For many, myself included, 2016 was a politically challenging year (and that’s putting it mildly). That wasn’t the case for all of us though, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that 17.4 million Britons and 63 million Americans voted for Brexit and Donald Trump respectively. Trump of course won the electoral college and not the popular vote, but that’s still a lot of people who bought into his message.
What is one mans worst of times then, is another’s great vintage. 1992 may have been The Queen’s annus-horriblus but it wasn’t necessarily the year from hell for the rest of us (I have rather fond memories of passing my GCSE’s and Madonna’s underrated Eroticia album). Political populism has won the year in 2016 and it has done so because many of us seem to like it.
Populism, whether it is to the right or the left, relies on the politics of grievance. It pits the haves against the have-nots and it seeks to blame rather than find solutions. Immigrants, elites, experts — different politicians may blame different people or institutions but the net result is the same; a stagnant political culture that doesn’t have the courage to addresses the real issues because it is far easier to point the finger.
In the UK, our two main political parties are floundering in the wake of Brexit and are turning to the populist playbook in an attempt to find the answers. The Conservative government may have adopted populist slogans such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ but they are just that, words; hollow and without substance because to date, there doesn’t appear to be a plan for Brexit. Meanwhile the Labour opposition can’t even agree on what their Brexit position is, with Jeremy Corbyn instead re-launching himself as a populist ‘anti-establishment’ figure.
Brexit not withstanding, our country is facing some of its biggest challenges in a generation. It’s time to start having grown-up conversations about immigration, globalisation and the future of work. Morevoer, we need to accept the Brexit has and will continue to change the constitutional and structural fabric of the United Kingdom. It is therefore vital that we start addressing governance challenges like the future of our union and electoral reform (we’ve already seen how in the USA, it is possible to win the presidency without winning the popular vote).
Boring stuff perhaps but the reality of politics can be boring. It isn’t just about catchy slogans and self-congratulatory rallies where we pat ourselves on the back for caring. If we want a high octane moment, we should go to a pop concert. If we want an alternative to political populism, we need to get our politics back to basics, drop the blame and start concentrating on the real issues.