On the limitations and failures of modern day Populism in Britain, the US, Northern Ireland and Ireland…

We can say with some certainty that the current penchant for populist politics will not end with the exit of Boris Johnson, nor with any putative departure Donald Trump. Nor is it likely over. But it has not been good for international relations.

In the Irish Times this week Fintan O’Toole warns that the game is far from over for Trump in spite of the most extraordinarily detailed indictment which details actions the former President may struggle to explain to his less fanatical fans.

…having destroyed the working consensus of respect for America’s basic democratic institutions, he will try to do the same to its fundamental systems of law and order.

Of the latter there is no doubt (if he can find enough lawyers to man a legal team for an extremely onerous uphill struggle). Trump’s ideological commitment (like all populists) is diffuse and hard to pin down in terms of ideologies.

As Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark noted in January, cruelty and brutality is Trump’s ideology. In a world of growing inequality, declining opportunity and a strong sense that the mainstream has cut some communities adrift, it fills the vacuum.

In Britain’s parliamentary democracy Johnson’s goose was cooked last summer when his own cabinet forced him to resign as PM by a process of phased resignations. There was no way back. He had made himself unelectable.

It’s an open question as to whether the US Republic’s checks and balances work as efficiently, but they’ve already had a taste of a non populist President for two years now, whose term will be a test of whether a more technocratic approach works.

The mere ascent of the non populist Sunak to number ten has calmed nerves of a Dublin that’s been on tenterhooks since the 2016 Brexit referendum pulled Ireland’s European ally out of the arrangement both countries entered in 1973.

I would never put her in the same egregious category as the two above, but the sudden fall of Nicola Sturgeon from her seemingly indomitable position at the apex of Scottish politics may also end the premature speculation about the end of the UK.

Like a film where the plot seems to be coming to a conclusion, then veers,  modern political life seems to be lurching every which way in a series of unexpected turns. As one of our commenters, Seán McErlean often notes, we live in a non linear world.

I would argue that too many in our politics (and its attendant journalism) make easy assumptions that present patterns will just keep repeating ad nauseam. Yet, PM Johnson (widely predicted to dominate the next decade) is gone.

Anyone jumping quickly onto a populist bandwagon must now ask themselves whether they’ve made the right calculation? When Sturgeon’s named a date for a Scottish referendum this autumn, who thought she’d be gone so long before it arrived?

The reassuring certainty of the populist can also bring uncertainty. Brutality, as Charlie Sykes said of Trump, is an ideology, not just an impulse. But developments this week may see that the false certainty of brutal populist narratives can be short-lived.

I have noted elsewhere, politics consists of three distinct strands:

  • The term populism is confusing. For generations, parties measured success in the ability to attract more of the ‘popular’ vote than anyone else. It’s suddenly unpopular partly because the  mainstream is losing its capacity to be popular.
  • Opportunism is also used as a term of abuse, but even a glance at history grasping opportunity can lead to effective long-term actions, such as the UK Labour Government in 1945, and the Thatcher/Reagan administrations of 1980s.
  • The third but less talked about element is the technocratic ability to understand the machinery of government (and the wider market) sufficiently well to bend them to your will in order to do the things you’ve promised during the election.

Ireland’s most successful (and by far the wealthiest) populist project, Sinn Féin, are brilliant at the first two, but as the fact that despite holding down the post of Minister of Finance north of the border for some six years, they’ve never struck a budget.

They talk a good game but have real difficulty in landing any of their promises in real action or delivery. For all the condescending talk of poor working class protestants, only one of the twenty poorest areas in Belfast are Protestant.

Across Northern Ireland, nine out of ten of all poor areas are Catholic. This wasn’t addressed when SF held the most senior jobs in Government. Indeed most strategies tend to come out of post breakdown negotiations, and last from 9 months to five years.

The census shows school age dominance of Catholics flattens as they leave school while birth rates converge across all groups. This coincides with an election result that leaves nationalism further away from 50%+1 than back in 2007.

In the south, they have been the most popular party since 2020, but as the next election gets closer, they’ve been downgrading their wild promises on housing targets which were originally set up simply to outbid the government’s actual targets.

It may be coincidental, but there’s evidence that sentiment is rolling back from today’s populists back towards Ireland’s historic populists, Fianna Fáil, whose focus on house building may be starting to impact, and/or the moderate left Social Democrats.

It’s possible that Sinn Féin lack of technocratic experience and internal culture of risk aversion (doing nothing is safer than doing something that might go wrong) may start to weigh more heavily as the time for the next election approaches.

To twist an old phrase, populism is as populism does. Or doesn’t. It’s as long an old road ahead as it was just getting to where we currently find ourselves. There’s no alternative to trying new ways to get to the future and maybe fix things on the way.

Populism alone doesn’t offer those options.

“Every voyage is intensive, and occurs in relation to thresholds of intensity between which it evolves or that it crosses.”
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari


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