The rise of populist politics is a danger to our nation, says DAVID GAUKE

Anti-establishment messages resonate. Whether of the Left or of the Right, whether Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage, the politician that argues that much of the public has been let down by the elite will strike a chord. So, why does populism resonate now? Economic insecurity is clearly a contributing factor. But I would place greater weight on cultural insecurity – the fear in parts of society that their culture is under threat.

These concerns are too often dismissed and sneered at. For example, it is often said that older Leave supporters voted with no concern for the long term consequences for their grandchildren. On the contrary, many older Leave voters were concerned the country future generations will grow up in will be different – and, in their eyes, worse – than the one they grew up in. I don’t agree with that pessimistic outlook, but it is a sincere point of view.

This sense of a changed cultural orthodoxy is often felt strongest in communities that have traditionally voted for centre left parties, and it is argued by some that the Conservative Party needs to reinvent itself as a party that focuses on that part of the electorate – more of an insurgent, anti-establishment, anti-elite movement; determined to protect our nation’s cultural identity from cultural change and the challenges of globalisation. 

But populism would make us a poorer and a more divided nation. Ultimately, it won’t satisfy the voters who feel most disillusioned with the current political system. And it will result in the loss from the Conservative coalition of support of younger voters, more liberal-minded voters and pro-business voters.

However, this is not just about electoral calculation. The biggest problem with populist policies is that too often, they’re just plain wrong. 

The vast majority of Conservatives look back with pride at how Mrs Thatcher’s governments turned round the British economy from being the sick man of Europe to an enterprising powerhouse.

She did so not by embracing populism but by confronting it. Whereas populism tends to seek to preserve existing jobs and industries, insulating an economy from foreign competition, she took steps to make our economy more open. Foreign investment was encouraged, structural change embraced. 

Even if we avoid the temptations of economic populism, cultural populism takes us down a dangerous path. It is one of the reasons why our political debate becomes coarsened, language more extreme, civility dismissed as weakness. And a political strategy that seeks to exploit a sense of cultural insecurity would exacerbate divisions within society. 

Our political stability has been a great asset to this country but populism inevitably involves an attack on those institutions that have been essential to delivering that. And populism would undermine the United Kingdom. In the context of the UK, Right-wing populism means English nationalism which repels voters in other parts of the UK, is neglectful of the importance of the Union and, consequently, encourages separatist movements. 

So, how do we respond? First, if we want to be a broad church, we should try to de-escalate the culture wars. 

Second, our politics needs to be more civil. Whether talking about fellow Conservatives or decent people in politics as a whole, we should all try harder to speak in a more respectful way.

Third, we won’t defeat populist ideas by sneering. People concerned about rapid changes in our culture and our economy are not “deplorables”, to use Hillary Clinton’s phrase. Fourth, the arguments for mainstream politics need to be presented as bene ting society as a whole, not about furthering the interests of one group over another. 

Fifth, we need to be open and straight-forward that many decisions are complex, that life involves trade-offs and that an easy, simple answer is often the wrong one. We should treat the public as adults and be prepared to set out that we may often face a range of imperfect choices, that most choices have costs as well as benefits. 

Sixth, the economy should be at the heart of the centre- Right’s case to the electorate. Populism of Left and Right poses enormous risks to this country’s prosperity. Seventh, our message has to be aspirational and optimistic. We must be advocates for policies that benefit all parts of society. 

In the same way, we should approach Brexit as we should approach all issues. Seeking to build broad support, respectful of those arguing in good faith, open and honest about the consequences of the choices ahead of us, mindful of the economic impact – particularly on those most vulnerable in society – and taking a practical approach in order to find a constructive way forward.

David Gauke is Justice Secretary

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