Interview #10 with Paul Taggart – Populism in the UK: a Story of Walls and Islands


Paul Taggart

Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics and Director of the Sussex European Institute. He has published a number of books including Populism (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and is currently working on populism and the politics of Euroscepticism. In this interview, he explains why mainstream political parties in the UK should not be labelled as populist, and that the crisis of the only truly populist party in the UK, UKIP, should not come as a surprise.

1) British Prime Minister Theresa May, recently gave a particularly populist speech at the party’s convention in Birmingham. Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is often considered a populist whose success is linked to his ability to read and articulate the feelings of the people. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, has been labeled ‘populist’ as well (although not everybody agrees). In other words, the leaders of the two main parties are portrayed as populist. Should we conclude that the process of populistization of mainstream politics in the UK is a fait accompli?

I do not share the view that May or Corbyn are populist. I think we use the term far too loosely and I don’t think that they exhibit the core characteristics of populism (fetishizing ‘the people’, exhibiting anti-establishment sentiment, and distrusting representative political processes). We don’t need the concept to discuss either the very traditional form of socialism that Corbyn embodies or to describe May’s brand of Conservative politics.

2) Let’s focus on two issues in particular: the wall in Calais and the Brexit referendum. Starting from the latter, do you think the campaign to leave the European Union has been characterized by unusually high levels of populist rhetoric compared to other controversial national debates? Where has been placed the line between the virtuous people and the corrupt elites in this particular case?

I think that there were clearly pervading rhetorical devices designed to appeal to an anti-establishment sentiment in the case of the Brexit referendum. And Michael Gove’s remarks about how “we don’t need experts” were very much in the same vein. But, again, being anti-establishment is only one of the features of populism. We don’t need to call something populist to still see the power of (different forms of) anti-establishment politics. For me the key feature of populism is not that it sees elites as corrupt but rather that it sees politics as an inherently corrupting activity as therefore elites are bound to end up corrupted.

3) In a way, building walls and reclaiming a geographical and political isolation are two sides of the same coin. Building a wall can be seen as the objectivation of the populist ideology: the concrete division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the dangerous others. The refugee camp in Calais, France, known as ‘The Jungle‘, in September 2016 hosted 10.000 people, including 1.000 unaccompanied children. Why for the UK government now building a 4 meters tall and 1 km long wall to stop the migrants has become a priority? It looks like Theresa May is prioritizing the fear of migrants over the safety of children. Is it because she is afraid of leaving the issue completely in the hands of UKIP?

I am not familiar with the wall that you are referring to in the UK but it is not the building of walls that characterises populism. It is the binary view of the world that populism adopts (‘Manichaeism’ to quote Kirk Hawkins) that leads to populist viewing the world in binary characteristics – us and them, the people and the elite etc. And this is the logic that may lead to walls as devices to separate the ‘us’ from the ‘them’. It is not the walls but what they are there to separate that relates to populism.

4) In a context characterized by the Brexit referendum and the situation in Calais, one would have expected the populist and Eurosceptic UKIP to thrive, but the changes of leadership have become unpredictable and confusing. What is going on in your opinion? Is the UKIP ‘crisis’ linked to the populistization of both Conservatives and Labours? Or there are other reasons?

UKIP is a populist party. Populist parties often give rise to particular brands of factional politics that in other cases lead to break-away parties (think of the Front National in France or the Austrian Freedom Party both of which have given rise to break-away movements). This is not an inevitable occurrence but when you combine new insurgent forces with political inexperienced activists and leaders, you often have a difficult balance in maintaining a political party. If you then add, as in the UKIP case, a party that has largely achieved what it set out to do (in attaining a vote to leave the EU), you set in train an identity crisis that is likely to exacerbate these sorts of tensions when a very effective leader steps down. As I said before, I don’t think the Tories or Labour are substantively populist so I don’t think that UKIP has had that sort of impact on them.

5) Let’s try to wrap it up. You have been working on populism for over twenty years now. Observing the most important public debates over time, do you have the impression that the diffusion of populist discourses is growing in the UK and in the rest of Europe? What is the lesson we should learn from this historical development: is populism here to stay or it will disappear as soon as the socio-economic situation will improve?


Parthenon – Athens (2015)

I have been studying populism for over twenty years and what people have said to me in every one of those twenty years has been that we are seeing a lot of populism now. Now, it might be the case that it has been growing in the last twenty years but what I think is more likely is that we have had the decline of political trust, the profusion of anti-establishment politics, and a growth in populist actors, all hand-in-hand. Populism is a recurrent feature of representative politics and so as long as we have that form of politics we will have populism in some form. But what is more important is that we understand when anti-establishment politics is populist, and when it is not. Only if we look at the totality of protest and are clear about the different variations and different concepts we will really be able to work out how effectively representative politics is working.

[1]Alexander von Humboldt

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