The art of muddling through

What makes a political group a populist party rather than just a party? There’s been endless discussion about this, given that the recent rise of what looks like populism  seems to come from
all ends of the political spectrum. But the simplest way to define what is and isn’t populist is by the demands the party in question makes of the ruling elite.

Populist parties always put themselves in conflict with an elite and they always make extraordinary demands of that elite that they don’t expect to be negotiated immediately or even delivered at all.

So, as John Judis puts it in his recent book The Populist Explosion, demanding an increase in the number of guards on the Mexico/US border is not populist. Demanding a new wall to run the entire way along it is. Asking to raise the minimum wage to £10 is not populist. Demanding a basic income for all is (see this week’s double-page analysis). Wanting a full review of our relationship and the return of significant amounts of legal authority from the European Union to Westminster is not populist. Demanding the immediate and total cutting of every one of our ties to the EU is. You get the idea.

The common factor of all populist parties is that their demands are impossible to meet inside a functioning democracy – something populist leaders find out the second they win an election. Populists have historically played an essential role in moving the political debate – in signalling “that the prevailing political ideology isn’t working and needs repair”.

However, they hardly ever get much of what they want. Instead, success means ending up with a shift or two of direction away from the status quo (Latin, as Ronald Reagan liked to point out, for “the mess we’re in”). So there will be no wall (bits of one might appear). There will be no universal income (though other countries may adopt our insanely expensive tax credit system). And there will be no sudden clean break from the EU: the UK’s relationship with it in five years will be different to today’s, but not as different as either hysterical remainers fear or hardline leavers want. This brings us to Theresa May’s decision to call a general election – and why it’s good news.

Brexit is going to be a negotiated muddle-through. She needs a clear mandate to get the angry factions on both sides off her back, so she can make sure muddling through isn’t either horribly unpleasant or expensively destabilising. A successful result will give her both the reputation and the time to do so. That’s a good thing. But for now, you’ll be wanting to know how to invest while all this is going on. The answer is in much the same way as usual. Buy assets that offer some value (such as the UK – see this week’s cover story), but perhaps also with a nod to some of the markets in which no one is interested in the tiny twists of British politics.

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