Britain’s Populist Fantasies

by Chris Patten Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. 14.09.2015
LONDON – The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the British Labour Party is a reminder that life is rich with paradox.

Globalization – the web of travel, technology, trade, and information that binds the world ever more closely together – is hardly a new phenomenon. But politics in many developed democracies has lately been disrupted by populist insurgencies seeking to exit this shared reality. What these groups do not seem to recognize is that the alternative they wish for is a fantasy.

From Syriza in Greece to the National Front in France, voters across Europe are being encouraged to believe in a virtual reality shaped by prejudice and uninformed nostalgia. In the United States, this mood first emerged several years ago, fueling the rise of the Tea Party and now enabling the splenetic presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and other Republican candidates who promise to seal America off from the twenty-first century. (The promise is to some extent literal: By building walls along the country’s northern and southern borders, the candidates would defend the American dream from outside contamination.)

The United Kingdom is the latest victim of this fantasy-driven populism. On the right, we have already suffered the rise of the anti-European, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, led by the cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling joker Nigel Farage, in whom Britain has found its own version of Silvio Berlusconi, if you can imagine such a thing.

Now the British left has embraced a similar folly. The Labour Party’s defeat in May’s general election brought about the resignation of its leader, Ed Miliband, a courteous and intelligent figure who, having abandoned the middle ground once controlled by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, had failed to convince even his own party that he could run the country. The campaign to choose his successor proceeded throughout the summer.

On the whole, the search was a pretty dismal business. Three respectable, if uninspiring, former ministers vied for the position, but struggled to find a compelling message that connected the party of the left with modern Britain. Unsure of the right approach, they wavered somewhere between moderation and left-wing nonsense.

Such indecisiveness was not a problem for Corbyn, whose principal distinction in more than three decades in parliament has been voting against his own party more than 500 times on the grounds that its proposals were not socialist enough. In fact, Corbyn made it onto the ballot only because a few MPs wanted to show that the Labour Party welcomed debate. But his passionate advocacy of old-fashioned socialism quickly caught on, breathing new life – and drawing tens of thousands of new members – into a party that had been losing adherents in droves.

So what exactly are Corbyn’s proposals? At home, he would nationalize industries, especially in energy, and raise taxes, especially on business and the wealthy. Any semblance of fiscal prudence would go out the window, with cuts in health, welfare, and education spending being reversed. Trade unions would regain the power they enjoyed before Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in the 1980s. And public-sector workers would become the principal beneficiaries of the country’s spending programs.

In foreign policy, Corbyn would slash defense spending and abandon the UK’s nuclear deterrent. He would blame virtually anything that went wrong in the world on America, which is, in his view, morally equivalent to Russia. If a leader like the late Hugo Chávez, the architect of Venezuela’s “socialist revolution,” emerges, Corbyn would probably be on the next plane to meet him.

Despite his radical views, Corbyn won the battle to lead Labour – and hence Britain’s parliamentary opposition, with nearly 60% of the vote. But Labour will not win a general election under Corbyn – a reality that has caused some Conservatives to respond to his victory as though they had won the lottery. In my view, however, no good will come from this insurrection for anyone.

First, Corbyn will not be swept out of his job by an early display of public distaste and hostility. On the contrary, at the outset, he may be able to galvanize many alienated young voters against a government that has earned wary respect but is not much liked.

Second, without effective and responsible opposition, governments can become arrogant, careless, and too focused on their own supporters. In this case, leaders of the Conservative Party’s far-right component are likely to think that they can dispense with offering disciplined support to Prime Minister David Cameron and his policies, because Labour can never win under Corbyn, anyway.

Third, at some time over the next year, the UK will face a referendum over its membership in the European Union. While no one knows the position Corbyn will take on this issue, one can speculate that he, like some of the trade-union bosses who support him, might decide that the EU is a rich man’s club, thereby precluding the much-needed cross-party consensus in favor of continued membership.

Fourth, Corbyn, who shares many of the political views of the Scottish nationalists, will make it more difficult to manage the question of Scotland’s place in the UK. Making common cause with the nationalists in policy matters will complicate the question of how best to deal with their constitutional aspirations.

Fifth, there is a danger that the Conservative government, faced with irrational populist forces on both the left and the right, will shrink from its duty to stand up for good values and good sense. But it is vital that, amid all the make-believe, there are still those who hammer home the simple truth that, no matter how much people wish for it, a country cannot decide simply to stop the world and get off.

Corbyn’s election underscores how many Britons are refusing to accept reality. It is up to Cameron to end their dangerous reverie.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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