Populism and the “People’s Vote” | Jake Scott

We all know the official story: Brexit was a “populist revolt”, a rare moment when the “silent majority” finally expressed their anger at the political changes they felt were beyond their grasp yet influenced their daily lives, and delivered a result “no-one saw coming”. This is the attitude taken by the establishment (because then they can play ignorant), some theorists (Eatwell and Goodwin, National Populism, 2018), and other political journalists (Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, 2018).

The result is that we now think of Brexit as an eruption, a populist scream in the midst of an otherwise calm conversation, that will die away (with the literal deaths of those that voted for it) after a brief, uncomfortable furore.

This is wrong.

But also wrong is the claim that Brexit has fundamentally changed our politics. A change has come, there is no denying that, but the change occurred long before June 23rd 2016. Again, some theorists have recognised this – Chantal Mouffe (For a Left Populism, 2018; Eatwell and Goodwin) – but they have largely been ignored, as in the case of Mouffe, or have got the prognosis wrong, as in the case of Eatwell and Goodwin.

Brexit, put simply, was an expression of the new politics, not its birth.

Over time – and the exact time period is up for debate – populism has worked its way into the political world in such a way that it now controls the way we talk, and consequently think, about politics.

 

Populism

The first thing that needs to be clarified is, there is absolutely no consensus whatsoever, anywhere, in the academic world over what populism actually is. There are two extremely broad and over-simplified camps: the first sees populism as an ideology, either as the ideology of democracy itself (Margaret Canovan), or as the parasitic ideology of an older, more mature ideology, such as conservatism, socialism or liberalism (Eatwell and Goodwin); the second comes out of the post-structuralist discipline which sees populism as the logic of democratic politics, as a way of constructing the limits of the community that is called upon to make a decision, typically through language, and is therefore concerned with what is called the articulation of the people (Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek).

I broadly align with the second camp, because I think it provides a more compelling analysis of the motivations underlying voting behaviour, rather than the prescriptive type of the first camp. In essence, this second camp thinks that our political identities are only partly based on reality, but the majority of an identity is constructed in relation to other identities around us, the structures of behaviour we find ourselves in, and a significant point of reference – for Mouffe, for instance, the current populist age is defined in reference to the Great Recession of 2008, in which the underlying tensions in our current politico-economic system were brought into direct conflict.

This is an extremely brief introduction to this idea, but it is sufficient to understand that language is significant in our understandings of our political identities, because they way we talk about each other has as much of an impact on the formulations of our identities as our material conditions. There are, of course, mitigating factors: the strength of a relationship has bearing on the strength of an articulation (our friends and family influence us more than a stranger, for instance).

So, accepting that language is important in the formation of political identities, and therefore political behaviour, we can recast populism as a mode of political action, rather than an ideological belief. In this understanding, Brexit is no longer merely a populist moment, because populist “moments” cannot exist. Instead, it is an expression of the populist age, in which the “real people” were constructed as having suffered from a process that the European Union came to symbolise: globalisation. The processes of globalisation (widening structures of international governance; rising and largely uncontrolled migration; neoliberal economic structures becoming the norm) was articulated as having occurred at the expense of most of British society, and the alternative (national sovereignty; an alternative (though undefined) economic model; tighter immigration controls) was articulated as achievable through a rejection of European Union membership.

This is merely one part of the populist process. The other, more significant part is to construct the “real people” that I mentioned above. Clear examples are on the 24th of June when Nigel Farage declared the Brexit vote a victory for the “real people of this country”. Were the establishment not real people? Empirically it is an absurd proposition, but in the populist logic the establishment were so far detached from the “real people” that, for all intents and purposes, they were not part of the authentic group.

So, populism not only operates on a logic of division into two major camps, the “us” and “them”, but “they” are not part of the “real people”, the fundamental constituency of any democratic system. Therefore, in the populist logic, any democratic decision cannot include the views of these people, these aberrant members outside the borders of the authentic community.

 

The People’s Vote

This pervasive form of political thinking has now wound itself into our national discourse. The clearest example is the term used for the campaign for a second referendum: a “People’s Vote”. Why is this populist?

First, it corresponds to the framework I spell out above. It articulates political identity in relation to a significant point of reference (Brexit), and appeals to an authentic “people” that are the only true community capable of making a decision (in this circumstance, basically everyone outside of Westminster).

Second, its point of closure (non-politicians making the vote) closes elected representatives in Parliament outside of the people. This is extraordinarily significant, in that it positions Parliament as opposed to the people, as an agonistic combatant if not an enemy, thus denying Parliament the very role for which it exists – the representation of the people.

Ironically, Brexit has been decried for the reason that it is populist, and therefore beyond the pale of acceptable political action – and to combat this, we are told the only alternative is another populist course of action.

The point of this article has not been to oppose a second referendum, though that is my stance. Instead, it has been to try and expose the populist motive driving the campaign forward, and understand that Brexit and a People’s Vote are merely two sides of the same, populist coin.

It is not merely Brexit or the People’s Vote that expresses this new politics. The other is the attitude of “treachery” taken by any who oppose a decision. When the Supreme Court decided that Parliament should be allowed a “meaningful vote”, they were called traitors by the established, right-wing press; Anna Soubry, who has been a lifelong Europhile, was hounded outside Parliament at the end of last year as a “traitor”; Brexiteers themselves have been referred to as traitors; and (as it remains now), after the referendum, the political discourse had immediately turned on the older generations who voted to Leave, blaming them for “betraying” their children and grandchildren’s futures.

We have arrived, therefore, at a place in our politics where “the people” has become sacrosanct. Democracy arrives necessarily at the sanctification of the people, but democracy is a mechanism by which the entirety of the people can express their views. I am someone who believes that democracy must necessarily be limited in order that it does not lead down the populist road, but this is beyond the scope of this article.

Is there a point to this article, beyond observation? Not really. We are, in my opinion, doomed to follow this through to the bitter end – what that means is up for debate but, ultimately, fundamental political division is the birthplace of extremism.

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