Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Myths it's time to retire II -that "populist ideas" are always right or wrong.

What is the difference between respecting democracy and being a populist?

One of the "irregular verbs" from Bernard Woolley in "Yes Prime Minister" might have been

"I respect the democratic wishes of the electorate,
You pander to populist sentiment,
He's a dangerous demagogue."

People who are supporting a policy which is widely believed to be popular almost invariably use this as one of the justifications (not necessarily the only one) and usually describe themselves as supporting democracy (especially if they are supporting the implantation of a referendum decision.

People who are opposing a policy which they are afraid may be popular almost always refer to it as "populist" as if that necessarily meant there was something wrong with it.

There was a time when you might have been able to argue that the term "populist" meant something like

"people advocating a policy they don't actually agree with to win votes, or a policy advocated for that reason" 

but it has been so over-used now that it just means

"policy which the person so describing it disagrees with but is afraid may be popular."

As such, does this concept really add anything to political debate?

For an example of how whether something is "populist" to many people means whether or not they agree with it, it is difficult to beat the article

"Britain halts populist advance."

by Charlotte Kude at Comment Central - read the article, and then read the comments which have been posted by readers.


If you believe there is something wrong with a policy, you should explain exactly why it is harmful - and it is entirely possible, especially if you put the case well, that the people who think it is popular might turn out to be wrong.

There have been plenty of examples from history of "unpopular populists" - a term which sounds like an oxymoron but is not really a contradiction, it usually applies to someone who advocates things because he or she thinks they will be popular but who is mistaken in that belief. In my humble opinion one of the best examples in Britain today is probably not a politician but a journalist - Katie Hopkins.

Standing up for your principles even when they may cost you support takes courage and is often a very good thing.

But there is nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about respecting the wishes of the electorate and trying to give them what they want - and to my mind it says something alarming about the lack of respect for democracy among Britain's political class that the word "populist" is so often and so lightly used as an insult.

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