Voters deserve a vision for Europe, not a cabinet of curiosities

The South West's European election ballot paper will resemble a celebrity game show. But there are real dangers in this media-fed populism.

Molly Scott Cato
27 April 2019, 8.50am
Molly Scott-Cato, Green MEP for the South West, with Caroline Lucas and Sian Berry
Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

The European Elections in the South West and Gibraltar are turning into a cabinet of curiosities. We began with the Sargon of Akkad, who, like fellow UKIP supporter Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, eschews his normal name, in the former case for the persona of an ancient Middle Eastern potentate. Akkad was soon joined by Andrew Adonis, a valiant champion of the Remain cause until he was forced to retract this week, shortly before the closing date for nominations. Adonis issued a statement that has all the hallmarks of being written under duress.

Change UK brought their candidates, who mostly seem to be London-based, on a day trip to Bristol to launch their campaign. Their star candidate is Rachel Johnson, who I’m sure is charming and does at least have a connection with the South West, having attended two different schools in our region, but is best known for her somewhat ironic appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.

The dramatis personae were completed by the arrival of Ann Widdecombe for the Brexit Party, an extremely socially conservative retired MP who did a short stint as Minister for Prisons under John Major, and some of whose views breach what most of us would consider basic human rights. Born and partly schooled in Bath, she has been a contestant or host on four different reality TV shows including Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Big Brother.

Forgive me if I come across as somewhat jaundiced about all this. I’m as willing to take a joke as the next person but when the airwaves are crammed with my political opponents who seem to get in under the fair broadcasting guidelines on the basis that they are celebrities, then I do feel the need to cry foul.

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I was proud to be elected as the first ever Green MEP for South West England and Gibraltar, and honoured to serve in the European Parliament. The little celebrity I can call my own arises from my relentless determination to stop the global operation that is Brexit. I have also been involved in significant legislative work in the field of sustainable finance and controlling the use of antibiotics to control the growth of resistance, as well as sitting on four tax inquiry committees that are tackling the tax avoidance and resultant social inequality that drove people to vote for Brexit.

But it’s more political than personal, my rejection of the diminution of democratic elections by turning them into a game show. Over the past year I have been engaged in a project to research and spread the word about the rise of the far right. The project has identified that populism is the midwife of fascism – and it is populism that is characterising these elections to a degree unprecedented in British elections.

Populism is not primarily about being popular. Rather, it is about focusing on emotional responses rather than rational engagement. It is about making promises without any clear plan or even intention of meeting them. We can see clearly that this is how the Brexit referendum was won: arousing people with fear, identifying yourself as the answer to that fear, but offering nothing in the way of clear, practical proposals to address the issues that you had attached people’s fear to.

The appeal of Change UK is more subtle and seems to me more akin to how Five Star rose to power in Italy. I have absolutely no idea what Change stand for. They have a website which I visit regularly to find out more but that, so far, has only a single page of bland commitments. They have refused to answer the question about which group they will join in the European Parliament. They are appealing to people’s disillusionment with our broken politics – and few can argue with that – but without being clear about what solutions they are offering. It is also concerning that two of their candidates had resigned within 48 hours of their launch, and a third is battling to stay on. This is another clear sign of populism, with poorly organised and weakly disciplined parties with no clear governance framework or due diligence.

If you motivate people with emotional responses, they become understandably angry if the promises you have made them are not fulfilled. They may limit their anger to the candidate or party that let them down, but they are more likely to turn against the system as a whole, to add to the growing disillusionment in many Western societies with how democracy is working.

As a Green Party candidate I feel confident that I’m standing for the party with the most popular policies on the two leading issues of the day: we are clearly against Brexit and for ambitious action on climate. You can call me old-fashioned if you like, but I will be standing on the policy platform put forward by the European Greens and on my track-record. During the next month I will visit as much of the beautiful region I have represented proudly for five years as I can. To the great relief of my potential electors I will not be competitively baking cakes, dancing, or removing my clothes to make a political point.

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