January 30, 2016
David Cameron is threatened by the forces of populism, domestically if not internationally. This makes Cameron’s position excessively interesting. He himself is perhaps the last person one might describe as a “man of the people” and yet he surrounds himself with populists at the very time the populists have come baying for the blood of men like him.
At home, his chief threats come in the form of the Labour party and the possibility of a second Scottish referendum.
Whether Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist bent can materialise into an electoral success is widely debated in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. Andrew Gawthrope’s article in Foreign Affairs is just one in a lengthy series of condemnation of Corbyn, suggesting he is radicalising Labour in danger of doing lethal damage to the party’s chances to reclaim number 10. The Economist is also not feeling Corbyn fever, they cannot be accused of ever writing a kind word towards the man. The Guardian suggests that Labour’s ideological shift has fails so far to make headway with traditional communities susceptible to populism but instead has only served to recruit upper middle-class intellectuals. This must factor into David Cameron’s political calculus, but it would be a mistake to count Britain’s second party out already. With no election in sight, Corbyn certainly has time to alter his course. After all, Britain is politically a highly divided country, with many of its electorate making its decisions based on dogmatic ideological choices, rather than clear-headed thought. Indeed, some of my acquaintances blasted David Cameron for choosing to honour David Bowie, as if appreciating good music belonged only to their political clique. Many people in Britain follow a politics of revenge and seem to feel they owe retribution for Thatcher, despite the Iron Lady being long since buried. For these reasons, I think discounting Corbyn as a political alternative based on rational reasoning may entirely miss the point. Populism is not the politics of the rational. They are politics of romance and of common fictions.
The second chief opposition threat to Cameron is a second Scottish referendum. It is commonly held belief that if a Brexit occurs, it will trigger a pro-EU Scotland to make another bid for independence. It is also commonly held that this would be enough to push the pro-Independence vote over the threshold, thus causing the greatest crisis in the history of the United Kingdom. If this happens, Cameron’s political career is over. He would become toxic and remembered as the man who let his country disintegrate. There isn’t any coming back from that.
Despite these clear dangers to his political career, David Cameron seeks populist allies at home and abroad. His willingness to cooperate with populists could be a sign of his own political insecurity, as many of his party’s backbenchers have populist leanings, meaning that a lack of compromise could lead to a party insurrection, or worse, a splinter faction. However, cooperation means walking a fine line as these populists also represent a threat to Cameron politically. The ideological hard-line these Conservatives-cum-populists take is the very driving force behind the aforementioned Brexit referendum, which they championed to stay ahead of the supremely Eurosceptic UKIP party, as they made a bid for the House of Commons. That these backbenchers are still championing a potentially ruinous Brexit referendum despite UKIP receding back into the æther from whence they came is perhaps indication that they were not behaving solely strategically to head off a political rival from dividing their power base, but rather were emboldened by the affirmation that there exists a political space for the beliefs that they before held in private but not in public.
However, Cameron has also spent his time seeking allies among European populists, aligning itself with so-called illiberal democracy club on the basis of shared Euroscepticism. This seems to me to be an incredibly short-sighted political trade-off. Cameron himself has publicly said that he does not want a referendum. He does not want the UK to leave the EU, but would rather seem the system reformed in an effort to safeguard national sovereignty. However, by aligning himself with illiberal democracies, David Cameron reduces his chances to both affect change within the EU and entrenches illiberality as a legitimate path for countries to take. Each time a populist government is successful, it only stands to embolden populists, who are often illiberal and reactionary. A success abroad makes people ask “if it can work there, why not here?” The answer is simple, it can work here. It can work anywhere, but what is “it”? It is the acquisition of power: generally through lies and a tight-control of information. We see populists on both sides of the spectrum censor intellectuals and the press in the name of political correctness and public decency. I cannot help but distrust someone who doesn’t think I’m smart enough to make my own decisions, but also won’t let me see the information to make the decisions on. Those are the people who we should keep out of power at all costs.
Despite these threats, David Cameron has thrown himself into the shark tank, in hopes that he can behave enough like a shark that the sharks don’t bother him, when he only has a poor disguise to convince them that he is. Oxford educated David Cameron should be the last living person to flirt with populism. He is the living embodiment of everything populists on both sides of spectrum hate; he is the avatar of privilege. His only saving grace is that the only thing both sides hate more than the privileged elite is the opposing side.C. Shannon