream politicians should remind populists that they do the hard work of politics: representing constituents, reconciling competing claims and taking an interest in dry corners of legislation that affect people’s lives. Most politics is necessary drudgery. Seen from this angle, the “elite” are the people who get their hands dirty. And populists who damn the whole spectacle from cosy sidelines are the truly decadent ones. janan.ganesh@ft.com

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