Britain’s Populist Death Spiral

The U.K. risks getting trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle that drives voters and politicians further and further to the right

Tobias Stone


Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

BBritish news has been gripped by the rather bizarre process of the governing Conservative party choosing a new leader. It was always likely to be Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, but to avoid the appearance of a coronation, the party gradually reduced a crowded field of candidates down to two people: Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister.

It is a strange process. Technically it is democratic, because 160,000 Conservative Party members will decide between the two candidates, as is mandated. However, to many it seems wrong that the next prime minister is being appointed by a tiny group of people while the rest of the country just sits by and watches.

With Johnson’s rise, British politics is now defined by the emergence of a populist right-wing the likes of which this country has not really seen before. But the danger to the U.K. is that each step to the right will worsen the situation for the very people supporting the right-wing populists, driving them yet further to the extreme.

Brexit has become the totem for the right-wing.

Populism makes stupid decisions; doing what people want, not what is necessarily sensible. It also blames scapegoats. As the economic damage caused by the underlying corruption of populist politics bites, the leaders have to blame other people, which invariably drives their voters further right. This then forces those populist politicians to chase their increasingly right-wing voters, each time worsening the situation for the country, economy, and society, and thus causing people to look further right in anger.

Rather than modernizing and becoming relevant to the country as a whole, today’s Conservative leaders are pandering to the 160,000 or so mainly old, white men who make up its membership and will vote in its next leader. Despite Johnson’s many shortcomings, many of his colleagues in Parliament think he is the most likely to be able to keep the party in power, see through Brexit, and win back votes that have been hemorrhaging to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. To appeal to them, Johnson is promising Brexit in October, come what may.

Brexit has become the totem for the right wing. Many people who voted for Brexit will disagree with this and say they are not right-wing. That is true, some are Labour voters, some are otherwise perfectly reasonable people. But to paraphrase Billy Bragg, who controversially suggested that whilst not all Brexit voters were racists, all racists were Brexit voters, I doubt there are many right-wing, xenophobic “remain” voters.

But while some “leave” voters may not identify as such, the political leadership behind Brexit is predominantly right-wing and populist. Brexit as it is today is the result of a right-wing media, combined with shadowy foreign funding, foreign influence campaigns, and opportunistic populist political leaders, all of whom claim to be for the people and against the establishment, and all of whom could not be more establishment themselves. It is a big fabrication to get voted into power and twist politics to their advantage.

At a popular level, Brexit really is about immigration, identity, and other concepts around a confused sense of sovereignty (we were already sovereign). But at the leadership level, Brexit is about weakening institutional controls so the rich, who are backing Brexit, can make more money, pay less tax, and further their careers. These people, in particular Johnson and Farage, are egomaniacs obsessed with the limelight, power, and self-promotion. Johnson is convinced he is the next Winston Churchill, the danger of which is that he is not. Their Brexit has nothing at all to do with the people they encouraged to vote for it.

In the end, the people who supported Brexit because they bought into the rhetoric around nationalism will end up poorer, living in a less affluent and less important country suffering either a sudden or slow decline. The rich leaders who persuaded them to pursue that future will never be affected by there being fewer nurses in an under-funded National Health Service, by factory closures, or by the wholesale decimation of their societies as major industrial employers leave the U.K.

The “Bad Boys of Brexit” are already making money from the uncertainty and instability. Jacob Rees-Mogg is estimated to have made over £4 million, or roughly $5 million, from investments that benefited from the Brexit vote. Farage is alleged to have influenced entire markets on the night of the vote to make his backers money. Their investments are global, and they do not need to turn to the state for health care, education, or pensions, so they really don’t care what happens to the U.K.

As if this wasn’t depressing enough, the real problems have yet to unfold. The Conservative Party, only tentatively in power, will continue to chase Farage to the right of the political spectrum in an increasingly desperate attempt to win back the voters who defected to his Brexit party. As the country veers right, it will become more anti-immigration, anti-global, and isolated. Populism does not lead to intelligent policy decisions based on evidence and expertise. Johnson has already signaled that he is willing to cut taxes for the rich as a way of bribing them to vote for him. This makes no economic sense, and is just pure populism.

The increasing drop in immigration will continue to put pressure on public services and key industries. If the U.K. pulls out of the European Union without a coherent deal in place, the country will become ever more isolated, cut off from global trade. The economic damage will mainly hit the poor, who voted for Brexit because they say they felt “left behind.” They will become more left behind, as the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. The poor will suffer from Brexit, the rich will benefit and get richer. And as the poor are hit by Brexit while the rich make money from it, this will just worsen the sense that people feel left behind, pushing them yet further to the political right as they look for scapegoats and vent their anger.

Each time the country takes a step to the right, the impact will worsen the very circumstances pushing it in that direction. It risks becoming a self-perpetuating political death spiral.

In the past, these things have corrected themselves. Usually, within about a year from now, the government collapses and is wiped out in a general election. The last two political eras ended in this way, and it is something of a cycle in modern British politics.

What is different this time though? Firstly, a Johnson premiership leading to a foolish and populist Brexit is harder to reverse than just a bad government. Usually, the checks and balances built into the U.K.’s rather eccentric political system stop any party causing too much damage. The free press shines a light on the corruption and mistakes; the judiciary pick people up for breaking the rules; Parliament collectively protects the democracy against those who undermine it.

In the end, the people who supported Brexit because they bought into the rhetoric around nationalism will end up poorer.

But this time it is possible that the U.K. will split apart, upsetting the entire political makeup of the U.K. What would a British Parliament look like without Scotland? The Scots are something of a counterbalance to what is primarily an English shift towards xenophobia and isolationism. The media is too dominated by Rupert Murdoch, whose publications have amplified the worst lies and hatred over many years — it is no coincidence that the two countries most dominated by Murdoch media have President Donald Trump, and soon, presumably, Prime Minister Johnson (the British Trump).

But we are also still in the early years of the social media era, and clearly don’t understand it at all. It is astonishing that there has not been an inquiry (yet) into how Brexit was funded, and manipulated by Russian intelligence, Cambridge Analytica, American billionaires, and sources of money as yet still unidentified. This suggests that our politicians still do not understand modern communication, or the threat it can pose to a society. How things play out in the coming years will be hugely affected by information warfare, illicit funding of online campaigns, manipulation of information, and next time by deep fake video content. This creates an entirely new political climate, which is unpredictable and unknown.

I do believe that at some point the whole thing will crash, and something new will rise from the ashes. I think the U.K. may be too far gone to recover its trajectory, and instead will need to see this through to the end. That end will be some sort of serious economic decline, along with a social decline. Only when the damage is so bad that even those who voted for it cannot deny it will we stop, collectively, and look for a new direction. At that point, we will need a once-in-a-generation leader to emerge and create a vision for a new U.K. that finds its way back to something rational.

Sadly, by then, a lot of people will have lost jobs, lost homes, and lost futures. Some will have lost their lives, through violence, collapsing health care provisions, and pollution, to name a few of the things already unfolding across society. The country will no longer be significant globally, and may even be part of a smaller Union, without Scotland. I fear it may take some years for things to hit the bottom, and for those people who cheered on Farage, voted in Johnson, and yelled about the “will of the people” to realize they made a mistake.

After this period of Conservative government, so far, the country has seen rises in knife crime, homelessness, poverty, the use of food banks, pollution, work instability, race and hate crimes. It is an angrier, more divided, and less friendly place. The poor are poorer, the rich richer. The Union is weak, the economy is flailing, public services are impoverished and struggling, and the country is no longer a significant player in the global arena. Vultures are circling over England, waiting to pick off the health service, break down our regulations and safeguards, and ship cheap food and low-quality products to our poorest people once things start to collapse.

The farce of the Conservative leadership process is dominating the news interspersed with stories about teenagers stabbed to death, company collapses and closures, and crises in funding or staffing across public services. Nobody has asked any of the Conservative leadership candidates if they are at all ashamed of what their party has done to this country. They campaign on how they’re going to put things right, without acknowledging that they caused the mess in the first place. None of them are owning it, apologizing that what has only ever been an internal power battle in their party has spilled over like a spreading cancer that is now destroying the very fabric of this country.

Those who put Johnson in charge risk pushing this country far more right-wing than any previous Conservative administration, and all of it was just about holding onto power. Once they’ve handed the country to a known-liar and incompetent populist maybe they’ll finally finish the job and he will burn things to the ground. Then we just need to hope that a visionary leader will emerge and rebuild the country anew.