Boston, Lincolnshire / Wikimedia Commons
National populism poses dangers in its delegitimization of mainstream politics and through its xenophobic side.
In National Populism: the Revolt against Liberal Democracy, Matt Goodwin and I examine the factors which lie behind major political developments such as: the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s victory, and the growth of political parties like the French National Rally (formerly National Front), the Austrian Freedom Party, the Alternative for Germany and the League in Italy, whose entry into government in 2018 has been followed by its rise from third to first place in opinion polls.
Two broad academic interpretations have emerged to explain these developments. The first stresses economic change and its effects on ‘the losers of modernisation’/the ‘left behinds’. The second, and more common, approach holds that the key driver has been cultural. The rise of parties like the National Front began well before the onset of recession, and some of the strongest can be found in rich countries like Austria. For the culturalist approach, support is fired by opposition to immigration and by linked themes like law and order.
However, this polarised debate glosses over an important further factor – namely, attitudes towards mainstream parties and liberal democracy generally. Liberal economic and political elites are frequently blamed for the onset of recession and austerity in many countries. There is also a widespread belief that mainstream politicians have failed to conduct an open discussion about immigration, that they have even lied about numbers and impacts. A 2017 Ipsos poll found that in Britain politicians were the least trusted profession, with just 17% expressing faith in them, while once-derided weather forecasters were trusted by 76%.
Attitudes to Immigration in Britain
Let’s start by looking briefly at recent trends in Britain. Certainly immigration has been at historically high levels. It has also encompassed what academics call ‘hyper-diversity’, including the arrival of new groups which some voters fear cannot be assimilated. In the case of Muslims, this xenophobia is reinforced by fears about terrorism.
There are clear examples where recent voting has been influenced by such changes. Take Boston in Lincolnshire, which saw a tenfold increase in the number of non-British EU citizens between 2001 and 2011, often arrivals from new member states in eastern Europe to work in the food-picking and packaging industries. In the 2014 European Parliament elections UKIP gained over 50% of the vote here, its best local result. If we look at opinion polls, we see that the percentage of British people who believed that immigration was a major issue rose from 7% at the turn of the new millennium to 48% in 2016, making it top of the list of voters’ concerns at the time of Brexit.
The precise relationship between voting and immigration, however, is complex. Concerns are often greatest in areas where people have recently arrived, or where there are fears about such an influx. On the other hand, the Brexit vote was often lowest in parts of Britain, like London, which have relatively large ethnic minorities. Part of the explanation of this diverse pattern can be found in social-psychological ‘contact theory’, which holds that over time people from different ethnic groups accommodate to each other through direct interaction.
Opinion poll evidence also needs to be interpreted in the light of the behavioural economics concept of a ‘heuristic’, which refers to the way in which people often solve complex problems with simple answers. Telling pollsters that ‘immigration’ is the major issue can hide a variety of concerns, as a recent Guardian article by Aditya Chakrabortty reveals. When he visited Llanhilleth before the 2016 referendum, he found that the ‘rote’ reason for supporting Brexit was ‘immigrants’, in spite of the fact that in this South Wales former mining village ‘the only foreigners were inside the Daily Mail’. However, anger wasn’t directed at immigrants or Eurocrats so much as at British governments, which neither cared about nor listened to people like them.
Make no mistake, immigration is undoubtedly a major concern for many voters. But only a very small percentage seek a widespread ban on immigration, let alone hold truly racist values in the sense of believing in a hierarchical division of the world based largely on colour and/or hatred.
This is confirmed by the September 2018 National Conversation on Immigration report. Its online survey, which was open to anyone, produced highly polarised replies about the benefits of immigration. But its representative sample revealed only 15% who were highly supportive of, or strongly opposed to, immigration – with the extremes split roughly equally. The vast majority of British people are ‘balancers’ who recognise the rights of genuine asylum seekers and need for migration, but who voice concerns like:
1) the skill sets immigrants should have.
2) the impact they have on localities, especially in the short run.
3) the extent to which they should be expected to assimilate into the dominant culture, which many people still strongly identify with (though their conceptions of Britishness often differ).
We need to be wary that ‘representative’ opinion polls may fail to pick up the racist views of some respondents, who have become aware of what are socially acceptable responses about immigration (unlike online platforms and straw polls which tend to be dominated by extremes). Such polls may also not pick up what academics term ‘implicit racism’, namely biases and stereotypes such as homogenising all Muslims. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence from studies of diverse activities, from football crowd behaviour to the growth of mixed marriages, that British people generally are far more tolerant than over a generation ago. In 2018 a Royal Prince married a mixed-race bride who is foreign, and it is inconceivable that there could be a repeat of the behaviour of a section of Liverpool football fans in the 1980s when they greeted a new star black striker by throwing banana skins onto the pitch.
Immigration and Democratic Renewal
Boston, Lincolnshire, panoramic view, 2007. Wikicommons/ Tanya Dedyukhina.
The National Conversation survey found that only 15% of British people thought that governments had managed immigration competently and fairly, a dismal figure which reflects a widespread failure of communication.
Since the beginnings of large scale immigration in the late 1940s, mainstream politicians have typically been loathe to speak openly about it. This partly reflects fears that this could involve taking potentially vote-losing positions and/or worsen community relations. But it also stems from the deep-rooted suspicion of the ‘masses’ which lies at the heart of liberal democracy, a fear which National Populism: the Revolt against Liberal Democracy charts over centuries.
A common response to the rise of parties like UKIP is to brand them as ‘racist’, even ‘fascist’. These charges do not just come from self-styled ‘anti-racists’/’anti-fascists’. Symptomatically, in 2006 David Cameron dismissed the rising ranks of UKIP as full of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. Some national populist supporters undoubtedly wear the racist badge with pride, but most see themselves as raising legitimate issues and resent the extremist charge. As a result, they often react by becoming further alienated from what they see as overweening liberal elites and their Politically Correct agendas.
These last observations point to two ways in which we should move on. Looked at from the top-down, we need politicians to be braver, to lead and talk more openly about immigration policy. We need them to explain the labour needs of the British economy. There is widespread support for immigrants such as doctors and nurses, but many oppose unskilled immigration. However, whilst automation will reduce the demand in towns like Boston, the need for unskilled workers in places such as in care homes is likely to grow given the ageing population. There also needs to be a greater attempt to dispel wider fears of the type challenged by the Migration Advisory Committee report in September 2018, when it found no evidence that European migration ‘has reduced the average level of subjective well-being’ in communities.
From the bottom-up, we need groups and individuals to talk more about immigration and how best to live together. Precisely what kind of immigration rules should we apply? Do we need to set out a new and more inclusive conception of national identity? If the latter is important, it will need to combine old aspects of British identity with the new realities of migration and multicultural communities. It will need to built on a sophisticated understanding of psychological theories concerning attitude change. ‘Confirmation bias’ theory shows us that people tend to reject attacks on deeply held views. One way forward, therefore, might be to play on conceptions on fairness, which hark back to the old British trope of fair play. In 2018, YouGov found that the vast majority of British people thought that the early ‘Windrush generation’ of black immigrants had the right to remain here even if they had not regularised their residency, rejecting the unfairness of the Home Office policy of seeing them as illegal immigrants.
The results of such conversations will not be rapid, as the top-down approach faces the problem that many people distrust politicians and experts. But the rise of national populism helps show what happens when we have democratic ‘leaders’ who do not seek to educate and point to the way forward on key issues. The bottom-up approach faces the problem that it can be hard to spot common ground in an often polarised debate, which pitches those who defend universal equality and human rights against those who defend the pre-eminence of the national interest and ‘natives’. But just remember that 85% of British people are ‘balancers’, and the evidence is that they are open to conversations and democratic compromise about the best way forward.
Contrary to the claims of many, the vast majority of national populist supporters are not authoritarians seeking to overthrow democracy, though socially conservative ideas are common among them. Rather, they are seeking a new form of democracy where ordinary people’s views count for more.
The fact that many national populist voters have relatively low levels of education, and are not greatly interested in politics, does not mean that their views should be ignored or seen as necessarily a threat to democracy. Rather, national populism is Janus-faced. It poses dangers in its delegitimisation of mainstream politics and through its xenophobic side. But it also highlights the need for democratic renewal. The fact that we need widespread institutional change to achieve this, like proportional representation and greater local democracy, does not negate the urgent need to begin a serious conversation about immigration as part of this renewal.
Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.