Populists, libertarians, kleptocrats … and where to find them

Photo Robert Male

Forget traditional conservatives, socialists and liberals! We are in a new era now. The West is influencing the world with its liberal democracy, values and human rights far less than it once did and these aspects of freedom are being eroded at home too with regular attacks on democracy within the UK. Only the EU and a few friendly countries now seem to be fighting for progressive values at institutional levels, despite some internal opposition.

Pro-Europeans in the UK want far more than to trade with neighbours, seeing the EU as their last hope of  retaining ‘liberal democracy’ as opposed to a Putinesque ‘illiberal democracy’ which is perhaps now just another phrase for ‘authoritarian kleptocracy’ (“a society whose leaders make themselves rich and powerful by stealing from the rest of the people”).   

Those who shout the loudest about freedom in the US, and increasingly in the UK (for example against lockdown), are often not part of the liberal left which cares about human rights and fighting against enslavement, but are right-wing libertarians wanting the kind of individual freedom to make money regardless of how they do it, the freedom to sign documents then tear them up, and often the freedom to own guns. Wild West anyone? Dominic Cummings is also said to favour this kind of anarchy.

British politics has traditionally been viewed on a single right/left axis where ‘right’ means a small state dealing with economy and security issues, and ‘left’ means a larger welfare state caring for individuals not just the economy as a whole. The right is often seen as more authoritarian (top right box in diagram) and the left as more liberal (bottom left box). Moderates tend to be nearer to the ‘centre’ of the axis. But now, many pressing and often divisive issues such as Brexit and climate change might not fit neatly into a right/left framework.

To analyse what is happening politically now, using two axes can be more helpful than just one, the second one being an authoritarian/libertarian axis. The diagram above has boxes for right-wing libertarians and left-wing authoritarians in addition to our traditional UK norms. Using this model, we can see that Chinese communism can be seen as left-wing authoritarianism whilst Hitler may well have been ‘centre right’ on the right/left axis yet ‘extremist’ on the authoritarian axis. Populists such as Farage and Trump could also be described as less right-wing economically than many Conservatives but more authoritarian. Many are now saying that populism is the gateway to nationalism and fascism.

Young people ‘get it’ because they are looking at how politics appear to be now, rather than the way they were conditioned to see them in the past as older people often do. They are looking towards their future and seeing the threats arising.

So where exactly is Johnson’s ‘Vote Leave’ government on this map? Does it have Conservative values? Is it ruled by Cummings (a libertarian anarchist) who wants the freedom to bring in his own people in order to run the government like a high-tech company? Or is it dominated behind the scenes by Putin and friends (kleptocrats), Trump and Farage (populists), Bannon (fascist) or others such as Mercer and Elliott? In addition, we should not forget the newspaper proprietors who once employed Johnson and Gove (Murdoch for example) and who helped propel them into their current positions to gain vicarious influence.

Are we currently witnessing Johnson, made Prime Minister as the beneficiary of all this ‘support’, being pulled in all directions by these forces?  

In conclusion, our government is clearly ‘populist’, elected by convincing ‘the people’ that it was on their side against a ‘corrupt elite’. Unfortunately, populist governments tend to be the ‘corrupt elite’ themselves, meaning that the door is open for kleptocracy, fascism and ‘illiberal democracies’ with rigged elections.    

So, no, don’t forget the traditional conservatives, socialists and liberals! Be aware that we can support MPs who are democratic, moderate (near the centre), honourable, law-abiding, truthful and genuinely enter politics as a public service.