How to tell an authoritarian populist? They trash institutions

At Radix, we believe that many of our institutions need reform to bring them up to date with the requirements of the 21st century.

But there is a difference between reform and all-out attacks on the institutions on which our society is reliant, and which need the public’s respect if we are to maintain a cohesive and functioning society. Undermining institutions that happen to get in the way of a particular ideology or political position is the populists’ game. It undermines democracy in favour of elected authoritarianism.

Trump has shown his contempt for institutions in many ways. Filling them with political appointees and firing those who are trying to do their job in an ethical way – such as the Director of the FBI. Other proponents of ‘illiberal democracy’ play the same game. The governments of Hungary and Poland are also undermining essential institutions.

It is with some surprise and sadness that we now see this behaviour take root in the UK – a country that has always held itself out as a pillar of a well-functioning democracy. One where long-established ways of doing things, deep respect for democratic principles, and high standards of respect and behaviour mean that the country does without even needing the comfort blanket of a written constitution.

No longer.

Judges have been labelled enemies of the people when they did their job and upheld the law of the land. Conservative MPs were labelled mutineers when they voted with their conscience and, in their view, put country before party. Now it’s the turn of the Treasury to some under fire because they dared to suggest that, under all reasonable scenarios, Brexit would damage the UK economy. Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, of all people, has labelled the Treasury forecasts ‘politically motivated’. Unlike, of course, his own objections to the forecasts that are, no doubt, based on his own much more thorough economic analyses and in no way politically motivated.

It is true that forecasts are always wrong. None of us knows the future. But forecasts are not, or should not be, intended to give anyone an exact steer on the precise numbers way into the future. Rather they are an exercise that allows us to look at the drivers of future developments, to understand what makes a difference and what doesn’t, and to guide policy directionally rather than precisely.

Brexiteers like Mr Rees-Mogg reject any sort of analysis that suggests the obvious – that breaking links with one’s largest trading partner implies a hit to the economy. Some may feel that this is worthwhile in order to regain a degree of sovereignty. But it would be more honest, and command much more respect, if they came out and said that rather than taking to the language of the gutter press. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, sits by, watching the circus performances around her, unable either to direct policy or to impose any kind of order.

Brexit was supposed to be about freeing Britain to be itself. It is turning out to be the opposite. A free-for-all where long established British values and standards of civilised behaviour are daily being shredded in what has become a tragic-comedy in which a once proud and decent Tory party is the main protagonist.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    I think the dichotomy between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism is needlessly exaggerating both populism and liberal reformism to the point of propaganda.

    As I see it we are seeing a cultural split within liberalism in the form of communitarian liberalism which tends towards a national focus on rights and responsibilities and national democratic self-determination in terms of socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-ecological public policies and cosmopolitan liberalism which tends towards international rights and responsibilities and international technocratic self-determination in terms of socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-ecological public policies.

    The former, communitarian liberalism, tends to be captured by a more populist/conservative/socialist leaning electorate and the latter, cosmopolitan liberalism, tends to be captured by a more liberal reformist leaning electorate.

    Each type of liberalism has its own interpretation on issues such as stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy and the rise of social media as a vehicle for propaganda and collaboration along the continuum between communitarian and cosmopolitan value systems which produces different representations/performatives of freedom, autonomy and popular will.

    These different representations/performatives are currently operating within a field of national/international realism and are creating the perception of crisis in the form of of a cultural war with liberal reformists imagining illiberal democracy and proponents of populism/conservatism imagining undemocratic liberalism.

    Obviously foreground concerns around multiethnicity, migration, living standards and the wealth divide are driving this socio-cultural divide but I’d also add increasing resource scarcity, human population growth and surplus energy economics within a world of nations where half are already in ecological debt are similarly important background concerns which contextualise the foreground concerns that are driving the divide.

    At present, within the context of national/international realism, liberal reformists are trying to drive institutions towards cosmopolitan laissez-faire socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-ecological public policies which are being opposed by communitarian populists, conservatives, socialists, conservationists and democrats which is leading towards an unproductive propaganda war.

    At the end of the day, we must think start thinking ecologically about these wide-ranging foreground and background issues, especially regarding decisions around institutional capacity. In other words, we do not want to continue causing unnecessary problems simply for the sake of political ideology.

  2. Peter Arnold says

    Whilst I agree with the broad thrust of this article, I have to disagree with some of the details. In the first place, the UK is not a functioning democracy; it is, at best, an elective bureaucracy. Yes, we have elections, and governments of different persuasions assume power peacefully, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be claimed that any of them accurately reflect the wishes of the people. It is an adversarial, eighteenth century system, based on a “winner takes all” principle, even though the winner, more often than not, has received an absolute minority of the votes cast. Secondly, very few of our decision-making bodies at either local or national levels operate democratically, ie : there is a full, free and open debate of any issue after a full, free and open consultation with people directly affected before any decision is made. Thirdly, very few of our national institutions are organised or run democratically. Education, particularly in schools, is at best a benign dictatorship; very little of business or industry is run democratically; none of our emergency services are democratically organised or run; nor is the health service. Bureaucrats run the UK, not the politicians, and certainly not the people. That is why, in my opinion, we need fundamental reform of the whole constitutional and governmental structure, to open them up to genuine scrutiny and democratic control. If the UK has any success in any of its activities, it will not be the result of any governmental or institutional action; it will be down to the activities of individual citizens in their communities, to civil society, to the charities and community groups who know what people in their communities need; and they will be successful precisely because they operate outside the formal structures of government. They have the power to introduce fundamental change where it is needed to improve the quality of life for people, and they do this far more successfully than any government of any party political persuasion has been able to do for the last fifty years at least. Let’s stop tinkering with the current broken system, and replace it with a genuinely democratic system that is fit for the twenty-first century.

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