The Unpromising Promises of Populism | Dan Mikhaylov
Promises and politicians are no strange bedfellows. Irrespective of their convictions or their political environment, those vying for power have an uncompromising predilection for pandering to the masses. This phenomenon, whereby leaders appease their audiences’ selfishness in pursuit of political clout, has haunted democratic institutions since the Roman period, from which we derive the metonymic phrase “bread and circuses” to describe the common people’s incessantly self-centred political demands. Though the public no longer clamours for “bread and circuses”, the nature of this relationship between it and those striving to represent it has changed little.
There has been little incentive for change. More often than not, promising the moon has helped politicians across the ideological spectrum assemble victorious motley coalitions for important electoral contests. Herein, certain instances of left-wing populism certainly spring to mind. Vows to end the War in Afghanistan and generate 1,000,000 manufacturing jobs were instrumental in bringing Barack Obama to the Oval Office, but relinquished almost immediately after the landslide they had facilitated.
Conservatives have been equally guilty of this in recent years – one need not look further than Donald Trump’s and Narendra Modi’s campaigns to see right-wing populism at work. For us in Britain, its most pertinent outbursts are the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election. Leading up to the former, ambiguous assurances abounded within the Leave message: supporters were promised that withdrawal from the European Union would, as anticipated, witness the United Kingdom reassert its control over borders and public policy, while making the country more prosperous and integrated within the global commercial flows, from which London had allegedly been excluded. Just as Boris Johnson must thank this polysemous rhetoric for amalgamating an impressive coalition of voters, whose contrasting motivations for Brexit coalesced into a single favourable outcome, so did he owe his shattering of the Labour Red Wall to his repeated pledges to conclude Brexit on advantageous terms and reboot the Northern economy under the aegis of One Nation Conservatism.
But promising backfires. Democrats learned this the hard way in 2016. At that time, the Trump campaign deftly capitalised on the Obama administration’s unfulfilled commitments and correspondingly broadened Trump’s appeal beyond his characteristic bravado and apolitical background. In many respects, that defeat precipitated an ongoing identity crisis in the Democratic camp, materialising in rifts between the party establishment and the movement’s young progressives cadres.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives appear on track to replicate this fiasco. Notwithstanding his unending promises to get Brexit done, the Prime Minister remains without a deal with the EU, let alone without a deal that would soften the predicted economic fallout from the nation’s overdue departure from the stagnant European project and facilitate a smoother transition to the post-Brexit future. On the coronavirus front, Westminster’s policy has been outright disastrous. The government was bogged down in quarrels with the regional governments in Scotland and Wales, with the municipal authorities in Liverpool and Manchester, and even with fellow Conservative Party members. With hardly a political figure or an organisation refraining from criticising its conduct, the Conservative administration did much to much estrange and dishearten the public by introducing a questionable lockdown in November and leaving a net increase in the number of people and territories subject to the draconian Tier-3 rules, despite the government-induced expectation that it would improve the COVID-19 situation.
The deeper we dig, the more dejecting the picture becomes. Albeit associated with upholding tradition, the Conservative Party has unequivocally turned its back on it by sanctioning the construction of the Stonehenge Tunnel and showcasing inexcusable cowardice in boarding up statues to protect them against the vandals of the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly pessimistic was its recalcitrance to enacting and enforcing meaningful education reform, inability to construct the promised “40 hospitals”, and hire 20,000 additional police officers nationwide.
However erroneous it might be to hold Boris Johnson accountable for all of the aforementioned failures in the light of changing political and economic circumstances, we cannot ignore the relationship between unsustainable promising and public opinion. Remembering Westminster’s light-heartedness about the post-pandemic recovery, the November lockdown naturally came as shocking news and diminished the public confidence in a bright immediate economic future to a meagre 17%.
Such shortcomings are alienating voters. The latest YouGov survey places Johnson’s approval rating at 34%, with almost 60% of respondents expressing disdain for his course of action. Discontent is also visible within the Tory ranks: fewer than four out of five Conservative voters reportedly sympathised with 10 Downing Street in October, and the lockdown controversy is bound to provoke further rebellion. More alarming still is how the government’s incompetence is inviting doubts about the very efficacy of Britain’s political institutions.
In his New Statesman article, pompously titled “How to Save the United Kingdom”, Labour ex-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, notes his Conservative counterpart’s mixed record, marred by the continued pandemic uncertainty and the rise of secessionism in Scotland, and stresses the need to revamp the UK system of government. Uprooting developmental inequality and improving decision-mechanisms, he insists, necessitates supplanting the anachronistic House of Lords with a “Council of the Regions and Nations”, supplemented by a reified constitution to uphold this federal arrangement. This cannot be discarded as a tirade of the now irrelevant statesman, not least given the extant discord between Westminster and the local authorities, which threatens to amplify resentment for Britain’s political institutions and perpetuate the same culture of faithlessness that has birthed the BLM movement and convinced many Red Wall voters that they were forgotten.
10 Downing Street should fear this. While overpromising might not necessarily destabilise Britain, it is conducive to Johnson’s personal demise. He must take action, lest his biography conform to the famous assertion that all political careers end in failure. Herein, we might recall the tragedy of Pakistan whose Muslim League founders, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, sold it to Indian Muslims and the British colonial bureaucracy as a “panacea for all social and personal ills” and understandably failed to realise those rodomontade expectations following the 1947 Indian Partition.
Their wherewithal restricted to the obscure notion of political Islam, the Muslim League found itself reneging on its assurances to create an egalitarian and democratic state, owing to the prevailing, primordial need of political consolidation and defending the nation’s frontiers from potential Afghan and Indian encroachments. This volte-face, sufficiently illustrated by the fact that Pakistan spent nine years working on its first national constitution and actively suppressed political dissent, explained why the public accepted, not tacitly but with jubilation, the 1958 military takeover.
However, General Ayyub Khan, who mirrored his civilian predecessors’ flawed practice of promising too much too frequently, fell victim to the same malaise. His Basic Democracy Scheme did not ameliorate the problem, but resurrected “colonial ideas of political tutelage”, entrusting a secluded clique of 80,000 loyal bureaucrats to cull deputies for all the national and provincial assemblies. That way, the same Pakistanis, who had been pressing for political representation during the civilian era, when the lack of a constitutional arrangement had prevented the running of national elections, were once again forgotten. Naturally, the failed state, which Westerns tend to associate with its widely asserted support for the Taliban and other terrorist organisations, is directly rooted in the failure of successive Pakistani rulers to demonstrate that they were worth the popular trust.
In short, overpromising is a dangerous business. By contributing to higher public expectations, it forces governments to pursue almost unattainable objectives, and upon this pursuance’s anticipated failure, could throw political movements as well as entire institutional frameworks into disarray. The Democratic Party and the Muslim League illustrate precisely how perilous fuelling demands for “bread and circuses” could end up: this strategy gave both parties what proved to be untenable and unsustainable political mandates and left them suffering from deep-seated internal divisions.
However we interpret Johnson’s premiership, one thing is clear: the Prime Minister would not desire to go down in history as the person, whose populist politics brought him victory only for it to slip away and convert into his downfall. Both the general election and the Brexit revealed that thousands of Britons routinely feel ignored and mistreated in their own country. Nothing is more in his interest – and in the national interest – than to begin making strides on what he has already promised them, while quitting his bad habit of committing himself to highfalutin, unreasonably optimistic policy promises. A true conservative ought to recognise that conservatism does not sacrifice reason to its idealism.