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Republicanism and the perils of Blatcherite populism

David Marquand
17 July 2009

David Marquand joins the discussion of the possible strategies for democratic reform post-expenses launched by Anthony Barnett in his recent post.

Anthony Barnett Peter Oborne > Melissa Lane > Stuart White > John JacksonSuzanne Moore  > David Marquand

Arbitrary power is not the only enemy of democracy in twenty-first century Britain. Populism is another, and in some ways a more insidious one. In the last thirty years we have witnessed two populist leaders of genius. Each rode the waves of popular alienation from the ‘system', and switched them into authoritarian channels. With astonishing skill and brazen chutzpah Thatcher presented herself as the champion of ordinary, commonsensical middle England against arbitrary bureaucratic power on the one hand and arbitrary feather-bedding corporatism on the other. She contrived to be, at one and the same time, the head of the Government, and the hammer of the state; she ran against ‘Sir Humphrey' even while she was turning him into the pliable instrument of her will. She made Britain safe for the arbitrary power of corporate capitalism and high finance - all in the name of a resentful people, with whom she honestly identified and for whom she truly believed she spoke.

After the Major interregnum, the same thing happened under Blair, though in a softer and more guileful way. It's too soon to disentangle all the mysteries of the Blair psyche and statecraft. But I don't think there's much doubt that he too honestly saw himself as the champion of decent, ordinary, hard-working folk against unrepresentative and arrogant elites - or that his repeated electoral triumphs were the products of a symbiosis between popular attitudes and his own.

To grasp the true nature and potential of the current crisis it's essential to distinguish very carefully, both between republicanism and populism, and between republicanism and hedonistic individualism. The republican tradition is not an easy, cosy, or comfortable one; it is austere and demanding. Republican citizens govern themselves; and self-government is an arduous, testing business. Equally, republicanism is light years away from the resentful anti-elitism that ran through the Daily Telegraph's reporting of the expenses scandal, and much of the public reaction to it.

Stuart White is right that the republican tradition is hostile to arbitrary power, but that's only part of the story. The heart and soul of the republican tradition, I believe, lies in its blazing contempt for servility, and its stubborn insistence on autonomy, individuality and self-respect. Republicans don't think ‘the people' are always right; they know, only too well, that the ‘people' can - and often do - betray their own better selves. That note comes through again and again in Milton, in the civil war Levellers, in Paine, in Mill, in Orwell and in Tawney. The Question Time audience that howled down Chris Huhne when he tried to explain why he had listed the cost of a trouser press among his expense claims were not embryonic republican citizens. They were a mob of would-be vigilantes, filled with resentful rage - easy prey for a passing saviour on a white horse.

And exactly such a saviour is on parade. Cameron's vague talk of ‘power to the people' is pure populism. I don't accuse him of insincerity. I'm sure he is totally sincere. He honestly believes he stands for middle England, and it's pretty clear that most of that electoral El Dorado share his belief. But exactly the same was true of Thatcher and of Blair. Charismatic, authoritarian populists have to be sincere, at least in part of their minds. Their charisma is inextricably bound up with their sincerity. Cameron is often called a second Blair. The truth is that he is another Blatcher. If he rides into Downing Street on a white charger, promising people power in place of elite power, we shall be in for another instalment of populist authoritarianism. And if we renascent democratic republicans spend all our time stoking the fires of popular anger, without warning of the danger of a reversion to Blatcherite populism, and arming ourselves against it emotionally and intellectually, we shall play into Cameron's hands.

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