Big Policy and the rise of the demagogues

Thomas Lassey

17th Oct 2017

The rise of populism and the fashion for demagogues is a much chewed over topic in our press in recent times.  From Farage, through Trump, to Corbyn, leaders offering quick and easy fixes are in vogue.  If they are to be believed, Brexit, border walls and nationalisation are simple and obvious solutions to all life’s problems.  However, as readers of this blog will be aware, life is rarely that simple.

These three populists par excellence have been covered so extensively in the media that I do not want to give them more print time here.  Instead, I wish to consider the impact of demagoguery on our own party, given some members’ contributions to megaphone democracy at last week’s conference.

Support for politicians whose major contributions to date consist entirely of rhetoric is the same force that propelled a wholly unqualified reality TV star into the office of US President; a socialist relic into the leadership of one of Britain’s great political parties and the UK into splendid isolation.  Oratory is an important skill in a politician and something to be admired when put to good use.  However, a flair for the dramatic and a way with words should not be mistaken for solid leadership skills and decent policy proposals.

The Conservative Party is a broad church and, throughout its modern history, it has been a party characterised by its pragmatism, rather than by a particular ideology.  Accommodating a wide range of views and developing these into policy requires careful thought, logic and compromise, rather than reversion to strict dogma.  An approach which, I would argue, is the reason that the Tories have developed their well-deserved reputation for competency in government.  The UK has been headed by a Conservative Prime Minister for roughly 58 of the last 100 years, a testament to the enduring power of pragmatism over idealism.

However, in recent times, the Party appears to have forgotten this illustrious history and is suffering something of an identity crisis.  A growing number of activists seem to be putting their faith in those who favour bombastic rhetoric and headline-grabbing soundbites over well-thought-out policy.

This is the attraction of populism.  There is a feeling of malaise in the West; people feel let down and when politicians come along offering simple, one-size-fits-all solutions to all their problems, they understandably flock towards them.  However, while these policies may be superficially convincing, their foundations are built on quicksand.  Martin Sandbu wrote an excellent article in the FT last week, titled “Populism and the Rule of Logic”, in which he argued that, while demagoguery may win elections, the superficiality of the policy positions will very soon be found out after the proposer takes office.

This has happened with Trump in the US, who has been entirely unable to enact a single substantial policy promised while on the campaign trail.  While he still maintains support from his base, it is only a matter of time before the trust they placed in him is eroded.  Form may trump substance while campaigning, but on arrival in office, you better have something to back up the promises.

The Tories need policies not pomposity, offerings not oratory.  Eye-catching policies, such as nationalising anything that isn’t nailed down, are not popular because they are good ideas and the public actually yearn for them.  They are popular precisely because they are eye-catching.  It is the classical logical fallacy: My dog has four legs; my cat has four legs; therefore my dog is a cat.  People feel that something is wrong, that something must be done.  Nationalisation is “something” and therefore this must be done. What people yearn for is change and they will take any change over no change. 

The challenge for the Conservative Party is to harness that will for change and use it for good.  We cannot stand for continuity and allow populists to be the only ones offering something different, for this way ruin lies.  We need something big and bold, or preferably several big, bold somethings to offer the electorate.  These policies should not be driven by a strict ideology; rather they should be well thought-out, sensible proposals that would actually do some good and help those who are struggling.  Crucially, however, they must actually be achievable in office.  If they are not, we risk losing the reputation for competence which gained us those 58 years.

Winning the next election should not be the sole consideration when picking a leader.  It is vital that we do not fall into the same trap as Labour and focus short-term gains over long-term aims, otherwise we may win the battle but lose the war.  Once their pledges turn to dust, the hollow promise of the demagogue risks locking our Party out of power for a decade or more.  It is up to us to ensure that this does not happen.  We need big policy and we need it now.



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