As one of the world’s first representative democracies, the United Kingdom and its “Westminster model” have been emulated around the world. However, the populist zeitgeist is challenging the country’s established mainstream politics. Populism reared its head in the form of Brexit, which shook British politics to its core. “Brexiters” ran a populist campaign against the country’s “corrupt elite” and “political establishment.” The “Leave” campaign was a “moral barricade” against “foreign” or “outside” influences.
The Magna Carta, the world’s earliest known constitutional document restricting the King’s power, was signed by King James in the United Kingdom in 1265. The Magna Carta remains one of the most important documents in human history. It established the principle that everyone, including the king, is subject to the law.
1989 saw the signing of the Bill of Rights, which gave power to Parliament over the monarchy. Since then, the power of the monarch has gradually been limited in favour of Parliament, which has traditionally emerged as the supreme sovereign body representing the general will of the British people. This long history of political development, as well as a rich written tradition, has made Britain a case study for many political scientists.
Bringing Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland together, the United Kingdom is an island state at the western edge of Europe, bordering the English Channel to the east and the North Atlantic Ocean to the west. Historically and politically, the UK has long straddled Europe and the US. The UK is small in terms of landmass but densely populated. Despite its small size, the UK has been highly influential politically and economically. Throughout the 19th century, the UK was a key player in the European balance of power, known as the Concert of Europe. During the Second World War, the UK bridged Europe and the US. In 1940, Britain stood alone as the last outpost of Western Europe against Nazi Germany During the Nazi invasion of France, London hosted the French government in exile. This island state became a hesitant member of the European Union in 1973 and now in 2021, it is becoming the first member state attempting to “exit” from the Union.
In the United Kingdom, the populist zeitgeist has recently revealed itself in the national discussion around “Brexit.” The already extant Eurosceptic impulse was loaded with other political and economic grievances. This mixture was then crafted and ingeniously wielded by the UK’s populists. Brussels/the European Parliament was portrayed as the “other” and elitist, and immigrants were portrayed as “colonizers” (Mondon, 2015:26).
The Brexit referendum and following years of uncertainty have shaken and eradicated powers of established norms and institutions such as, and particularly, Parliament. In the words of Jill Rutter, Brexit and its aftermath distressed the “solidity of UK institutions: a politically impartial civil service, an effective parliament, an independent judiciary, a pragmatic constitutional settlement and ultimately the United Kingdom itself” (Rutter, 2019). Supporting this point, according to opinion polls, more than 50 percent of the populace thinks that the political system in the UK is broken (State of Hate, 2019).
Parliament has been discredited, and referendums have been sanctified as the ultimate representation of the “sovereign” will of the people, which resulted in Brexit becoming a reality. It has also opened the door to populism became the dominant political dynamic in the country, informing the policies of mainstream political parties. Now the UK is facing another populist crisis, Scottish Independence. It’s an old discussion that has been re-ignited by Brexit and has the potential to be the next populism upheaval in the UK (Scottish Parliament, 2019).
Riding a tide of anger: Right-wing Populism
In devising Brexit, its authors utilized many deep-seated grievances, including anger over traditionally populist triggers such as immigration, austerity, and discussions on national sovereignty. Brexit, in the hands of populists, was devised in a way of confronting “the corrupt” establishment using the already existing Eurosceptic impulses. Populism has become so prevalent it’s even influenced intra-party balances and caused changes to leadership within mainstream parties.
By leading the Brexit train, some small populist parties, such as UKIP and its ex-leader, Nigel Farage (who has since established another party, Brexit, and became its leader in 2019), were thrust from the marginal ends of British politics into crucial roles in shaping mainstream, center-right policies. In relation to this, Tim Bale rightly argues that “anyone wanting to understand populist Euroscepticism needs to appreciate that the relationship between the radical right and its mainstream, center-right counterpart is more reciprocal, and even symbiotic, than is commonly imagined” (Bale, 2018: 1). Not only Euroscepticism but also other “sensitive” right-wing populist factors such as immigration and asylum issues, as well as other policies of center-right Conservative governments, have been influenced by the populist radical right (Bale and Partos, 2014).
There is a hostility towards immigrants among right-wing populists which is mainly and historically driven by economics and Islamophobia. Immigrants are designated as the force “menacing” the British way of life. Populists argued in favour of Brexit so the UK could “regain control over immigration and its own borders” (Lord Ashcroft Polls 2016). Migrants were portrayed as “abusers” of the welfare state system, stealing jobs, evading taxation, and creating further unemployment despite the fact that the fiscal impact of migration is often positive (Migration-observatory, 2019) and has little “impact on the overall employment, unemployment, and wages of UK-born workers. It has a positive impact on productivity and innovation, especially in terms of highly skilled migration” (Ryan and Kilkey, 2018).
UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) has always been associated with its former leader Nigel Farage, a fervent radio speaker and an MEP (Member of European Parliament) who remains the most prominent symbol of right-wing populism in the UK. Farage led the campaign to get the UK to leave the EU since the day he was elected as an MEP. In his radio show and in interviews on many TV shows, he never hesitated to speak “unspeakable” worries of “the people” regarding issues like migration and EU membership. Through years of “hard work”, he managed to construct “the people” of these worries that he so fervently communicated.
During the May 2015 general elections (Guardian, 2015), despite winning more than 12 percent of all votes cast (around 4 million, showing the popularity of the party and success of its populist appeal), UKIP became a victim of the British electoral system – which is known as “first past the post” voting – and gained only one seat in Parliament. After failing to win a seat in the general election, Farage resigned from UKIP. However, as Mondon (2015: 25) underlines, ‘it would be a mistake to reduce UKIP’s electoral performance to the number of seats it will occupy in Parliament.” Although the party was barely represented in Parliament proportionately, UKIP under the leadership of Farage remained the “voice” of many Britons, especially in the party’s role in the European Parliament. Ironically, this Eurosceptic party swept the votes for the EP and was the leading party representing the UK in Europe.
However, the presence of UKIP and their way of doing politics, fuelling and channeling popular concerns linked to EU membership, has been a huge factor in shaping the Conservative Party’s policies in an effort not to lose the conservative ground to UKIP. Rising anti-EU sentiments, both in the country and even within the Conservative Party (Thomas Jr., 2012), during the 2015 general election campaign led then-incumbent PM David Cameron to pledge to seek a referendum on EU membership by 2017 (The Conservative Party Manifesto, 2015) – this despite his being anti-Brexit. There is no clearer indicator of how populist concerns influenced mainstream politics.
Since leaving UKIP, Farage has continued to serve as an MEP for Southeast England and is also the leader of Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) (Parrock, 2019). His brand-new Brexit Party has been continuing to fuel anti-EU sentiments together with like-minded peers in the European Parliament.
Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism
Alongside Brexit, there are other factors used by populists to drum up support from the British polity. These include anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The rise of Islam, as well as the growing number of British Muslims, has been a key concern amongst right-wing parties and supporters. This issue has also been linked to migration. Bad examples have been seized upon and Islam has been constructed as a “threat to the British way of life” (BBC, 2019) and is perceived as such by more than 30 percent of Britons, according to the State of Hate 2019 report. Anti-Muslim prejudice has replaced immigration as the key driver of far-right growth.
It would not be wrong to argue that the relationship between the radical left and its mainstream, center-left counterpart is “more reciprocal, and even symbiotic, than is commonly imagined” (Bale, 2018: 1). Momentum and Respect are radical left-wing populist movements/parties. Similar to the Brexit referendum, Momentum pushing the Labour Party left resulted in Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour’s leader.
Momentum emerged as a populist force within the Labour Party, running as an anti-establishment movement. It was “designed as a grassroots network” and “a mass movement for change, for real progressive change in every town and city” (Wintour, 2015). After Corbyn’s two failed election campaigns, Labour has new leadership, which has a tense relationship with Momentum. Whether Momentum will emerge as an alternative to Labour or will continue to focus on change within Labour is something yet to be determined.
It is also important to highlight anti-Semitic rhetoric employed by the populist far-left. Conspiratorial anti-Semitism has often dominated the discussion in left-wing populist circles (State of Hope, 2019). Jewish minorities have been demonized and portrayed as the force shaping and guiding “the establishment” and political and economic elite (State of Hate, 2019).In this rhetoric, Jews are the source of nearly all of Britain’s political and economic crises. In late 2020, Corbyn was suspended from Labour following a report by a human rights watchdog that criticized anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks; Corbyn had downplayed the report.
The left’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism creates an “us” vs “them dynamic. This was done to, in Chantel Mouffe’s words, “establish a synergy between the different democratic struggles running through British society and to transform the Labour Party into a great popular movement capable of building a new hegemony” (Mouffe, 2018).
It is also important to underline that other mainstream parties may contain populist forces/groups like Labour’s Momentum. Following the same logic explained above, it is not the existence of these groups that is destabilizing; it is their capture of the center.
Mouffe (2018) explains Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party’s leadership in 2015 and consolidation of his power in 2016 as the success of left populism. Corbyn was long a minor political player, as he toiled backbench with a radical manifesto rooted in left-wing populism.
This manifesto deserves particular attention. The Manifesto’s title “For the many, not the few” is highly populist. Mouffe underlines that this polarizing established an “us” vs “them” dynamic. The manifesto’s content was mainly a critique of neoliberalism (specifically Thatcherism) and privatization, which was continued by the Labour Blair government (Williamson, 2017).
Corbyn’s populist approach attracted many young people and critics of the Blair era, allowing them to organize within the party and elevate Corbyn. However, their lack of widespread appeal meant Corbyn fell short of the Prime Minister’s Office. In other words, Corbyn’s populism created a new wave within the Left but was not close to the center to carry him to power.
Another populist party was the far-left socialist Respect Party, led by a controversial figure, George Galloway. The party was openly anti-Semitic, and its narrative relies mainly on anti-Semitic conspiracies. Unlike Momentum, it is a separate political party. Respect Party’s views also appealed to more radical members of Britain’s Muslim communities. In fact, some viewed Respect Party as an alliance between Leftists and Islamists. “Its ideology is thus an amalgamation of radical international socialism and Islamism and offers a basis for cooperation around a shared agenda” (Benedek, 2007).
Respect Party was born out of anti-war protests in the early 2000s around the American invasion of Iraq. These protests allowed space for an alliance between anti-capitalists and Islamists, an unofficial alliance between the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Respect Party grew out of the commonalities between these two circles and emerged as an official political party after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The party was formed by British political activist Salma Yaqoob and political activist, writer, and columnist George Manbiot, who writes a weekly commentary for the Guardian. Both figures were highly active in the anti-war protests of 2003.
In the 2005 general elections, Respect only managed to win a single seat. An ex-Labour politician, George Galloway, won the seat and represented the party in Parliament until 2015. However, even at the height of the party’s success in 2007, Respect could not win more than one seat and gained around 20 councilors in local governments across the country, especially in Muslim-dominated areas. Later in 2007, the coalition between partners collapsed: Socialists left the party, and Respect gradually lost its (limited) power and dissolved in 2016.
Populism in Britain mas mainly grown out of far-right or far-left elements eventually seizing power or influence within mainstream political parties, as evidenced by both Brexit and Momentum. Populists generally function as social movements and lobbying forces rather than political parties. In this regard, populism in the UK seems to be different than in other European countries. Save UKIP’s 2015 electoral success, no major populist party has seized the British popular zeitgeist.
 EFDD is one of the smallest groups in the EU Parliament with 54 members and half of its members from Farage’s Brexit Party.
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