Only a Strong Centre Can Defeat the Populist Surge

Global Challenges Populism

Only a Strong Centre Can Defeat the Populist Surge

Posted on: 17th January 2017
Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

There is no doubt about the waves of discontent and anger sweeping Western politics. Britain voted to leave the European Union after four decades of membership with all the intricate trading and political connections such a long relationship created. Against all the advice of the political pundits Donald Trump won the American election, something the political class thought virtually inconceivable. All over Europe new political parties are springing up with variations on a theme: the political establishment has ignored us and let us down and we will throw them out in protest.

One signal feature of this uprising is that the impetus to make change becomes more important than any consideration of what the change means in practice. The things political leaders, riding this wave, say can be wildly out of kilter with normal rules of political conduct; but none of it matters. What matters is the revolt is happening and whoever happens to catch the wave as it rises will be born aloft on its force.

By contrast, politicians who make reasoned arguments of a conventional kind merely irritate, arousing an impetuous dismissal at best and contempt and derision at worst.

There is a stack of debate as to exactly why this is happening: stagnant incomes amongst parts at least of the working and middle class; people just managing to get by who feel marginalised; communities disrupted by economic change; immigration for sure; a reaction against the seemingly relentless force of globalisation.

Social media is in my view a huge part of this allowing movements to grow at scale and speed, fragmenting the media further, and creating a new world of information which has no rules of objectivity attached to it, allowing any and every conspiracy theory to stampede and trample the slender little facts standing impotently in their way.

In a country like Britain in the old days – ie around 20 years ago when I was first fighting elections as a leader – the BBC main nightly news had an audience of roughly 10m; today the figure is just over 2.5m. What was one conversation is now many, often people with the same views talking to each other.

What was one conversation is now many, often people with the same views talking to each other.

Brexit papers_0.jpg

Traditional media grapple with Brexit.

So this change in the method of receiving and debating information is for sure a revolutionary phenomenon in itself. The traditional media, which could reassert a role as the news you can trust, have simply decided it is easier and more commercially feasible instead to create a constituency of readers whose loyalty is reinforced by not being challenged. 

And there is something quite satisfying in upturning convention. There is a sense of power in shaking the established order.

But we shouldn't kid ourselves. We are playing with fire, entering a very dangerous period of politics. A recent poll showed a significant minority of French citizens were not convinced any longer that democracy was the right system for France. Support for an authoritarian model of leadership is rising everywhere.

Shaking the system up can produce necessary change; but it can also produce consequences that are neither intended nor benign.

Populism is not new. Economic change is not new. Anxiety about immigration is not new. Exploitation of the dissatisfaction of the people is not new.

But the context is new and the inability of the centre to respond and grip is also new.

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