Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
In 2016, Michael Fallon, then Defence Secretary, said to the Defence Select Committee that leaving the EU would be an “extraordinarily irresponsible thing to do at a very dangerous moment”, adding that it would be “absolutely applauded in Moscow”.
It is notable that Vladimir Putin chose the G20 summit to denounce liberalism and trumpet the growth of national populist movements. The challenge for those of us who think that liberal democracy is still the right path to follow is how we push back against the Russian President’s statements.
Whether Brexit is a symptom or the cause of the rise of populism in the UK is a moot point. But the UK is not immune from the growth of populism, which can also be seen in the US and in other EU countries.
And there is no doubt that, for a number of reasons, the political and wider ‘establishment’ has either created or not addressed the conditions in which populism flourishes. The MPs expenses scandal, the financial and banking crisis, the resultant lack of wage growth, the seeming unwillingness to address people’s concerns about immigration have all contributed to a feeling that ‘the people at the top’ just aren’t listening.
Into that mix, it is easy to see how a few strong voices claiming to represent ‘the will of the people’, and denouncing the ‘metropolitian liberal elite’, have stoked the flames of populism.
Already we begin to see the dangers of accepting that liberalism has run its course. On Friday night, David Gauke had to face a no-confidence motion tabled by some in his local Party. Such a motion stems from the notion amongst some new(ish) members of our Party that if you aren’t a full-blooded Brexiteer then there should be no place for you in the Conservative Party of 2019. This is wrong.
A liberal, tolerant and open approach to our politics and to national debate is being repeatedly challenged until those who believe in it are left weary and feeling isolated. The populist approach is always to find an ‘other’, which more and more people to criticise until that ‘other’ is left isolated and lacking in support – witness the fact that being reconciled to Brexit isn’t enough: we are now expected to actively believe in it.
This is not a problem confined merely to the right of British politics. Local Labour parties have been testing the commitment to Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum for a while, and are now preparing to de-select those who don’t pass the test.
We are at a dangerous crossroads in Western politics. Our future Conservative Party leadership needs to address both quickly and effectively the problems which have led to the rise of populism, but they need to do so in a way which doesn’t fan the flames.
So, for example we need an approach which makes it clear that we can both control immigration whilst recognising that our economy needs immigrants, and that we have a proud track record of welcoming many millions of people who have chosen to make the UK their home. We need to work out a way to update our representative parliamentary democracy whilst recognising that it is still the best system of governance (a tip: let’s avoid any further referendums). We need to work out a way to sustain and enhance wage growth while updating the skills of many workers who left education a long time ago. And we need to work out a way to value multiculturalism whilst being clearer and less apologetic about our own British values.
Conservative Party MPs and members have several choices before them. The key one is not actually who becomes leader: it is about whether we choose to allow Putin to write off our liberal democratic system, or show that we will do what we do best as Conservatives – keep the bits that are working and find a way to update the bits that aren’t, without acceding to the siren voices of populism.