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A Sinister Sacrifice to Populism

UKIP is often described as a ‘populist’ party, because its leaders, as a matter of long-held and deeply-thought conviction, advocate a view with which is very popular in the country. But this is not populism, at least, not in the pejorative sense. Populist leaders are, rather, those who, no matter what their own convictions (or in the absence of any convictions at all), shape their policies, and choose who is to implement them, according to what they believe to be popular: the practitioners of government by opinion poll and focus group. Recent British governments have all tended to such populism, and Mr Cameron’s is no exception. The most populist moment of his premiership came earlier this week: a reshuffle which was deliberately billed as being intended to make the appearance of the government more publicly attractive and representative, with greying grey-suited men replaced by younger males and attractive younger women, who are not more able but more telegenic.

The coup de théâtre, and also the symbolic heart of the occasion, was the removal of the long-serving Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Gove was unpopular – so all the opinion polls said – and so Gove must go. Gove had been, as even his opponents would recognize, the one Secretary of State to have taken, consistently and unflinchingly, a strong line, driven by conviction, in order to bring about major changes in his area of responsibility. Education in Britain needs reform. The country has some of the world’s best universities, and, indeed, the world’s very best schools. But these schools are usually only for those whose parents can pay enormous fees. The state system, despite individual excellent schools, provides a general level of education far lower than that of most other European countries, as various international studies have revealed. Gove rejected the most radical, and probably the most effective, solution to this problem: the reintroduction of academic selection. But he was determined to raise standards by every other means, such as freeing schools to compete and making curricula and examinations more demanding. (A special Politeia blog next week, by Professor David Abulafia, will look at Gove’s specific policies and legacy.) Teachers might have been expected to acclaim such developments but rather – a sure sign of the generally low intellectual quality and unionized mentality of the profession – they opposed them stubbornly, disrupting schooling and making Gove unpopular with parents. The irony is that most parents would strongly support Gove’s aims, and these, given the teachers’ attitude, cannot be achieved without some unpleasantness. They are like fond relatives who want the patient to recover but dismiss the doctor when he starts to administer the painful medication needed for a cure. Similarly, despite the popularity of his long-term goal, Gove had become in the short term a figure for public dislike – and so he had to be sacrificed.

Gove is a victim of the modernisation project to which the current Conservative leadership has fallen prey, of which this week’s reshuffle the latest round. One side of modernization is a commitment, genuine for some, to liberal social values which sort badly with the underlying beliefs needed to make conservatism a coherent form of practical understanding. The other, more prominent side is simply a sort of populism: the perceived need to ‘detoxify’ the party’s image, because it is often imagined, wrongly, that if voters have a negative perception of the Conservatives, they will not vote for them. Without their votes, the party will not gain or retain power. If it is not in power, the party cannot carry out any policies. And so what is most important is to make the Conservatives’ policies and their protagonists popular, as judged by the evidence from opinion polls, focus groups and the media. Most politicians, even some of the most intelligent, appear to accept this wider, populist but cynical argument. They mouth the adage of cynical populism, ‘First, gain power, though it means sacrificing our principles; because only when we have power, can we put our principles into practice’, as if it were the most innocent and obvious principle in the world.

But nothing is less innocent or less obvious. True, a party out of power cannot put its policies into effect: but how many true Conservative policies have been enacted – outside education – during the past four years when the party has been in power? (Whatever party was in power would have had to tackle the deficit). And if policies are designed merely for short-term popularity, what does a party gain by enacting them except for just that – a little fleeting popularity, perhaps? It does indeed make a great deal of difference which party is in government: to the leadership of that party, which emerges from the shadows to the bright daylight of ministerial office and international statesmanship, and to its backbenchers, who now live in hope of promotion to government. Whether it makes much difference to the country at large is more questionable, even when parties do not – as they have recently tended – reduce all policies to a populist common denominator. Most of a government’s work is to react to immediate, usually unpredictable problems, produced by causes outside their control, and their success in dealing with them depends largely on the practical intelligence of those in charge, irrespective of party affiliations. Occasionally, in a limited area, there is a possibility for real change, but again, that depends on an exceptional individual (such as Gove in education, indeed) rather than on which party forms the government.

What does make a difference to the country as a whole is, rather, the system of government and its institutional stability. Britain has, by and large, been a reasonably good place to live in the last century – much better than any other big European country – because of a system of government where opposing parties put forward policies based on distinctive political beliefs. The parties pledged to carry out their policies if elected, and they were judged by the people in the subsequent elections. Cynical populism destroys the public trust in politicians which lies at the basis of this system and thereby endangers something much more valuable than any particular party. That is why Michael Gove’s acquiescent self-sacrifice to it has such sinister implications.

*John Marenbon is a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and specialises in the history of philosophy. He is the author of Populism and Democracy: Politics in the Public Interest (2011).

Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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