LittleLaw Looks At… the Rise of Populism

March 21, 2021

9 min read

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What is Populism?

In recent years populism has been the centre of much debate. Despite extensive media coverage and academic scholarship, its definition is still disputed. Cas Mudde in his book Populism: A very short introduction, defines populism as a “thin-centred ideology”1 that attaches itself to a “host ideology”2 such as socialism. In this sense, populism can be conceived to be an approach to politics, where a charismatic figure embodies the general will of the people3. In doing so, the leader employs emotive discourse to divide society into two groups: “the pure people”4 versus “the corrupt elite”5. As a result, populism arises from a deep dissatisfaction with contemporary politics – as voters feel their interests are no longer represented in mainstream politics. Instead, they turn away from their original candidates to an outsider, who portrays themselves as pure and unspoiled by corruption.

Is Populism dangerous?

Pure populism can be beneficial as it increases engagement with minority groups that were formerly neglected by incumbent parties. Populist leaders, by representing the “ordinary masses”,6 may inspire voters who had previously lost faith in the democratic process.  Indeed, research from Team Populism found that “populists in government can have a positive effect on voter turnout”.7 Increased voter turnout further legitimises electoral results by more accurately representing the views of the populace. If Populism can increase voter turnout whilst representing neglected voters- how can populism be dangerous?  

The problem arises when populism is paired with a more sinister “host ideology”.8 This is especially the case where populist leaders appear on either the far left or far right of the political scale. This is because their emotive rhetoric can advocate extreme radical views which polarise the population. This has been seen in the Czech Republic, where president Milos Zeman uses “defiant and outspoken anti-Islam, anti-refugee, racist and xenophobic rhetoric”.9  Using this type of language sturs up dangerous nationalistic sentiment which can marginalise ethnic minorities by prioritising indigenous groups. This rhetoric can cause society to become less accepting, by deceiving voters into thinking they have been defrauded by outsiders. By marginalising these groups populism can damage key constitutional principles like the rule of law as minorities become unfairly demonised. 

This is perhaps best shown in America through Donald Trump’s rise to power. During his campaign and presidency, he evoked nationalistic sentiment through the slogan “Make America Great Again”. In doing so, ethnic minorities such as Mexicans were scapegoated for the rise in unemployment. Trump achieved this by deploying his policies in a “them versus us”10 setting. Playing on voter anxiety with phrases like “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us”.11 Such emotive dialogue exaggerates the facts to scare voters into following the populist who claims to hold all the answers. This damages democracy as voters cast their ballot on inaccurate information, preventing them from making an informed decision.

Populism is also dangerous as such leaders rarely reveal their true agenda until after an election. After they have cemented their power populist leaders across the world have attacked liberal institutions and important principles such as the separation of powers. This has been demonstrated in Hungary where Victor Orban has attacked the judiciary by packing the courts with judges sympathetic to his cause. This blurs the lines between the executive and the judiciary as judges begin to favour the executive, undermining their independence.  This can lead to exploitation as the judiciary no longer serves as an effective check on executive power. A recent study from Liberties revealed that Dr Balsai Istvan and Dr Juhasz have ruled in favour of the government 100% of the time since their appointments.12 In a close second, Dr Salamon Laszlo has favoured the government 92% of the time, proving the effectiveness of this tactic.13 As a result of Orban’s court-packing, the judiciary has become a “rubber stamp” which facilitates rather than prohibits excessive government power. This form of autocratic legalism (using the law to consolidate autocratic rule) is dangerous as it gives the appearance democracy is alive and well. Therefore, whilst populists have gained vast support by representing the ‘general will of the public’,14 this power has been used to erode key “tenets of liberal democracy”,15 demonstrating populism’s harmful effects. 

Finally, populism can be dangerous on a purely practical level. Populists propose romantic and exuberant policies in an attempt to gain mass support. However, few of these policies ever materialise, as shown in Hungary. In this instance, Orban proposed to protect society from advancing globalisation, but recently passed a labour law (or rather “slave law”),16 “that allows employers to ask staff to work up to 400 hours per year of overtime”.17 Therefore, populism often creates the very distrust in the establishment that future populists thrive on. In this way, populism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as voters look to more radical leaders to solve the problems created by previous populists. This is an extremely dangerous cycle that encourages political actors to pull “emotional triggers”18 instead of providing effective solutions to complex problems. This ultimately stagnates the political process, encouraging voters to develop increasingly radical views in support of leaders who claim to get things done.

Is Populism rising?

Research conducted by The Guardian has shown “the number of Europeans voting for populist parties in national votes has surged from 7% to 25%”19 since the start of 2010. This data clearly shows that populism is rising within Europe. Furthermore, in some EU countries populists have risen to power. In Hungary, The Hungarian Civic Union (FIDEZ)  gained control in what has been described as “a revolt [by] deeply-frustrated voters”.20 Even countries considered to be inherently democratic and stable, like Germany, have “started to succumb to the populist wave”22 with the Alternative Fuer Deutschland party securing 92 seats in parliament. Indeed, the “number of Google searches for ‘populism’ has rocketed”,23 indicating citizens’ concerns about populism’s growth and its possible effects. But is populism rising in the UK?

Recent research provided by James Wood and Valentina Ausserladscheider for the LSE24 has highlighted the way populist discourse has been used in the Brexit referendum. Michael Gove recently claimed “the EU [was] built to keep power and control with the elites rather than with the people… I am asking the British people to take back control from those [EU] organisations which are distant and elitist”.25 This speech clearly contains populistic overtures as Gove characterises the EU as a corrupt institution that limits the sovereignty of the British people.

However, populistic devices have also been employed by the former Labour leader – Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2019 election, Corbyn criticised “the distribution of ownership of the country’s economy [which] means that decisions about our economy are often made by a narrow elite”.26 Again, the former leader used an elite vs people discursive frame to demonise the opposing party in an attempt to gain mass support. Whilst this may appear harmless there are many underlying consequences of this style of politics. Not least because the EU establishment and the UK’s economic structure are complex topics that should not be oversimplified. If this form of populism is encouraged the UK is in danger of perpetuating voter misinformation.

One might argue that this has already occurred given the plethora of misinformation that was used by the Leave party during the referendum. Of particular influence was the assertion that the “UK sends £350m to the EU each week”.27 This claim was then used to gain voter support by suggesting EU funds could be reallocated to domestic institutions like the NHS. However, such claims were made without any supporting evidence and the weekly £350m injections into the NHS never materialised. Yet many voters based their decision to leave the EU on these proposals, leading many voters to demand a re-vote. These impacts clearly show the UK is not immune from populism, and by extension, its harmful consequences. 

Whilst it can be said that there has been an increased use of populist rhetoric in the UK, this form of populism cannot be compared to the type present in Hungary and Poland. The UK courts remain sturdy guardians of democracy as evidenced in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union28 (Miller I) and R (Miller) v The Prime Minister29 (Miller II). In both cases, the courts intervened to prevent executive power from suppressing parliament. In the first case, this involved ensuring Article 5030 was triggered by an act of parliament, strengthening parliament’s role as the legislature. Secondly, in Miller II31 the courts prohibited the prime minister’s unlawful prorogation (executive power to suspend parliament), allowing parliament to effectively scrutinise the executive at a time of significant constitutional importance. As a result of these decisions, it cannot be argued that populism has eroded our democratic institutions. However, with headlines like “Enemies of the People”,32 this may begin to change.

Littelaw’s verdict: Populism is rising but the United Kingdom remains united

Populism as a way of politics is being used more frequently in the UK. Populism and its influences were apparent in the Brexit debate, where the EU was characterised as “corrupt” and “elitist”, subsequently limiting the freedom of the ordinary masses”.33 Worryingly, populism was employed to mislead voters by promoting false information about the UK’s membership in the EU. These emotive claims undoubtedly influenced voters when deciding how to vote.

Populism has also crept into mainstream politics with both parties using populistic-like mechanisms to gain support whilst demonising their opponents. However, it cannot be said that UK populism has eroded key liberal institutions and constitutional principles like the separation of powers. The cases of Miller34 and Miller II35 are classic examples of the strength and independence of the UK judiciary. In these cases the courts performed their function in protecting parliament from arbitrary government power, thus upholding the separation of powers. As a result of this, it must be argued that whilst populism is increasingly being used in UK politics, it’s influence has not yet undermined democracy and its institutions.

Report written by Luke Cuthbert

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  1. Cas Mudde, Populism: A very short introduction (first published 2017, Oxford University Press) 6
  2. Cas Mudde, ‘Populism in the Twenty-First Century: An Illiberal Democracy Response to Undemocratic Liberalism’ (The Andre Mitchell Centre for the Study of Democracy).
  3. Above n, 1.
  4. Above n, 2.
  5. Ibid
  6. Jon Henley, “How Populism emerged as an electoral force in Europe” (The Guardian, 20 November 2018).
  7. Mark Rice-Oxley and Ammar Kalia, “How to spot a populist” (The Guardian, 3 December 2018)
  8. Above n, 2.
  9. Above n, 6.
  10. Mathew Flinders, “UK Election 2019: This is what populism looks like when done by the British” (The Conversation, 12 November 2019)
  11. Daniel Politi, “Donald Trump In Phoenix: Mexicans are “taking our jobs” and “killing us” (Slate, 12 July 2015)
  12. Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “Hungary’s Government Has Taken Control of the Constitutional Court” (Liberties 24 March 2015)
  13. Ibid
  14. Above n, 1.
  15. Above n, 6.
  16. Sam Meredith, ‘Hungary’s new ‘slave law’ risks first general strike since the fall of communism’ (CNBC, 11 January 2019)
  17. Sandor Peto, ‘Thousands rally against Hungary’s overtime work law, PM Orban’ (Reuters, 5 January 2019)
  18. Above n, 10.
  19. Paul Lewis, Sean Clarke, Caelainn Barr and Niko Kommendo, “Revealed: one in four Europeans vote populist” (The Guardian, 20 November 2018)
  20. Jens Becker, ‘The rise of right-wing populism in Hungary’ [2010] SEER 29
  21. Above n, 6.
  22. Ibid
  23. Paul Lewis, “Exploring the rise of populism: ‘it pops up in unexpected places’ (The Guardian, 22 June 2019)
  24. James Wood and Valentina Ausserladscheider, ‘Populism and the manufactured crisis of British neoliberalism: the case of Brexit’ (LSE, 23 July 2020)
  25. David Maddox, ‘“we are taking back control” Gove tells Britons to “believe in themselves and back brexit”” (Express 3 June 2016)
  26. The Labour Party, ‘Manifesto: Creating an Economy That Works for All’ (Official Labour Website 2017).
  27. Above n, 6. 
  28. R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5.
  29. R (Miller) v The Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41.
  30. Treaty on European Union 1992, Art 50.
  31. Above n, 29
  32. James Slack, ‘Enemies of the people: Fury over ‘out of touch’ judges who have declared war on democracy’ by defying 17.4m Brexit voters and who could trigger constitutional crisis’ (Daily Mail, 4 November 2016)
  33. Above n, 6.
  34. Above n, 28.
  35. Above n,29.

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