Earlier this year the Emperor of Japan abdicated and his son took over the role. The outgoing Emperor and his son are of course descendants of the Japanese Sun God and so are deities in their own rights.  Even though Japan is a society which depends on industry and technology, evidently they have a regard for the traditions of the past, as their ceremonies, little-changed over the centuries, still invoke the god-like status of their rulers. But, the royal family has changed. Although Emperor Hirohito during the second world war was a strong supporter of the Japanese war effort, his son Akihito and possibly his grand-son, the new emperor, Naruhito are pacifists. The just-abdicated Emperor is very much respected by his people for his closeness to the people, mixing with and comforting them at times of difficulty, something unheard of in the times of his ancestors. Unfortunately, the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has different views and has appeared at shrines celebrating Japan’s war-mongering past. He considers that Japan was unjustly treated in the post-war negotiations and that It should now stand up for itself and become a world-class military power. Where Naruhito was popular, Shinzo Abe is an unashamed populist, asserting that Japan has nothing to be ashamed of in its past.

Populism is a rather slippery concept. It is suggested however by academics that it has three essential elements:

1.  It is an appeal to ‘ordinary people’. It uses expression such as ‘working people’, ‘the average man’ and ‘common sense’;

2.  It relies on blaming an elite for the ills of the ‘ordinary people’. Hence there is reference to ‘the rich’ or ‘the establishment’ or those who would impose ‘political correctness’ on the man in the street;

3.  And then we have reference to ‘others’, not part of 'our' national group. In the UK, This means that there is constant reference to British jobs and British people with the implication that immigrants are not and can never be British. Then there is the question of having a faith other than Christianity. Granted the laws which we have in Europe, most populists are keen to avoid a charge of racism and so tend to approach immigration from a position of defending ‘national security and national (British) values’;

to which I would add a fourth, a charismatic leader, the one seeking power through populism.

But with all of these requirements, there still has to be a grievance for the populist leader to use in order to attain power.  And grievances are not in short supply.

A recent example of the ascent of populism was the election of MPs from Franco’s political descendants, the Vox party in Spain. They blame the EU ‘elites’ (Mrs Merkel in particular) and probably also Italy for the ‘invasion’ of African immigrants into a country which certainly does have problems, both economic and constitutional. Their unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 26%, 6 years ago, to a still very high 14.7% now. Over the same period, youth unemployment came down from 56% to 32%. Hardly an ideal situation. In Italy, with its twin-headed populist government, there is a 10.7% unemployment rate overall, with a youth unemployment rate at 33% - even higher than that of Spain. And so it doesn’t take much to see how a sense of grievance might arise amongst ‘working people’. I’m uncertain as to what grievance there was to which Brexit was the solution, but obviously, the idea of sharing power with other states, or being subject to ‘the elites’ in a supreme court partly composed of foreigners and otherwise being a member of a supranational organisation was itself sufficient for 52% of those voting.

However, that grievances exist, is a fact of life. A grievance can easily come into existence whether justified or not. In its nature, where there is a grievance, then someone-else is to blame. Indeed, the more intractable the problem, the more easily Populists will be able to blame others for it. From Hungary to Venezuela, they stand ready and willing to tell people that it is not their fault, but someone-else's. Now on the face of it, we should welcome populism. We say that we want to know what the people think. Indeed our democracy is built on the idea that the will of the people is the final arbiter of how our country is run. The problem caused by populism, however, lies in the provision of a simplistic (i.e. inadequate and so wrong) answer to a complex question. And of course, what the people think is not necessarily what they have reasoned out for themselves. It is, rather, the result of the influence of rabble-rousers who have fed them a false promise as to how they can get rid of what is causing their grievance - simply by attacking another group of people, those who are 'to blame'.

It is this focus on and unjust blaming of others which is the basis of all populism. The ‘others’ can be another country, another ethnic or religious group or groups of people who are ‘the elite’, such as the EU commission or the George Soros Open Society Foundation. They are usually believed to be in charge of the country or have immense but hidden influence over it. This is as a result of some form of conspiracy or as a result of some sort of assumed democratic deficit, for example ignoring what is claimed to be a very straightforward referendum result, such as we had with Brexit. The difficulty we have then is not just in finding solutions to what may be genuine underlying problems, but at the same time preventing blame from attaching to groups of people who are not responsible for those problems and so diverting us from finding solutions which will actually work. And our politicians don’t seem to be taking the lead in that endeavour. The opposite is true. Where they have no solutions, then they too join in the blame game, with for example draconian limits on immigration.

At root, though, the people themselves are actually the problem. We have to accept that mostly they are not actually willing or, perhaps, informed enough, to spend the time engaging realistically with the different and complex problems which confront us. In turn this means that we either have ineffective and destructive populist decisions or we have to take away immediate decision making power from the people. This is not a novel or heretical thought. It is fundamental to Winston Churchill’s comment that democracy is the worst system of government - except for all the others which have been tried. The point is that it all depends what you mean by ‘democracy’.

I was reminded the other day of Chartism, a working class political reform movement, one of whose leaders was John Frost, possibly a distant relative of mine on my mother’s side. One of the 6 demands in their 1838 Charter was for parliamentary elections to be held every year. In other words, they were looking to institute a form of democracy where their MPs would do the bidding of the electorate without question, a form of direct democracy. In those days, it is difficult to say that there was in fact democracy in any meaningful sense, in view of the fact that the upper classes held sway over everything. To be an MP you had to be a man and a land-owner. Since then, however, we have managed to broaden the types of MP elected, whilst maintaining a 5 year period between general elections. In this way, we have arrived at a form of representative, rather than direct, democracy. Representative democracy (theoretically) allows MPs to think for themselves, make decisions and then be held accountable for them at the next election. It was, of course, interference with just this system for party political ends which has led to our present impasse in the UK.

A Labour politician on Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ recently, an ardent Brexiteer, said in response to the idea of having another referendum: “If Remain had won, would you be asking for another referendum?”. To which the answer is obviously ‘no’. But she didn’t seem to want to address the question of whether the Brexiteers would want one and still be agitating to leave by any means possible if Remain had in fact won. It illustrates the problem of populism but also puts into question another point. For the system to work, we need MPs who are well-informed and intelligent and not self-delusional or self-serving. We want the quality of their decisions to be better by far than would be that of their electors. Looking around, I’m not sure that we have all that many who fit the bill. This is not though a recent phenomenon. In 1903, a renowned preacher, Dr Edward Hale, became the chaplain to the American Senate. He was asked: “Do you pray for the Senators each morning? He replied “Every morning I look at the Senators and I pray for the people!”.

Paul Buckingham

14th May 2019

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