‘Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution’, Constitution Unit Blog, 10 December 2021.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

On the one hand, they’ve had to deal with what the late Ronald Inglehart called the ‘Silent Revolution’ – the gradual spread of progressive, liberal and postmaterialist values which are particularly attractive to younger and well-educated voters but which are inimical to some of the nationalistic and socially-conservative values held and advocated by mainstream right politicians.

On the other hand, they’ve had to deal with the backlash against all that – what Piero Ignazi has called the ‘Silent Counter-Revolution’ – that has helped fuel the rise of populist radical right parties which, because they espouse (albeit in more extreme fashion) some of the values espoused by their more centrist counterparts, may well tempt some of those who traditionally vote for the latter to jump ship.

In the book, which contains country case studies (including one of the British Conservative Party by Leeds University’s Richard Hayton), as well as a couple of chapters looking at both the demand side and supply side of European party politics, we focus on how all this has impacted on the stances adopted by the mainstream right on welfare policy, on European integration, on moral/social issues and on immigration. And it’s on the latter two where the impact is most obvious, with mainstream right parties becoming more socially liberal in many ways but not when it comes to immigration, where they’ve become noticeably more restrictive, even hard-line.

But the book is also a jumping-off point for talking about the broader strategic responses to the rise of the populist radical right by its mainstream counterpart. Essentially, these boil down to four approaches.

The first is to resist it by huddling together with other mainstream parties, to try and freeze out populist challenger parties by refusing to have anything to do with them, even if that means (as in Germany, at least at the federal level) going into or staying in ideologically uncongenial coalitions.

The second approach – the most popular one across Western Europe, particularly on migration and multiculturalism – is for mainstream right parties (and some on the left as well) to adapt to, and even to some extent to adopt, the policies of the populist radical right. We are seeing this in real-time in France but we’ve seen it almost everywhere.

The third approach taken by mainstream right parties is to actually get together in government with populist radical right parties – either in full-blown coalition or using them as support parties for minority mainstream administrations. This has happened in AustriaDenmark and the Netherlands.

The fourth option is for mainstream right parties to, in effect, become a kind of ersatz populist radical right party, adopting not just its policies, but its rhetoric and its ‘strongman’ approach to governing – so much so that observers begin to voice concerns about the erosion of constitutional and political norms we might (perhaps complacently) have taken for granted. The most extreme contemporary examples of this kind of ‘democratic backsliding’ on the part of parties previously considered (rightly or wrongly) to be part of the mainstream right are the United States and, in Europe, Hungary and Poland.

Arguably the UK, too, is heading in that direction, governed by a Conservative Party so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party like UKIP, the Brexit Party, and ReformUK that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

The ‘charge sheet’ is a long one:

Taken together, these ideas and measures raise the possibility that the UK may indeed become another example of democratic backsliding, as suggested in a recent Constitution Unit blogpost, in which the authors point out the part played in the process by polarisation and a legislature rendered acquiescent by an overwhelming government majority – both of which clearly apply in the UK case.

In the government’s defence, of course, one can argue that not all of these ideas have come to fruition and that we haven’t had enough time to allow us to come to a judgement as to whether, in sum, they constitute a ‘pattern of behaviour’.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that – much like the situation with COVID-19 – if you wait to act until you’re absolutely certain something’s wrong, then you’re bound to be too late to do much about it. There are (as books by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and Runciman recount) so many examples from history and from around the world which remind us that democracy all too often ends not with a bang but a whimper.

All of which brings us back to the question raised by the analogy with which I began and which can be traced right back to Virgil’s Aeneid: if the only way to effectively stymie the rise of the populist radical right is to ape it, and in so doing undermine and erode liberal democracy, at what point does the cure become worse than the disease?

Originally published at https://constitution-unit.com/2021/12/10/riding-the-populist-wave-the-uk-conservatives-and-the-constitution/


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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