Leave supporters in Parliament square on January 31, 2020 (Photo by Kate Green/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The myth of the emotionally unstable populist voter

It’s time that smug pseudo-centrists had more humility

Artillery Row

If the typical populist voter is gurning, bovine and hopelessly provincial, as the media does its best to present him, the advantage of this caricature is that it implies a liberal elite of worldly, cosmopolitan sophisticates as its mirror image. By now, this thought-terminating cliché is well past its sell-by date. It has not yet been discarded, though, as a recent viral clip on LBC demonstrates.

On Saturday, Matthew Wright, TV-presenter turned weekend LBC host (two details I had to look up, I confess), took a caller on the topic of the rioting last week in Dublin. The widespread disorder came in the wake of an alleged stabbing of three toddlers and a creche worker, seemingly by an Algerian migrant, in an Ireland where migration was already a bubbling source of anger, with an enormous 20 per cent of the population now foreign-born.

It is “pathetic”, began the LBC caller, how elites across Europe and in Britain trot out the line “far-right” to demonise the sentiments voiced, however imperfectly, by those rioters, to shut down wider debate about immigration. “People are sick and tired,” he said, “of telling mainstream politicians that we are nervous and worried and upset about seeing our countries change before our very eyes without our consent.”

He hadn’t finished his point. Wright, clearly eager to interrupt from the moment he started speaking about immigration, had heard all he needed to. “You don’t like change!” he sneered. This telling sentiment marked the caller out as hopelessly unsophisticated — Wright would do his best to enlighten him. “But the country changes all the time,” he held forth, inanely. “We’re in a process of constant change.” A truism, no doubt, but not a relevant one. “There is a significant rump of mainly older people with conservative views who hate change,” he added, but “you can’t just stop change”. Then he pivoted from condescension to contempt: that means, dear caller, “you’re going to have to suck it up”.

Who comes off as being more reasonable and emotionally stable here? The ordinary-sounding bloke seems more weary than outraged. Were he allowed to continue, he likely would have made the sensible observations that immigration numbers are pushing up house prices, extending GP waiting lists and lowering wages, all whilst taking a hammer to social cohesion.

Meanwhile, as he speaks, Wright can barely contain himself before he launches into his bizarre tirade about the inevitability of change. Like many of his colleagues at “Leading Britain’s Conversation”, Wright clearly thinks his role is to drag his intransigent callers into a changing modern world. Yet his rant comes across as unhinged. “I just feel it so strongly that people don’t like change,” he says, passionately railing against a constant of human psychology (one which, naturally, he also seems to blame on the Brexit campaign). This is all the more risible given that here, this self-feted change enthusiast is acting as a hysterical apologist for the status quo.

It is not true that opposition to mass immigration stems from gullible dupes

No one should accept this class’s self-image as sophisticated, change-happy masters of the universe. As Aris Roussinos argued recently, Britain’s “sensible centrist” political consensus is neither sensible, nor centrist. Our sky-high immigration figures — 672,000 for 2023, with last year’s figure revised upward to 745,000 — confirm that Britain is in fact run by pro-immigration extremists. Even Sir Keir Starmer says these numbers are “shockingly high”. They are the product of a political class wedded to an orthodoxy it is totally unable to justify. Last week, seeking to explain the embarrassing figures, No. 10 insisted that Britain apparently must accept hundreds of thousands of migrants each year — mostly from developing countries post-Brexit — to protect our “international reputation”, like some kind of globalist tithe. I can only imagine how that will go down on the doorstep in Bolsover. The Conservative Party’s immigration maximalism, says Roussinos, portends a “convulsion” on the right that will “dwarf Brexit”. Who could disagree?

By the same token, nor should we accept those who would relegate populist voters to the status of voiceless subaltern to this failed liberal elite. Matthew Parris was at least commendably frank when he expressed this contemptuous sentiment ahead of the 2014 by-election in Clacton, which UKIP later won: “I am not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton,” said the Times columnist. “But I am arguing — if I am honest — that we should be careless of their opinions.” Similarly, in his book Identity, liberal apologist Francis Fukuyama diagnoses behind populism a “demand for recognition … [for] the dignity of a particular group that has been marginalised or disrespected”. On this view, the downtrodden majority must occasionally be given the chance to voice its resentment at being the economic and cultural losers of globalisation — but nothing more.

This blind alley is little more than politics as therapy: a convenient means of channelling populist anger away from anything substantive and towards token gestures. Unfortunately, even the would-be tribunes of the populist right often fall into this trap, calling for a “conversation” about immigration, for “[acknowledging] tradeoffs” or conceding that maybe, just perhaps, it is “not an unalloyed good” — rather than for real political action. This amounts to little more than advising the liberal elite that if they are to secure democratic consent for their extremist programme, they ought not to be quite so openly contemptuous of the proles. It is certainly no firm basis for a political movement.

It is not true that opposition to mass immigration stems from gullible dupes of populist politicians, as a recent study reminds us. Researchers at the University of North Carolina asked American respondents to evaluate various electoral policy platforms, rating their favourability when accompanied either by populist or non-populist campaign rhetoric. They found that populist rhetoric had no statistically significant effect on respondents’ choices, whilst “congruent substantive policy positions”, such as reducing immigration, were “the most important factor”. In other words, voters favour immigration restriction — as they have in Britain at every opportunity for the past three decades — not because they are hoodwinked by populist fantasies, but because it is a policy they want to see enacted.

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