The Era Of Boris | Free Letters

For the prime minister, brexit is the beginning, and not the end, of the British Cultural Revolution.

The saga of brexit has been taking place for so long that, despite its twists and turns, it seems that nothing changes. As an expert said recently, in 2192 the British prime minister will have to make his annual visit to Brussels “to request an extension of the deadline for brexit. Nobody remembers where this tradition comes from, but every year it attracts tourists from all over the world. ”

And yet, it seems that the country is finally heading towards a decision. Boris Johnson has intimidated and persuaded a reluctant parliament to accept new elections, which will take place on December 12. Over the past few months, he has managed to unite the conservative party around his idea of ​​what brexit should be. If he succeeds in winning the elections, as seems likely, he may succeed both in bringing the country out of Europe and in dominating British politics in the next decade.


His chances of success are due to two factors: Johnson has turned the world's oldest political party into a proud incarnation of populism. But the type of populism that he defends is much more moderate than its ultra-right variety that grows from Italy to the United States.

The lure of the elites

Whenever he has the opportunity, Boris Johnson states that British politics is defined by a clash between two basic forces: on the one hand, there is an elite far from the people who are so committed to their liberal left-wing values ​​that they are capable of ignoring the Will of the British voters. On the other hand, there is the pure people, who voted for Brexit in a heroic attempt to end the country's elite domination. Johnson's central promise is to help the pure people defeat the corrupt elite.

Since coming to power, Johnson has used this basic account to delegitimize any independent institution that confronts him. It has turned conservatives into the "people's party" and has attacked the legitimacy of the courts, the media and even the parliament itself. As he said with laughter and applause at the conservative party conference, "voters have more voice and vote in the British reality show" I'm a Celebrity "than in the House of Commons."

This helps explain something that would otherwise be incomprehensible: Why has Boris Johnson proved to be able to unite (almost) the entire Conservative Party around his idea of ​​brexit despite the fact that the agreement he proposed to parliament is very similar to the one presented a few months ago Theresa May?

May's agreement failed to give each side of the debate a real reason to support it. Those who wanted to preserve a close relationship with the EU believed that May was damaging the country's economic future because he proposed to leave the single market. Those who wanted a clean cut with Europe considered that the United Kingdom would be too tied to the rules made in Brussels. Both rightly feared that May's agreement would make the country lose more influence than if it had stayed in the union, but neither gave it the freedom to establish its own path with a radical break.

The agreement with which Johnson has obtained a majority has those same limitations. It provides more details on how Northern Ireland can enjoy a frictionless trade with the Republic of Ireland without disconnecting from the rest of the United Kingdom. But it also poses a future in which the United Kingdom will have to follow key European regulations or suffer tariffs that would significantly damage its economy. From a public policy perspective, it is very surprising that a significant number of parliamentarians who opposed May's agreement gave it the green light on an important vote two weeks ago.

The only plausible explanation is that brexit never had to do with public policy in the first place. What Brexit supporters want most of all is that Brexit is a tool to charge the establishment with. By hiding his more or less conciliatory attitude towards Europe with populist language, Johnson has been able to assure the Brexiteers that the project of lashing out against the elites will survive the agreement.

Today, Johnson is nothing but the product of a British establishment that has lost popularity. But like other personalities of the establishment, from Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland to Donald Trump in the United States, a name has been styled in politics attacking the pieties of liberal left-wing orthodoxy. And although the agreement he has presented to parliament was not very different from May's package with a lot of makeup, the rhetoric he has used since he came to power has been radically different: by brazenly leaning toward populist language and soundly criticizing traditional institutions like Parliament or the Supreme Court, Johnson has shown that he believes that Brexit is the beginning, not the end, of the British Cultural Revolution.

Beyond Brexit

When Brexit ceases to be the issue that captures all British politics, Johnson will probably face other issues in the same way: in tone, he will remain a strident populist. In substance, it is likely to defend relatively moderate policies.

You have made a couple of key decisions that point in that direction. After years of restricted public spending, investment in areas such as the police or education has increased substantially. And although he often uses derogatory language against minority communities, he is taking steps to attract more qualified immigrants: he has annulled a law of his predecessor, for example, and is giving two-year work visas to students completing a career in the country . Can this unusual combination work?

Guessing the outcome of the elections is always a futile effort. In the United Kingdom, where the majority electoral system can give parties that win 30% or 35% of the vote a very large majority in parliament, it is even more dangerous. But it seems very likely that Johnson will win with margin this December, and even dominate British politics in the coming years.

This is partly a matter of luck: the opposition is a disaster without a solution. The Labor Party is led by the most unpopular opposition leader in recent history. Three years after the referendum, the party still does not have a clear position on brexit. As a consequence, the Liberal Democrats, who in the last elections suffered a considerable defeat, now it seems that they will win the trust of many convinced remainers. With the left divided, it is easier for the Tories to add votes.

But if Johnson wins in December, it is also because he has found a way to exploit populist anger without scaring key segments of the population. His populist style is allowing him to corner the Brexit Party and consolidate support in the British right. At the same time, his relatively moderate policies, and his past as a popular mayor in a very diverse London, assures him of not causing so much fear and mistrust in ethnic and religious minorities such as Trump and other ultra-right populists.

In a fragmented political system, this recipe may give Johnson a dominant position for the next decade.

The chameleon of populism

In the last three years, there have been ultra-right populists who have won surprising victories. Politicians like Trump or Jair Bolsonaro are far to the right of the center on absolutely all issues: they use extreme language to talk about ethnic and religious minorities; they are very hostile to the welfare state; and talk about their allies in a very derogatory way.

But populism is a way of thinking about politics that can be more ideologically flexible than what personalities like Trump or Bolsonaro suggest. Some populists, such as Kaczynski in Poland, have succeeded in combining a far-right stance on cultural issues such as gay rights with center-left policies on economic issues, such as subsidies. Other populists, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia, have combined a populist account with a more radically anti-capitalist attitude.

Johnson demonstrates today that political entrepreneurs can, even in a very diverse country like the United Kingdom, succeed in combining populism with relative moderation in economic and cultural dimensions. This serves as a reminder that populism can survive longer than many of its observers often think: far from being stuck with a concrete ideology that attracts older voters who are not immigrants, the idea that a strong man has to defend A dispossessed people against a corrupt elite can take various forms.

The chameleon of populism survives. And the Era of Boris can last longer than we all think.

Ricardo Dudda's English translation.



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