One of the most familiar tactics of populist demagogues when under pressure is to shift the agenda away from reality and into a fantasy world of accusation, smears, false equivalences and conspiracy theories.
This erodes the boundary between the civil and the uncivil, resulting in what scholar Ruth Wodak calls the “shameless normalization” of far right discourse and ideas. As Wodak explains, “the boundaries of the ‘sayable’ are … shifted” and “traditional norms and rules of political culture, of negotiation and deliberation, are violated by continuous provocations.”
Hoping to change the media conversation after a damning report on COVID rule-breaking within his administration, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson swiftly deployed this tactic by smearing his chief parliamentary accuser, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. The slur centers on the baseless and discredited claim that Starmer had protected from prosecution one of Britain’s most notorious pedophile predators, disgraced celebrity Jimmy Savile. This untruth has its origins in the murky world of far right conspiracy theory, and its endorsement by the prime minister has emboldened extremists.
Most damning of all has been the condemnation by Savile’s victims, relayed by lawyer Richard Scorer who represented many of them: “I can confirm that these allegations against Sir Keir Starmer are completely unfounded and unjustified,” Scorer states unequivocally, adding that “weaponizing [the victims’] suffering to get out of a political hole is disgraceful.”
Johnson’s attempt to defend the false allegation suggests a level of strategic purpose and political calculation — although he may have miscalculated this time. Polling remains dire, while support for Johnson among Conservative legislators is ebbing as key aides resign.
The jury is still out, and international events may yet give Johnson a reprieve. But if his premiership eventually crashes and burns, there is a danger that the problems this scandal reveals are personalized and localized. The contemptible nature of the smear and Johnson’s attention-grabbing personality encourage the tendency to see the rot only in this particularly bad apple, and the danger to democracy only in a certain style of political pantomime and scurrilous discourse. Longer-term tendencies, social and institutional structures, and the cohorts of forerunners, allies and enablers thereby go unnoticed.
Recent political experience in the United States can be illuminating here. To an even greater extent, the oxygen-sucking presence of Donald Trump has focused attention on a single figure as the crux upon which the threat to U.S. democracy depends. But as a number of scholars have noted, the trends leading up to the present are deep-seated and still operative, and the coalitions invested in anti-democratic outcomes are more widespread than any single current or personality.
In short, the anti-democratic slide is as much a function of the “normal” way things have been ticking over for decades as it is of moments of crisis, emergency or the exceptional.
In Britain, while Brexit certainly supercharged an antagonistic nativist politics that normalizes extreme-right ideas, this tendency did not begin there. Xenophobic and authoritarian ideas that draw on and feed into the worldview of the radical right have been driving key government initiatives for decades.
In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition launched its “Hostile Environment” policy, a dizzying array of measures explicitly designed to make “life so unbearable for undocumented migrants that they would voluntarily choose to leave.” These policies culminated in the “Windrush scandal,” whereby an estimated 15,000 British citizens of Caribbean descent were wrongly classified as “illegal immigrants,” with devastating consequences: families were separated, people lost their jobs and homes, and many were detained and threatened with being deported to countries they barely knew.
The message being sent appears quite clear: Britain’s problems are the result of alien invaders, and those invaders are most likely nonwhite.
And in 2003, the then-Labour government launched the Prevent Strategy, a post-9/11 initiative ostensibly aimed at preempting radicalization and preventing “homegrown” terrorism. Widely perceived as targeting British Muslims as a “suspect community,” the program has been criticized not only as counterproductive but also for creating “the potential for systemic human rights abuses” and an increased “risk of discrimination.”
And there is much more of a similar vein in the pipeline. Legislation currently going through parliament includes a new borders and nationality bill that breaches international law and which arguably creates “a second class, precarious version of citizenship” for those with ties to other countries and unable to claim exclusively British descent.
An elections bill on the GOP model imposes new and unnecessary obstacles to voting, which in the judgment of one of the governing party’s own members of parliament, “risks undermining one of the most fundamental rights we have here in the U.K. — to vote freely without restriction.”
Meanwhile, the new policing and crime bill threatens to significantly erode the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest.
In each case, the legislation is designed to pick apart the paradigm of universal democratic citizenship, which is meant to be open to all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, social class or political affiliation. Instead, they privilege a “national” population, the supposedly “real” English people as opposed to “ethnic outsiders” and the cultural elites who are said to despise the nation.
And it is this long-term buildup of a populist, “commonsense” nativism that represents the most fundamental mainstreaming of extreme-right norms and values.
The Vacuum Within Neoliberal Politics
The dynamics driving this longer-term trend are complex. But a clue lies in the fact that its proponents include all the parties involved in government since the turn of the millennium: Labour and Liberal Democrat as well as Conservative. For example, the origins of the Hostile Environment policy lie in the anti-immigrant crackdown under the New Labour administration in 2007.
This speaks to the larger political shifts associated with the cementing of the neoliberal consensus since the 1980s in Britain and globally. Neoliberalism — the ideology of privatization, financialization and labor precarity — not only generates record levels of income and wealth inequality, but also leaves an ideological vacuum by jettisoning the element of redistribution once central to social democratic politics.
As political philosopher Nancy Fraser has argued, the easiest way to compensate for this absence is to stress the elements of “recognition” in politics, those culturally defined markers of esteem, status and identity. And because extreme-right ideas focus on the identity of majority demographics — through populist nationalism and resentment at perceived cultural disesteem — neoliberal politics finds a particular affinity here.
According to Fraser, this affinity has been particularly strengthened in the U.K. and the U.S. because under Tony Blair’s New Labour and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, neoliberal economics was initially associated with a progressive model of recognition — the discourses of multiculturalism and gender equality that are now pilloried as “politically correct” or “woke.”
Successful at the time, the center-left has bequeathed a legacy that for many seems to combine the worst of both worlds: while presiding over the collapse of secure employment, these administrations were perceived as sneering at the cultural norms and traditional values of the working class and the blue-collar middle class. For this reason, although governments of every stripe have implemented neoliberalism, it is the center-left that is perceived to have sided with the elites and betrayed ordinary people.
After 9/11, New Labour in the U.K. jettisoned its commitment to multiculturalism and cultural cosmopolitanism, adopting a nativist rhetoric that even the Conservatives denounced as borrowing from the extreme right. But without a different model of economic distribution — a real shift away from neoliberalism and a return to a revivified social democracy — all that has been achieved is an even deeper normalization of extreme-right discourse. And it is this tendency that subsequent Conservative-led governments have pursued with relish.
Like Trump, Boris Johnson has been especially effective in normalizing the scurrilous and norm-shifting aspects of radical right discourse. But the deeper threats to U.K. democracy — just as in the United States — will still need to be addressed once these divisive figures are gone.