There is nothing populism craves more than elites to rail against, writes Michael Clifford

Is David McWilliams a member of one of the “elites”? The question popped into my head last Sunday as I heard him on the radio describing the Brexit result as a vote against the “elites”. He said the word “elites” as if it was an alien body, of which one should instinctively be suspicious.

David is a superlative communicator and a very nice chap who earns big money from his various media and economics- related activities. He was educated in Blackrock College and once worked for the Central Bank.

He organises a book festival in salubrious Dalkey where you couldn’t swing a cat without clattering an elitist or two. If Dave isn’t a member of one of the alien elites he references, then who the hell is? More to the point, who are these elites everybody is going on about?

The elites, as we have come to know them in recent years, are, to a large extent, the product of the prevailing dominant political ideology of populism. There is nothing populism craves more than elites to rail against.

In this country, as elsewhere, populism has grown exponentially at a time when the masses — many quite justifiably — feel alienated from the political culture.

In the US, it has found expression in Donald Trump, who will make America great again with a few easy solutions, including building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and banning Muslims from entry. This, the American people are told, will set America on the road back to the 1950s, when the country was white, prosperous, and accommodated all forms of aspiration.

David McWilliams
David McWilliams

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s populism in the referendum campaign promised to travel back to the kinder, gentler, whiter 1970s, when everybody spoke the Queen’s English in a native accent and the government was in control of the country.

Now control has been returned with the Brexit result. Boris has been stopped in his tracks, but he fought a good fight for the people, against the elites, to which, of course, he would claim never to have belonged.

Thankfully, Irish populism is a relatively benign condition compared to the strain which is running amok abroad. We have not, to any discernible extent, turned on vulnerable groups like immigrants to focus the anger that fuels populism. We have drawn more from the left than the right to acquire the clothes in which to dress Irish populism. These are small positives.

Our populist aspiration to go back to the future is also modest, with most populist politicians referencing 2008 rather than the 1950s or ’70s as year zero. That recent past was a time of bounty for the country as a whole and most of its constituent parts. Austerity was an alien word. It appeared as if the good times were just getting into their stride.

And now, as with elsewhere in the post-crash world, there is a longing to return to whence we came. This is where the rise of populism takes over, offering easy solutions to complex problems, promising that the past can be recaptured, holding out the prospect of the ultimate Late Late Show, where there is something for everyone in the audience.

The best expression of populism Irish-style was offered in a comment from Richard Boyd Barrett during a leaders’ debate in the last election. Claire Byrne asked Richard whether he was in favour of re-opening the Garda stations that had been closed in recent years.

“In terms of rural Garda stations, if the people in rural areas want their garda stations restored, I’m for them,” he said.

We do populism a little differently here

Richard is for the people, against the elites. Note that his response was not framed in the left-wing philosophy to which he claims allegiance. It didn’t deliberate on the best use of resources for those most in need, or whether the deployment of Garda stations should take into consideration the areas of the country most blighted by crime and the causes of crime.

No, it was a simple conclusion. If the people are for it, then Richard is for it too.

“The people”, as represented here, are the 99%, a figure often quoted by Richard’s colleagues in the Anti Austerity Alliance, another group that claims to espouse left-wing values.

This tenet of populism has it that the resentment and ill-feeling in society can be directed at the 1%, who control the world and own everything that isn’t tied down.

“For the recovery of the 99% take on the 1%” is the headline of one of the AAA’s recent promotional literature.

This is terrific populist stuff. The only real division is between the 99% and the 1%. In this, the single parent working at a supermarket till is in the same boat as the liberal couple who each earn over six-figure sums, have great pension provision, and rail against “the elite”, who are materially better off than they are.

There are no difficult choices when you have the 99% “people” and the 1% “elites”. There is no need to face the reality that everybody — and not just the elites — would have to pay more tax to achieve a truly equitable society.

There is no requirement to concede that the only way “the people” might be willing to pay more tax would be if they believed they were getting value for money in public services.

These thorny issues do not have to be addressed when you are with the people, the 99% of people, and against the elites.

In such a milieu, is it any wonder that candidates for elitism rail so voraciously against the “elites”? So it goes in the media and politics, all the way from David McWilliams across the spectrum to Gerry Adams. The Sinn Féin president told his ard fheis earlier this year that he was “standing up for citizens and against the elites”.

We do populism a little differently here

Et tu Gerry? He who owns two homes — at least one more than most of the 99%. He who has access to wealthy friends and wealthy benefactors for his party. He who leads a powerful entity which is in government in one part of the island, and the biggest party in many local authorities down here? He who is awash with power and money? And he is denying and decrying his brothers and sisters in elitism?

So it goes in populism Irish style. We do things differently here. While the likes of Boris and his pals in Britain and Trump in the US hold up immigrants as the root of all ills, we in this country prefer to engage in a more benign fantasy.

For that we can be grateful. For anybody who genuinely believes in greater equality or a more equal redistribution of wealth, populism Irish style is a depressing cop-out.

But let’s not pretend that it is anything new. Populism was Fianna Fáil’s calling card for decades, propelling the party to electoral nirvana, where it managed to portray itself as the anti-establishment party at the heart of the establishment.

And we all know where that ended.


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