With Liz Truss’ premiership looking dead on arrival, Michael Bergin explores the effects of populism on modern British politics.
This article was originally published on Tuesday, October 18th 2022.
For those parties of the centre-right and left in Europe, who are currently trying to withstand the pressures of extremist populism and nationalism, forces that would drive EU member states out of the union, the single greatest argument they can have to undermine these parties is to look at what has happened to the UK.
The premiership of Liz Truss, Britain’s 4th Tory prime minister since 2016, seemingly serves as the nadir point of a prolonged crisis, instigated by Brexit. It is as though the referendum acted as a mortal wound on the country, which with every new Conservative Prime Minister has become infected and re-infected with fresh strains of increasingly virulent incompetence, anger and delusion. At the conclusion of this excruciating process we find Truss’ legless and hamstrung government, which has managed to incapacitate itself after scarcely a month.
There is an inherent tendency to label Truss as a populist, a politician who knowingly engages in sloganeering and simplified messaging, in order to distil from public discourse a meaningless, confused and inane shouting match, with little basis in reality. However, I would posit that Truss is not a populist, but a victim of populism.
The mini-budget, announced by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng on the 23rd of September, is a case in point. The measures revealed in the mini-budget essentially amounted to an uncosted tax break for the very wealthiest. The shoddy research behind the plan, as well as its unceremonious dumping on MPs, quickly spooked the markets, propelling a full-blown economic crisis, which required BoE intervention, and ultimately, the resignation of her Chancellor.
The causes of the disaster bear all the hallmarks of a politician who is not able to accurately grasp the complexities of a modern economy. Instead, the simplified reasoning that populism encourages had engendered a sense in Downing Street that rudimentary trickle-down economics would immediately reinvigorate the nation.
The Prime Minister is not the first politician to think of such a cunning plan, but she is the first to fail to realise that it was not particularly cunning.
Truss is not a politician who knowingly peddles ridiculous sound-bites to a population rabid for controversy, a lá Trump or Farage. She is not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, she appears to be the lowest common denominator.
Take for instance her signature policy goal; growth. This word has become something of a one-size-fits-all problem solver in Downing Street in the last month. Pound tanking? Needs growth. Environment falling apart? Growth could fix that. UK’s international reputation collapsing? Have you tried a little growth with that?
The word has become so all-consuming that last week, in her Tory conference speech, Truss identified an “anti-growth coalition”, consisting of Labour, the SNP, and virtually anyone who did not politically agree with her. Such a baseline delineation is beyond farcical, and no part of such an idea should ever be considered worthy of coming near a public debate. It is a sad reality that this sort of insipid rhetoric is now the standard that Britain has fallen to. Most ironic is the fact that ex-Chancellor Kwarteng is now presumably a card-carrying member of this coalition, having been sacked for implementing a plan that Truss herself approved of.
The problem with the focus on growth is not that this is an unreasonable ambition for an incoming Prime Minister, but that it is not being discussed seriously. Growth is not an unfettered good, and in many ways is incompatible with the UK’s current environmental goals. Instead of a nuanced discussion on the means by which responsible growth can be achieved, and the problems that growth can cause, Truss would prefer to create a simple dichotomy, where citizens are either pro- or anti-growth. These policies and this messaging is not designed to unify, or to inspire, but to divide and frighten, in the hopes that amidst the confusion the Conservatives might avoid a drubbing at the next election.
It is as if Truss has been brought up in a cult, and is now faced with incontrovertible evidence that her way of thinking is flawed. This exact scenario played itself out on Friday afternoon, as the sacking of Kwarteng necessitated a press conference, in which questions on the viability of Truss’ leadership were to be expected. After taking questions from three traditionally friendly papers and the BBC (none of which were answered, but parried with yet more rambling about growth), Truss darted from the podium, to the irate beckonings of snubbed journalists.
Not for a long time has a Prime Ministerial press conference caused such rancour. When Tony Blair joined with George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, there were plenty of media outlets who deemed the move callous and reprehensible. And yet, Blair’s media team responded with the infamous “masochism strategy”, which put the PM in front of as many journalists as could be managed, forcing him to take the greatest mauling possible. The strategy managed to keep a lid, however contentiously, on public opinion, and showcased a basic respect for the function of the media.
Truss’ snub, on the other hand, implies a deep-seated suspicion of journalists, as people who are not out simply for the public benefit, but are instead out to get her. It is the same kind of paranoid fantasy that allows a term like “anti-growth coalition” to enter someone’s lexicon.
It also serves as a recognition that her worldview cannot hold up to reasoned questioning and rigorous examination, a fact that clearly the PM is not yet willing to confront.
This is my reasoning behind labelling Truss a victim of populism, as much as she is a perpetrator of it. Her entire worldview has been shaped by populism. While it may be her fault for not engaging with more critical sources, and for surrounding herself with people who agree with her as opposed to those who will challenge her, it is not a consciously malicious act.
Truss seems to propagate the warped economic and political views that have germinated in the Conservative party since the 2016 referendum. In this manner, it can be inferred that she is not a defining force within populism, but a force that has been defined by populism.
The current economic quagmire that the UK finds itself in is ultimately a result of the instability caused by Brexit, make no mistake about that. This turmoil will eventually end with Liz Truss losing power, and presumably a general election. There seems to be no appetite within the conservative party for yet another leader replacement, as leaked WhatsApp messages will attest. The question then, as numerous sources are now reporting, is when, not if, Liz Truss will leave Downing Street.
If a similar course is followed in the next 38 days as has been in the past 38 days, it will not be very long at all.