Opinion Column: On Populism

In Ece Temelkuran’s “How To Lose A Country: The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship” (4th Estate, 2019) Temelkuran problematizes the notion of “the real people” and asks who is the ‘we’ of populist rhetoric?

From her experiences watching events in her homeland of Turkey where her grandmother witnessed the repression of the left in 1980 and more recently in 2016 when she saw how a “ruthless populism” ended Turkish democracy, Temelkuran seeks to warn us out of our complacency. She describes populism as a “global phenomenon” and draws attention to the rise of the far Right and examines how a didactic populist discourse can skew debates and compromise open and democratic politics. She is not the first writer to see Brexit and Trump (who has replaced politicians with millionaires and billionaires with corporate interests) as examples of the same form of political ideology.

Thatcherism took the language of liberals and the left and robbed it of its meaning, then returned it to the public domain in a distorted form and as an ideological weapon with which to silence us.

Words matter. Voices matter. Votes matter. History is written by its people.

When politicians talk of how the people have decided to support their Brexit agenda they are not representing those who voted differently. The right of the mainstream political spectrum, from Theresa May to Boris Johnson (and his associates) re-iterate endlessly the mantra that the people have decided, forgetting, in case anyone needs reminding, that a majority of the people in Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere voted to remain in the European Union.

They have been cavalier with our democracy when it has suited them, whether it be over-riding County Council planning decisions on fracking or trying to withhold a parliamentary vote on any UK/EU agreement (otherwise known as “a deal”) – which required a legal decision in support of Parliament, or by threatening to suspend Parliament altogether (otherwise known as proroguing Parliament) until after the Conservative Party’s favoured outcome is realised.

Nigel Farage and his supporters like to decry parliamentarians and our democratic institutions. It is an odd position to take for a party (first UKIP, and now the Brexit Party) that has put up candidates in local elections and European elections.

Much has changed over the last three years and much has been learnt about the complexities of our deeply woven and almost half a century old relationship with the European Union and the benign and protective oversight it provides in keeping our countries safe and toeing the line, whether it be with regard to environmental regulations, human rights, workers’ right or trading standards.

Who was it that said “a week is a long time in politics”? Well three years is a very long time to keep being told that a 4 per cent majority in an advisory referendum is definitive, absolute and (as some would have it) for all time.

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