Across the western world, people have risen in revolt against their traditional rulers. In Britain, they voted for Brexit, and in the United States they elected Donald Trump.
The recent general election came too late for Steve Richards to include it in his study of this phenomenon, but he does observe that without UKIP, there would have been no Brexit.
And his argument is by no means invalidated by the collapse on 8th June of UKIP’s vote. He recognises that “the fall of the outsiders is inevitable, over time”. If they gain power, they become insiders, and have to face “all the draining, confidence-sapping dilemmas that arise in democratic politics”. That is happening now to Trump.
But sometimes the role of the outsider is to force the existing parties to take seriously a subject, such as immigration, which conventional politicians would prefer to ignore, as being simply too difficult.
Richards sees a pattern in both Europe and America, with mainstream parties suffering a crisis of identity, and new entrants to politics profiting from a “topsy-turvy era” in which “experience of government is a disadvantage”.
He is alert to the paradoxes which afflict the challengers:
“Outsiders across the democratic world are intimidatingly strong and yet transparently weak. They win power. They bring about historic change. They influence policy, even when still distant from securing national power. These are extraordinary achievements for political novices, like winning Wimbledon or the US Open, having played only a few games at the local park. Yet in most cases the outsiders are pathetic, fragile, inconsistent, inexperienced and often quite silly, the last quality being especially dangerous for those wishing to be taken seriously on the political stage.”
And he notes the weaknesses of the mainstream parties. Their propensity for sticking to outdated orthodoxies was demonstrated with particular clarity after the crash of 2008, when they had nothing new to say.
Outsiders such as Bernie Sanders could step into this intellectual vacuum and declare: “The people bailed out Wall Street. Now it is time for Wall Street to bail out the people.”
Challengers have no need to say how they will achieve their aims. They voice the anger of the people against the government which got us into this mess. Richards refuses to be swept away by such demagoguery:
“It is the juxtaposition of ‘the people’ against the elected insiders that is chilling. Roughly translated, it conjures up a bizarre contortion in which the people elect representatives who, irrationally, betray them. The people then turn to outsiders to save them from the consequences of the democratic process. Or outsiders encourage them to think along these dangerous lines.”
I am not sure Richards does justice to the extent to which politicians start doing things to please their parties, on whom promotion depends, rather than their electors. The widespread and deeply felt opposition of the German public to giving up the German mark was not properly reflected in the votes and debates held in the Bundestag. Hence the rise of Alternative for Germany, a new party which made the argument for leaving the euro and restoring the national currency.
Nor does Richards do justice to the elemental human need to find someone to blame when things go wrong. Sovereigns find it convenient to blame mistakes on their ministers, and so do voters, who in democracies have become the sovereign power.
This happens to be at the front of my mind because I am writing a volume which will contain brief lives of all 54 prime ministers from Walpole to May (or all 55 from Walpole to May’s as yet unknown successor), and have recently been working on Baldwin and Chamberlain.
Both those Prime Ministers and Conservative Party leaders were immensely popular in the 1930s. In 1931 and 1935, the party won huge general election victories, and in 1937 Baldwin handed over to Chamberlain, who to general approval pushed ahead with the attempt to appease Hitler.
There were strong arguments in favour of this policy. To risk the bloodshed and suffering another world war would bring when the horrors of the last one were still so vivid was intolerable. Britain’s armed forces were in no fit state to fight a major war, and to do so would most likely mean the loss of the British Empire. And most reasonable people recognised that the Treaty of Versailles had treated Germany with unsustainable harshness.
To accommodate the more reasonable of Hitler’s demands made sense, and Chamberlain was cheered to the echo when he returned from Munich having done so.
When this policy collapsed, people looked around for the guilty men, found them in Chamberlain and Baldwin, and wanted Winston Churchill, during the 1930s an outsider, to take over.
Just now we look for someone to blame for the fiasco that was the Conservative general election campaign, and again the Prime Minister is the obvious candidate, for it was her way of doing things which failed. She used to be remarkably popular, and now, suddenly, she is remarkably unpopular.
I have stretched far beyond the bounds of Richards’ work. He makes, in studiously moderate terms, a defence of the business of government, with its inevitable compromises, as an endeavour which is noble, and which must be explained as noble to voters, not just condemned in the cheap and simplistic terms used by most outsiders.
Richards is a man of the Left, but from a Tory perspective, one can agree with him in finding something sinister in “the dangerous, lazy, foolish anti-politics instinct”. Demagogues peddling simplistic solutions are not admirable.
But Richards is wise enough to see that the mainstream parties have in some respects become vacuous, with the word “liberal” becoming almost meaningless. He also remarks, truthfully enough, that there has “always been a degree of disdain for elected politicians”.
The insults hurled in earlier ages were at least as vicious as anything hurled today, and outbursts of bad behaviour in the Commons in some ways keep it closer to the wider public than perfect manners would.
But I am again straying far beyond Richards’ theme. The pity of his book is that it is unlikely to be read by angry populists. It will appeal to sober, serious, well-meaning people who do not require its insights.
We now need a modern Bagehot, capable of treating the subject of outsiders in a more prescriptive and historical manner. For the phenomenon is as old as government itself, and in the febrile state of public opinion, demagogues see their chance.