Our populism is not rooted in racism but water charges

It’s all designed to boost the entity purveying the populism rather than the cohort it’s aimed at, writes Michael Clifford.

Our populism is not rooted in racism but water charges

Sometimes, we should be thankful for small mercies in this benighted isle of ours.

Take the virulent strain of populism sweeping across the western world. It has produced Donald Trump; various European demagogues gunning for election; and the Brexiteers of Old Blighty scratching around in a sump of hate.

The manifestations of this strain of populism converge on the notion that the source of all ills are various minorities who can be labelled the “other”.

This country has not sunk so low. There is no strong-man rising from the ashes of austerity with tidings of easy solutions.

Few are seriously advocating drastic action such as leaving the EU (well, not yet anyway). There is nobody channelling an inner De Valera to pursue closed trade and a glorious past that never was.

Instead, this country has reverted to a form of stereotype by not taking the whole populist thing so damn seriously. You can have your Trumps, your Nigel Farages, your Le Pens, your obsession with immigration, your rejection of universal human rights, your undermining of democratic institutions.

Here, in the land of Swift, Beckett, and Father Ted, we have water charges.

The “other” that is symptomatic of a world gone to rack and ruin is not a refugee fleeing war, an Eastern European stealing jobs, or a Brussels-based mandarin smashing beloved national traditions. No, our “other” is Irish Water, an inanimate object which it is possible to hate without inflicting pain.

While the Brexiteers and Trumpeteers pine for an idealised past when they felt secure and homogenous, the water protester looks back at the abolition of rates in 1977 as the dawn of civilised time.

The hijacking of the political agenda by the water charges issue has been one of the more depressing developments of political culture in this country. In typical Trumpian fashion, it has been a perfect distraction from real problems.

It is straight out of the guiding principles from the populist handbook. First, there is an easy solution to ills which involves no pain or discomfort for anybody but the “other”. Secondly, the long- and even medium-term does not exist.

Every action is about short-term gain and immediate popularity. And, crucially, it’s all designed to boost the entity purveying the populism rather than the cohort it is aimed at.

Thus the simple way of tackling the perceived challenge of immigration in the USA is to build a wall, the kind of solution that Bob the Builder could alight upon.

So it was that canvassers for Brexit could claim that money saved from contributions to the EU could be directly pumped into the NHS.

So it is with water charges. A crumbling infrastructure, no incentive to conserve, a nineteenth-century practice of pouring human waste directly into the sea? No problem that can’t be solved by shovelling the whole thing into “general taxation”.

The water charge movement has other similarities with its populist kindred spirits across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. While the Brexiteers and Trumpeteers both harbour, just beneath their surface, strains of racism, so the water charge protester believes that he or she is superior to other forms of human life.

The protester claims to be exempt from the behavioural science which dictates that humans will not respect anything precious that appears to be available free gratis. In this regard, we are told that measuring and even charging for excess consumption would make no difference to the amount of domestic water used.

That is the kind of stuff that should provide material for one of The Donald’s 5am Twitter binges.

Thankfully, this sense of superiority is not based on race or nationality. How could it be, when there is copious evidence from group water schemes in rural Ireland that metering has changed consumption behaviour and resulted in greater conservation.

Maybe the water protester believes that this evidence can be disregarded on the basis that people on group water schemes eat their dinner in the middle of the day. Or something like that.

The other promise of the prevailing populism is that it will deliver change for those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. So it went that the Brexiteers wooed voters in the UK’s industrial wastelands with promises that jobs would return once immigration got sorted.

In the American rustbelt, they were told by Trump that jobs would be brought back home from abroad, as if the clock could be turned back on automation.

Here, opposition to water charges has been cast as an article of faith in pursuit of social equity. This is ridiculous fare, as evidenced by the positions of serious agencies such as Social Justice Ireland, Tasc, and the Nevin Institute, all of which pursue social justice through sustainable policies.

All have produced research arguing for a poverty proofed charge for domestic consumption of one form or another. Populism and sustainable social justice are not comfortable bedfellows.

Just as the duped workers in England’s north-east will probably feel the harsh winds of Brexit keenest, so those on the average industrial wage and lower will be hardest hit by throwing water into general taxation. And they’re by no means well off.

If health and education budgets are squeezed to pay for water infrastructure, it is those least equipped to take a hit on services who will bear the brunt of cuts.

You can also take it for granted that no political party will be campaigning at the next election on a platform of increasing tax to pay for the required water investment of billions of euro.

But, in relative terms, all of that is minor stuff. This country has gone through a savage recession. The disconnect between the political classes and the voters has widened. There has been an incremental shift — unfortunately no more than that — towards greater social equity in the political culture.

But at least we have not lurched towards the mindless populism that thrives on fear, operates with smoke and mirrors, and is fuelled by unfocused anger.

There may well be a price to pay in terms of clean water and a functioning wastewater system if economic winds turn bitter, but it will be nowhere near the bill facing the Brits and Yanks if they continue on their current, self-destructive paths.

At least the water protester does not resort to racism. His only prejudice is against rural dwellers, and is based not on the colour of their skin, but the content of their wells. Portraying the “struggle” for water as a human rights imperative is, relative to what we’ve seen abroad, harmless fun.

Agreement has, more or less, been reached at a political level. There will be no incentive to conserve, no dedicated fund from which to pay for infrastructure, no widening of the tax base. Some damage done, a lot more could have been.

Sometimes, we should be grateful for small mercies.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

logo podcast

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

IE logo

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.236 s