I recently came across this article by Jan-Werner Mueller that de-constructs what ‘populism’ really means. Mueller has also authored a book titled What is Populism?
In summary, the article makes two main points. The first and crucial one is that: “What distinguishes populists is their claim that they alone represent the “real people” or “the silent majority.” This is the essential anti-democratic feature of populism. Only their views are legitimate. Only their views represent ‘the will of the people’. All others are, variously, traitors, saboteurs or somehow morally corrupt. There is no room for varying opinion or differing perspectives.
Once again, in a recent article, Boris Johnson invokes ‘the will of the people’ in making the case for his particular form of Brexit. Never mind that just under half of those who voted in the referendum voted against Brexit. Their views not only count for nothing; they are now supposed to be positively subversive.
From here, one can see how it is but a short intellectual step to call for them to be put in jail a la Erdogan or all the others who claim to be the sole representatives of ‘the people.’
The second point of the article is that populists cannot succeed without the active collaboration of the establishment.
Mueller points out: “Farage did not bring about Brexit all by himself. He needed the help of established Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (both now serve in Prime Minister Theresa May’s post-election cabinet).”
Theresa May also chose to adopt the populist mantle following her election as Prime Minister and during the election campaign. Only her chosen form of Brexit represented the will of the people she asked us all to believe.
The essence of liberal democracy is the encouragement and open discussion of alternative views. It is the endless search for policies that balance multiple interests as fairly and as reasonably as possible. The purpose of a representative democracy, a profoundly British invention, is the avoidance of the tyranny of the majority which, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, is a risk inherent in direct democracy and majority rule where a majority acts in its own interests to oppress minorities in the way of a tyrant or a despot.
It may be that May’s humiliation at this election goes beyond her poor campaign performance and the botched manifesto. Maybe the British people sensed something else. They sensed autocratic tendencies that they found offensive in the world’s oldest representative democracy.
It will be to the eternal shame of the proud history of the Conservative party that it took the government so long to condemn the illiberal press labelling the judiciary as ‘the enemy of the people’ and to do it so half-heartedly when the government did, finally, speak.
I have always believed in the collective wisdom of the electorate. Our newly hung parliament may be uncomfortable for the government. It may make things difficult for the bureaucrats. But it has avoided the tyranny of the majority. Now all that remains is for parliament to assert its authority and do its job – that of balancing the interests of a population split straight down the middle on Brexit – as we suggest in our recent report.
Both the referendum and the election have clearly shown that ‘the will of the people’ is compromise, reasonableness and the balancing of multiple interests, not tyrannical rule by populists embedded in the establishment.
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