Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
The villa in Ibiza. The wealthy businessman’s niece. The up and coming politician. The offer to buy a newspaper and turn it into mouthpiece. The quid pro quo: overpriced road building contracts. Illegal party funding. And — a plan to muzzle the rest of the press so the people wouldn’t hear about it.
Nicaragua? Indonesia? Moldova?
No – Austria.
The video exposed Hans-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s far right Freedom Party as a mountebank and a thief. That he fell victim to a sting makes his downfall sweeter. He didn’t obtain the newspaper’s support. He didn’t actually get any extra money for his party. Nor did he stand a bat’s chance of having his way with the oligarch’s niece. This was a sting. The newspaper buyout, the illegal donations were all figments of those who laid the trap. The overpriced road building contracts a figment of his own.
Still, the Freedom Party controlled Austria’s transport ministry, and prosecutors would be advised to take a good hard look, for if populism always begins by telling people what they want to hear it ends with the fleecing of taxpayers.
Now Strache’s career is in ruins. His ministers have all been fired and his party will have to fight elections dogged by corruption allegations. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s extremely young Prime Minister who brought the far-right into government, and thought he could tame them, stands exposed at best as a naif and at worst as a man who risked Austrian democracy for a couple of years in power.
Conservatives used to be good at spotting socialist populists who would bribe taxpayers with their own money, raise trade barriers at the behest of trade unions or craft regulations to coddle industries that refused to reform. That’s why Margaret Thatcher was so determined to create the Single Market. Deep trading relationships make us all far better off, but need rules to ensure a level playing field and institutions to enforce them against characters like Strache.
But we, in the Conservative Party here, as much Kurz in Austria, became entranced by nationalist populists. They sold us a politics of resentment to win over disgruntled “left-behind” voters. It became, after the referendum, a clamour for a Brexit without trade-offs. We failed to settle on either a soft Brexit, which would have caused minimal economic disruption, but left us following rules we can’t take part in making; or a hard one: disruptive change bringing freedom to make our own rules, but even less control over the circumstances in which they are made.
Now we’re losing voters to either side: whether it’s Michael Heseltine and Matthew Parris voting Liberal Democrat, or hordes of ordinary members for the Brexit Party. They flock to a Nigel Farage out there doing what he does best: whipping up anger. Never mind that he failed to declare the donations used to support his Chelsea house and chauffeur, and is heading a slate of ex-communist bounders and Balkan adventurers to get elected to a parliament that he doesn’t believe should exist.
A glance at his party’s legal structure shows what is really happening. Not for him the tedious matter of party boards and leadership elections. His is an ordinary private company, and he’s a shareholder. He and his fellow directors are free to pay themselves dividends from all those donations they’ve been raking in. Less People’s Army, more PayPal Army.
What links Farage and Strache isn’t just that their parties used to be in the same European parliamentary group. It’s that they use politics as a kind of private enterprise. Strache dreamed of treating his country like his personal piggy bank. Farage has literally set his party up as a company.
They turn politics on its head. No longer citizens to be served, Austrian taxpayers and Brexit Party supporters are resources to be exploited: marks to be fleeced to repay a fictitious Russian oligarch, or bombarded with demands for donations that could be used to keep Farage in the style to which he’s become accustomed.
They’ve taken the central political technique of socialist populism — promising to spend other people’s money — and privatised it.