Robin McAlpine: Flaw in the popular front

LINGUISTICS offer a crucial clue to the difference between the popular and the populist in politics, writes Robin McAlpine, and awareness of such is crucially important

LINGUISTICS offer a crucial clue to the difference between the popular and the populist in politics, writes Robin McAlpine, and awareness of such is crucially important

In both Greek elections the populist far-right Golden Dawn party gained a higher proportion of votes than did the Lib Dems in the last Scottish Elections. When we see its party leader assault a female opponent on television and hear the usual vile tales of “immigrants bringing diseases” we should be very glad that Britain’s far-right has made little progress and that in Scotland the far-right has barely registered electorally.

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But in the endless name-calling that is Scottish politics is to be found the suggestion that Scotland has its own populist despot in Alex Salmond. In this view Scottish nationalism is forever flirting with populism, uses populist policies to distract us from its real agenda and all this would only get worse if there was independence. Beware of Tartan Dawn.

In reality, if people properly understood the meanings of the terms populism and small-n nationalism they would realise that Scotland’s long-running constitutional debate has helped to protect us from the rise of the far-right.

Politicians of all parties in Scotland have played their part in this and we should be grateful for that irrespective of our views on independence. But they also have a responsibility to save allegations of populism for a time when we may really need them.

All of this is the result of confusion. If you follow Scottish politics you might reasonably think that populism was something to do with popularity. More specifically you might think it is the attempt to buy the affections of the electorate through “cheap and crude” political giveaways.

These may indeed be popular, and they might even be cheap and crude, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with populism. The linguistic root of populism is not “popular” but “populace”.

It is based on the idea of “a people”, a population which is in some way connected. The same is true of nationalism, but with an important difference. Nationalism defines “a people” as connected and defined geographically in contrast to an external “other”. What is different about populism is that this ideology defines the connected people in contrast to an internal “other”.

The difference is important. Despite misperceptions, nationalism has been a fairly benign form of global order, certainly in comparison to the brutalities of empire, kingdom and theocracy.

There are two important moderating factors the nation brings. First, because it defines itself territorially against “an other” it is in fact very inclusive. The “other” is distant and doesn’t need to be hated so becoming “a people” does not depend on ethnicity, religion or any other affiliation other than to the geographical and political nation.

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And secondly, there is a defined geographical end-point inherent in the nation which inhibits expansionism. In fact, there are surprisingly few examples in the history of the nation state of nations seeking permanently to expand their territory through aggression.

Populism is much more insidious. Nations define the group on the basis of where they live; populism defines the group in terms of a shared and immediate enemy.

The ultimate example of this is of course the Nazi genocide of the Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies. The idea of the German “Reich” was not an idea of a nation but of the more accurate translation of “a Germanic realm”.

The Nazis used German cultural identity and so people often mistake its ideology as being a nationalist ideology. In fact, the Nazis wanted to unite “Christian” Europe beyond national boundaries and against the untermensch or “inferior people”. This is populism, not nationalism.

Similarly, people talk about the former Yugoslavia as a case study in “what happens when nationalism goes wrong”. In fact, the Balkans is really a case study in what happens when populism overtakes nationalism.

Rather than being defined in terms of a “shared land”, as peaceful Yugoslavia did for decades, the Balkan region came to define itself as a series of “shared ethnicities”. This is the root of the subsequent atrocities, not nationalism.

For decades populism was no more than an undercurrent in Western European politics, partly because of the horrors of the Second World War, partly because of the post-war growth years and partly because the Soviet Union offered a useful distant enemy on which to focus our anxieties.

You could make reasonable claims that the fall of the Soviet Union, or the Balkan wars, marked the end point of that period – but a more compelling focus is the attack on the Twin Towers. This triggered the rise of Islamophobia that really reignited populism in Europe again, sweeping up with it a revival of persecution of the Roma community.

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But it is important not to mistake populism with simple racism. Some curiosity or suspicion of people who are in some way not like us is an inherent trait of humans, as it is in all animals.

Only when the setting of the many against the few becomes part of a political programme designed to manage and control the many do we reach populism. It is when those who wield power tie populist sentiment to political programme that we see the emergence of populism.

Immigration control is a nationalist concept; promoting fear of black Muslim immigration to distract people from bank deregulation is nascent populism.

How do we draw a firm line between the politics of nationalism and the politics of populism? The answer is that we can’t, and that’s why vigilance is so important.

What we have to look for is not “them and us” which is de-personalised but “you and me, not him” which is personalised. So it seems to me that “Buy British” is straightforward nationalism, encouraging the group to support itself collectively.

But “British jobs for British workers” is populist since it clearly implies that some people standing in a dole queue are worth more than some others standing side by side in the same queue.

What does this mean for Scottish politics? The ironic thing is that because we have a big-N nationalist movement we have a political dynamic which restrains the rise of populism.

The SNP is desperate to disassociate itself from any kind of “ethnic nationalism” and the unionist parties want to present the status quo as being the antidote for that same “ethnic nationalism”.

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So, all the mainstream parties are falling over themselves to espouse the politics of an inclusive Scotland, and we’re very much the better for it.

But Scotland is not “racism-free” and as the economy continues to stall the declining affluence of the many, that other great incubator of populist politics, is a constant presence.

When we see it, when we see spit-flecked shaved heads of the Scottish Defence League trying to persuade working people struggling with their bills that it is the blacks, the Muslim and the social workers who are to blame for their woes we need to shout it out.

But those who have half-understood a link between nationalism and populism and think it might be a handy insult to reach for should take much more care.

Whether or not you consider Alex Salmond to be arrogant and shallow, I do not think you will be able to find a single example of him trying to turn Scot against Scot, or even Scot against Englishman.

And even if you think providing free bus passes for the elderly is a waste of money, it is not the politics of setting one group against another and so is avowedly not populist.

Scottish opponents of “nationalism” are getting their capitalisation mixed up.

Remember, virtually every person in the developed world is a nationalist, with only Sharia theocrats, anarcho-syndicalists and European Central Bankers voicing any serious opposition to this dominant social order of our day.

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We should take pride in the achievements of the inclusive nation state, imperfect but infinitely preferable to the alternative of black against white, Christian against Muslim, heterosexual against homosexual, worker against unemployed.

That is the true meaning of populism.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation