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.


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