The dangers of Tory populism

David Cameron at Tory party conference

‘No government can exist which does not control and restrain the popular sentiments.’ So said Robert Peel, who knew a thing or two about Tory party splits. However, clearly our tantric prime minister knows better – this morning David Cameron finally delivered his ‘jinxed’ speech on Europe, committing Britain to an in-out referendum soon after the next election.

It is difficult to recall a political speech longer in gestation or overburdened with such expectation. Only time will tell if the speech manages to square the seemingly impossible circle – appeasing anti-Europe agitators on the Tory backbenches and placating our European allies, while at the same time standing up for Britain’s national interest. If it does, then perhaps the prime minister will consider his hitherto cocksure attitude justified. But judging by initial reaction from European embassies, the omens do not look good.

At home too the more likely scenario is that, like John Major before him, Cameron will find himself swept away, Canute-like, by a rising tide of Tory Europhobia he has no power to control. Because for many within the Conservative party this speech is far from the climactic moment. Rather, it is the beginning of a fresh debate. Not about how to reform the EU, secure fresh consent, or even about repatriation of powers. No, for true Tory escapists, the only sort of release that interests is total: this is now a debate about how to secure Britain’s exit. After all, is it not only the pernicious European embrace that prevents Britain’s magical transformation into the free market, libertarian utopia of their dreams?

Of course this Salisbury-lite vision of ‘splendid isolationism’ is a retreat from the geopolitical realities of a globalised world. And in declaring a long, protracted open season for his party to indulge in such fantasy, Cameron has surrendered any lingering pretence he and his party had to economic credibility. Being part of a single market of 500 million people is an integral part of both Britain’s standing in the world and its attractiveness to investment. And the EU remains overwhelmingly our biggest export destination. As Stephen Ordell, chief executive of Ford in Europe said, even to discuss leaving the trading partner responsible for 50 percent of your exports  would be ‘devastating for the UK economy’.

Furthermore, nothing repels investors more than uncertainty. To promise this vote, when the future shape of the European Union remains unclear, and when the urgent priority should be restoring our flagging economy to healthy growth, is baffling. The only possible conclusion is that party interest has trumped national interest.

But let us hope that the irresponsibility of Tory populism on Europe is confined to the economy. Because when business secretary Vince Cable remarked last week that uncertainty over Britain’s relationship with Europe could lead to a continent-wide outbreak of ‘economic nationalism’, he might just as easily have talked about the threat of political nationalism red in tooth and claw. Because whilst a protectionist break-up of the common market remains, for the time being at least, a hypothetical scenario, the march of radical nationalism and populist extremism are very much a reality.

This is hardly surprising. Times of austerity and crisis have traditionally been seen as harbingers of nationalist and populist impulses. The chilling success of the openly criminal, Holocaust-denying Golden Dawn party in crisis-hit Greece’s 2012 election only seemed to crystallise the nightmare scenario of a return to the politics of the 1930s.

In truth however, the media frenzy surrounding the growth of far-right extremism (and the Golden Dawn in particular) has at times veered towards the hysterical. And ascribing this growth to purely economic factors is mistakenly reductive. Populist extremism has taken root in many economically diverse European countries including some of the most prosperous, such as France, Finland and Austria. Furthermore, by and large, it predates 2008 – although the crisis has certainly acted as an accelerating catalyst.

These themes and more were discussed in parliament this week at a Counterpoint event I was delighted to host. The event formed part of Counterpoint’s project Recapturing Europe’s Reluctant Radicals which aims to explore the individual characteristics of the growing populist sentiment in ten European countries. Lazy assumptions are eschewed in favour of a rigorously comparative approach, which traces the contours of the political and cultural context in which such sentiment takes root.  Yet as Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsaganis sketched the rise of xenophobic populism in Greece, and Yvonne Zonderop outlined the history of Geert Wilders’s populist movement in the Netherlands , the commonalities with the UK’s situation were striking.  A profound collapse of faith in key institutions; anger at elites; rising political apathy; contempt for political managerialism; anxiety about globalisation; a sense of a lost way of life; rampant inequality; fear of the future; and strong ideas about national exceptionalism – all of these narratives are more than abundant in British political discourse.

Similarly inescapable was the consistent presence of immigration as the political lightning rod around which the wider nexus of populist sentiment coalesces. Even compared to countries where support for populist extremism is high, the UK has exceptionally high levels of concern about immigration. A recent YouGov poll found that 53 per cent of all respondents described ‘the worst thing about Britain’ as being that there were too many immigrants – by far the highest polling answer.  To take comfort in the organisational collapse of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL is to be dangerously complacent.

Moreover, as Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, describing the British context said, the peculiarity of the British situation is that ‘populist anger combines with a strong norm of not wanting to appear openly racist’. Therefore it should not be a surprise to witness the emergence of more ‘mainstream’ populist movements – like UKIP – exploiting tensions about immigration.

Populism feeds off an ‘us versus them’ mentality, reframing it as ‘they are taking what is rightfully ours’. What often characterises its rise is when an ‘and we can’t even talk about it, because our (political) elites are on their side’ narrative also begins to take hold. Therefore it is incumbent on all mainstream political parties to meet this challenge head on.

For the Labour party that means not continually shifting the goalposts onto more comfortable territory. Concern about immigration is not just about access to public services. For the Conservative party however, it means resisting the temptation to reach for the dog-whistle. Yet with George Osborne’s  ‘nasty party’ language during the benefits uprating debate and David Cameron’s caving in to UKIP and the Tory escapists on Europe, the Tories have begun 2013 retreating into familiar ‘divide and rule’ populism.

At a time of crisis, kicking off an inflammatory, Europe-wide debate on the future of the European Union certainly won’t dampen the flames of continental nationalism or populist sentiment. It would appear that it is now left to the Labour party to ensure that those fires do not spread to the UK.

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Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central

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Photo: Conservatives

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  • Roy Boffy

    Dead right on the Tories. Their ultras are not interested in a referendum. They want out. Cameron’s only way to get the monkey off his back is to do what Labour did with Militant – expel them. Problem, for him, is he wouldn’t have much of a Party left, especially outside Parliament where the grassroots are even more Romantic Nationalists than the MPs.

  • Sally C.

    I am a small c conservative. My problem with the UK being part of the EU is that it is yet another layer of government that we have imposed upon ourselves. Governments are always expensive and keen to expand. The EU is no different. We, the British electorate, can barely control our own government. We have absolutely no way of controlling the EU – forget Euro MPs, they and the European Parliament are worse than useless. Our economy is already suffering a certain amount of sclerosis due to ever more rules and regulations emanating from Brussels. We cannot afford to let this continue.

  • Anonymous

    All this is deeply worrying; a diversion from our economic problems- finding another enemy to focus upon after the public sector, urban councils, benefit claimants, the police, the teachers, the immigrants. But its creating the ‘myth’ of the danger – hopefully we have competent economists who can counter-claim the EU has any threats to our economy indeed the opposite. But as you correctly acknowledge its not Cameron’s position its the unleashing of the anti-EU fanatics (many of whom have a neo-liberal agenda and do not want our people to have the same social democratic rights as France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Austria etc.,) England’s Right Wing media such as the D/Express and D/Mail and the Sun will play its role. God helps us.