Populism and Brexit with Brendan O’Neill

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In Part Three of his interview with Conatus News, Spiked Magazine editor Brendan O’Neill discusses populism in Britain and Brexit.

Brian Graham.: Let’s turn to the opposition that you’ve been talking about, this business of elitist and populist. In actual fact, what I’d like to do is vault over the positive sides of populism and go straight to what you might be prepared to identify as the unappealing side of populism, if you’re aware of it, or if you feel that there is a downside to populism.

Brendan O’Neill.: I think there could be. But I think the upsides outweigh the downsides enormously. I think populism has become this kind of dirty word. Being called a populist is like being called a fascist really (‘How dare you listen to the populace?’) And if you look at the meaning of the word populist, it really does mean things that are popular among large numbers of people – if you strip it down. It doesn’t mean right-wing; you can, of course, have left-wing populism. It doesn’t even necessarily mean dumbing ideas down. It means something that’s interesting and popular to a large number of people.

I think that the word populism is often used these days as a byword for democracy – and for mass politics – which makes people feel uncomfortable and which has made people feel uncomfortable for 300 or 400 years. And they find new ways all the time to express their discomfort. And right now they express their discomfort with mass politics, with the idea that a factory worker in Stoke, and a 23-year-old guy who works in a coffee shop in Essex and a former miner in Wales should have the same impact in political life as the guy who’s got a PhD from Oxford. They cannot cope with that idea. It horrifies them at a fundamental level. And so they have this instinctive belief that anything which attracts those people – the guy from Stoke, the guy from Essex, the people in Wales – has got to be populist (i.e. ‘bad’), simplistic and playing to their visceral fears, emotions and irrationalism. It can’t possibly be that these people have made a judgement – a moral, reasoned political judgement – about what they think is best for society. (By the way, the reason why I mention those three categories of Britain is of course that the Brexit vote was strong in all those places: Stoke, Essex and working-class parts of Wales.)

And the reason the elite feels uncomfortable with this is because they think that they know better. And that has been the argument against democracy from the very beginning, right back to the English Civil War. The thing that made Cromwell feel uncomfortable about the Levellers (and others who were going slightly too far in their arguments for democracy) was his belief that ordinary people couldn’t be trusted. The thing that made the elitists of the 1840s feel uncomfortable by the Chartist demand for the vote for working-class men is that they thought that working-class men were rash, easily led astray and vulnerable to demagoguery. The thing that made people feel uncomfortable by the idea of the women’s vote a hundred years ago this year was that women were more visceral than men, more emotional and more simplistic. So all those arguments have been around for a long time, and I think they’re now coming back through the opposition to populism, which I think is fundamentally a new form of political elitism.

B.G.: We didn’t successfully vault over the positives.

B.O.: (Laughter) I can’t help myself.

B.G.: But could you think of a concrete instance where you can see that perhaps even on an abstract, theoretical level there could be some problem with populism?

B.O.: Yes. Well, not necessarily with populism. I genuinely don’t have a problem with things that are popular amongst large numbers of people. In fact, in one of their newspapers, the Chartists once said something like ‘We’re not saying the ordinary working man is just as good at politics as the lord, lady or baron; we’re saying he’s better at politics.’ And the reason he’s better is because he lives in society in a way that those people often don’t. He works in it, he goes shopping in it, he rubs shoulders with ordinary people, he’s sensitive to the problems of the workplace, community and infrastructure.

That was their argument, and I agree with them a hundred percent. And in fact, I think that’s a more relevant argument today even than it was in the 1840s because we now have a political class that, if anything, is even more aloof than they were then, which now pays its dues by working in Brussels for ten years (as far away from us as they can possibly get), who’ve never met an ordinary person, who don’t understand us even when they meet us – like when Gordon Brown met that woman who was worried about immigration and he called her ‘that bigoted woman!’. These people don’t understand how society works. So that great radical Chartist argument – i.e. that the ordinary man in the street is better at politics than the educated man in the ivory tower, the House of Lords or the House of Commons – I think is more true than it’s ever been. So I’m going to the positives all the time.

In terms of the negatives, I would accept completely that there are moments in history – and one might think of the vote for Thatcher or, even worse, the vote for Blair in 1997 – when I think the electorates made a mistake, and I wish they hadn’t done what they did. I regret that they did it, and I think they were wrong. But that’s not an issue of populism. When you entrust politics to the mass of society, which I think we always should do, that doesn’t mean they will always get it right. It just means political life will be healthier because it will have the contribution of more voices and more opinions.

B.G.: The word ‘demos’ is a word that gets employed a great deal in Spiked journalism. Antiquity also provided us with the term ‘Ochlos’ – and ochlocracy (more or less ‘the mob’). Is it possible to use this term? Is this ever going to be an organic, important term, or is it always a weapon?

B.O.: I think there is an ochlocracy right now, and it’s the elite. I think they are increasingly behaving like a mob. At one of many anti-Brexit demonstrations (I can’t resist talking about Brexit) held shortly after the Brexit vote in June 2016, you saw mobs of spectacularly middle-class people (you know, 99.9 percent white and representing the upper echelons of society), absolutely furious that ordinary people had defied their advice and voted against the European Union. I went to all of them to observe, laugh and enjoy their pain because I thought it was well-deserved, and at one of them in London there was someone holding up a banner which said ‘This isn’t DEMOCRACY, this is OCHLOCRACY’, and I thought to myself, ‘You’re so stupid, you don’t know that you’re talking about yourself,’ because what you saw was about ten thousand people many of whom were carrying placards outside Parliament saying ‘Overturn the vote,’ ‘Parliament, vote this down,’ ‘Stop this madness,’ ‘Stop this nightmare from happening.’ And I thought, ‘You are the mob because we had a free and fair election in which people engaged in good faith – intellectually, sensibly, reasonably’.

I heard debates everywhere I went, and people took it incredibly seriously. And they voted against the European Union. It was reasoned, it was fair, it was democratic. When you have small group of people from the elitist section of society saying, Let’s get rid of it, let’s overthrow it, that’s the mob. So I think there is a danger of mobocracy at the moment, but it’s not coming from the populists, and it’s not coming from ordinary people. It’s coming, in anything, from the anti-populists, whose anti-populism – if you strip it down – is really a manifestation of anti-democracy. As I see it, a small group of people using fear, threats and power to try and prevent the enactment of a decision of the larger section of society is an action of a mob.

B.G.: I have another question which is sort of about the same theme but it approaches it from a different angle. Have you ever come across instances of cases where you feel you have to take a stand against a view which is extremely popular. You’ve already mentioned, of course, the vote for Thatcher and Blair, but I have something else in mind. I guess there’s an extent to which I actually find it impossible to buy into the idea that Spiked always manages to speak on behalf of the people. I think that it must be the case that at times you actually operate as a highly critical minority. The death penalty, for example, for which there has always been popular support (although it is decreasing), remains popular. More people want to bring it back than don’t – even today. Is that not an instance in which you would operate more as a critical minority rather than the voice of the masses?

B.O.: Yeah, we don’t consider ourselves the voice of the masses. In fact, I guess that a lot of what we say would not be particularly popular with a lot of people, and that’s life. The great thing about Brexit is that probably for the first time in Spiked’s history, we feel like we’re really on the side of a huge section of society, and that feels really good, and I’m not going to apologise for that. It feels good to be on the side of what I consider to be a very positive democratic majority. But yeah, you’re right; we are completely opposed to the death penalty. We are opposed to the state having too much power over the individual, and one example of them having too much power is the power to decide to end a life. We’re against the state having that much power. So I would argue all the time for never reintroducing the death penalty. We’re also anti-monarchy, we want to abolish the monarchy – that’s not particularly popular. We want to abolish the Lords – that’s a bit more popular. So we take many positions which probably wouldn’t get voted through if there was a referendum.

The point I would make, though, on all those issues and every issue, is that what we’re saying is not that people are always right, but we believe that people have the capacity for reasoned judgement and for understanding issues. What I find really interesting about the death penalty thing is that it’s often raised as a spectre to shout down democracy or to disprove the idea that democracy is the best way to run society. It’s the trump card of the anti-populists, I guess. And it’s really strange because I don’t remember there being a huge public debate about the death penalty. There are polls now and then, typically citing 52 or 53 percent of people in favour of its reintroduction for certain crimes – for the murder of children or paedophilia, for example (and I would oppose it in those instances as well). The thing is I don’t remember there being a public, lively debate in which you could actually go to a public or community meeting (the kind of thing that happened with Brexit). And if there was that kind of situation, I could easily see a situation where we could win the argument, where those of us who think the death penalty is wrong (and there are huge numbers of us) could win the argument through reason, debate, engagement and trying to change people’s minds.

So my point is not that people are always right, but I would far prefer to trust ordinary people with making important political decisions than trust the political, economic or capitalist class – for the simple reason that ordinary people have fewer vested interests, they’re less jaundiced, they have greater experience of the ins and outs of everyday life, they are more sensitive to the difficulties of everyday life, and they haven’t been browbeaten by the new technocratic, anti-politics, expertise outlook that infuses so much of the political classes’ lives. So I would trust the first fifty people I meet on the street outside this office to negotiate our exit from the EU more than I would the cabinet because they have nothing to lose, they have fewer vested interests in sustaining aspects of the economy and so on, and they would strike me as a more reasonable proposition than Theresa May’s terrible cabinet.

So, you raise a really important question in asking ‘What if the majority wants the death penalty? Does that make it okay?’ My answer: No, it doesn’t. I would still think it was a bad idea. I would still oppose it and argue against it. But I think that through reason, debate, discussion and through enlivening public life as much as possible – by taking more issues to the public and starting those debates – we would get to a healthier, better society.

B.G.: I wanted to ask you as well about Spiked’s understanding of freedom. Sometimes when I read the magazine online, I find myself in disagreement with a lot that gets said about personal choices and so on. Is freedom really just doing whatever you want to do?

B.O.: That’s a good question. No, in a sense. And yes, in another sense. We’re not pro-freedom from any kind of hippie perspective. We’re not hippies. I personally really dislike hippies. I think they caused much of the ruination of the modern world. So it’s not this kind of cut-loose, happy-clappy blah-blah-blah. But I think giving people greater sovereignty and control over their lives – including their choices, personal lives, ability to speak (most importantly) and think whatever they want to think – is a good, positive thing to do. Now, people will limit their own freedoms, sometimes for bad reasons; they will feel under pressure from society not to express a certain idea. I think that’s a bad form of pressure because that means that people aren’t saying what they believe and then society is not hearing those ideas and thinking about them.

So self-censorship is a bad restriction on your own freedom. But then people will restrict their freedom in other ways, which can be quite positive. For example, the 25-year-old man, who could have a really nice life of free love, travel, sex and so on, might decide to stop all that and have a family. And then he is dramatically curtailing his freedom – his economic freedom, his freedom to move around and sleep around – but he has made a choice to do that. I think that freedom is the most important value in our society, and that without it we’re screwed – particularly without the freedom of thought, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press because it is only through expressing ideas that we can really start to understand where everyone’s coming from and what might be true and false.

Having said that, does freedom mean a free-for-all in which everyone is always like some extra in a Tampax advert or someone doing a bungee jump. That’s not freedom and if people choose to restrict their freedom for what they consider to be an important cause, commitment or relationship, that’s also a central part of human life. All I would say is, so long as there is not social, mob or state pressure on people to restrict their freedom, then we don’t have a problem.

This is the third interview of a three-part series of interviews with Brendan O’Neill. The first two interviews in this series can be accessed here and here.

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