Government and Institutions

Review: National Populism, by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin

By far the least interesting aspect of the Brexit campaign is that it won.

What should be much more mystifying for those flummoxed by recent events is that, even on a bad day, the Leave vote would have probably been somewhere in the region of 35-45%. This irreducible core of euroscepticism, near-half of the electorate who would, under almost any circumstances, vote to leave the EU is the real story of how Brexit took place. Reckoning with the factors that led to this entrenchment is critical to understanding both our departure from the EU and the United Kingdom today.

Unfortunately, this fact is much less interesting to journalists than the ongoing Westminster soap opera. Two years on, it remains desperately underexplored. Into this void step Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, with their timely and refreshingly apolitical study, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.

Eatwell and Goodwin, well-regarded professors of politics, find commonalities across continents; between Brexit, Trump, Marine le Pen, the German Alternative Fur Deutschland, and the Italian La Liga, groups and movements which performed unexpectedly – in some cases, disruptively, well at the ballot box. All share, they argue, a focus on “the culture and interests of the nation, and a promise to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected… by distant and often corrupt elites.”

Many Leave voters will shy away from the notion that leaving the European Union shares anything at all with the election of a leader so dogged by controversy as Donald Trump, or a party headed by a Matteo Salvini, who has talked of “cleansing” Italy of its Roma citizens. But Eatwell and Goodwin, thankfully, step aside from political or ethical comparisons. Instead, they look at the underlying forces explaining the rise in support for anti-establishment candidates and parties, rather than passing judgment on any particular movement itself.

They theorise that voters are responding to a set of circumstances summarised as the “four Ds”: Distrust, De-Alignment, Deprivation and Destruction. These represent the cumulative effect of growing differences between political elites and those they represent, the death of traditional political ties and cultural responses to both globalisation and immigration.

Eatwell and Goodwin point out that voters who chose the anti-establishment option in the last few years have generally viewed their politicians as “people who have had a completely different upbringing, lead fundamentally different lives and hold very different values.” Recognising Oxbridge’s stranglehold of British politics is hardly breaking new ground, yet even in the Labour Party, the proportion of new MPs without degrees has collapsed from 41% in 1979 to a mere 16% in 2017. The book notes that a staggering 60% of Angela Merkel’s third cabinet held doctorates, a rising trend mirrored across the rest of Europe.

Crucial to their analysis is the insight that changes in circumstances, rather than the actual state of the world, drives support for national populism. The book rejects the popular view that Brexit was driven by “white people in all white areas where there are no immigrants.” This narrow argument omits areas like Boston, in Lincolnshire, where more than 15% of the local population were born outside the UK, and more than three quarters of residents voted to leave the EU, the highest proportion in the country.

Eatwell and Goodwin argue that it is not the actual number of immigrants, but the rate of change over time that matters. “Support for Brexit was stronger in areas that during the preceding decade had experienced rapid inward migration”, they write. This tallies with Trump voters, too, for whom “living in areas where the proportion of Latinos had increased sharply… was a key predictor”.

That rapid cultural or demographic change is a main factor in voting for national populism also explains why many European countries, held by the left as international bastions of equality and social democracy, are not immune from the trend. Sweden, whose state spent almost 50% of GDP in 2015 (the UK spent ~42%) and has a much more equal income distribution than the UK, saw the nationalist Sweden Democrats win 17.5% of the vote earlier this year. Even at its peak in 2015, UKIP only managed 12.6%.

Yet many overlook the fact that income inequality has risen in Sweden four times faster since the mid 1990s than it has in the UK, following a similar recent pattern to other countries in the EU and America.

Goodwin and Eatwell’s apolitical analysis allows them to look beyond the simple caricatures of national populist voters as decaying white racists, and raises questions that are both disturbing and necessary. What is the correct response for governments when voters react to rising inequality by electing national populists, even if inequality remains at relatively low levels? How is it that, despite rising personal wealth and increasing social equality, politics seems to have become less accessible for those without degrees or means?

Most importantly, the book makes clear link between national populism and racial diversity. If it is an endemic feature of human beings that they react in specific ways to rapid change in the ethnic makeup of their communities, to what extent should public policy either reflect or account for these?

As the book makes clear, the forces that have led to the recent rise in national populism are not temporary, but part of decades-strong currents. It doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon. Luckily for Eatwell and Goodwin – if less so for their readers – their book makes clear that it’s diagnosis only. Working out what to do will have to be left to others.

National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin is published by Pelican Books. £9.99, 344pp

Zachary is a parliamentary researcher and former reporter for the Times.

2 thoughts on “Review: National Populism, by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin”

  1. Posted 30/08/2022 at 18:58 | Permalink

    You don’t need to be a “well-regarded professor of politics” to notice that populists are making waves. You also don’t need a sophisticated analysis to see why. When times are good, the economy is booming and most people are doing better, optimism for the future abounds. People are more open, trusting, happy, tolerant and ready to share. But when times are not so good, people become anxious, aggressive, intolerant and distrustful. They start to resent those that they think are doing better, especially if they are seen as undeserving, or are obviously different. This is a universal pattern in history – which any political professor really ought to study.

    Since about the turn of the millennium, growth has slowed, inequality has increased, wages stagnated – especially since the great financial crisis of 2008. The future is not looking bright. There are multiple crises, some in the foreground, others looming uncomfortably. Most people are not seeing their lives improve, especially the young. This generates a lot of frustration, anger and stress. When someone offers a simple diagnosis and a rapid cure, they leap at it. Populists are snake oil salesmen. They know when people are ill, they are desperate for a remedy. Anything that offers a glimmer of an answer is seized on, especially if it panders to existing views. What then happens is when the populist gets power, they can’t deliver, so they blames everything but their remedy. It drags on for a decade or so before eventually someone else usurps them, or better times start to appear. And so the cycle continues.

    The underlying causes of the malaise are never identified or dealt with because the populists share a world view with the “democrats” they replace. Namely that there are two types of people – us, and them. Rather than make efforts to create a unifying community and culture by ensuring everyone shares in prosperity, and feels they belong, the focus is on who is in the us, and who in the them. This perpetuates the problem.

  2. Posted 30/08/2022 at 19:04 | Permalink

    And here’s the thing. The IEA represents one of the principle intellectual drivers of this us and them division. The idea that people are entirely driven by maximising utility, and have no inner motivations beyond the economic. This extraordinary inhuman view of humanity stokes the policies that fuel inequality and division, and lead to populism. You own failure to recognise your part in the drama, as a sort of background chorus urging on the worst excesses of the leading villain, would be comical if it were not so destructive.

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