2nd November 2020
There are news reports that Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party are re-branding as the ‘Reform Party’ and will campaign on the basis of ‘lockdown scepticism’.
One immediate response of many will be to sneer at and deride him and his supporters.
Just as years ago he and his United Kingdom Independence Party were sneered at and derided.
But this approach is perhaps misguided.
Farage and other political populists should always be taken seriously.
Farage is a political hobgoblin.
He appears where there are cracks between the government and the governed, as a purveyor of easy answers.
On the European Union issue, for example, generations of politicians in the United Kingdom failed to make any positive case for membership.
Often, instead, politicians from both major parties competed with each other to sound the most sceptical about the European Union and to secure the most opt-outs.
Year on year, the crack was widening: there was no political engagement with the voters on the importance – or even the nature – of United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
And so, in 2016, when a government held a referendum on the question of membership, there was not the support in place to carry a Remain vote to victory.
The Leave campaign did not so much as win the Brexit referendum; it was more that Remain lost it – and they lost it because of 40 or more years of political inaction.
Farage and other opportunists merely exploited that political gap.
Now there is another broad policy issue where there is a political gap.
The London government is proposing a lockdown for, in effect, the month of November so as to stymie the recent resurgence in Covid-19.
But for a lockdown to have effect, there needs to be be more than laws passed and subsidies offered.
A lockdown is an exercise in public mobilisation: a government is seeking a population to change its ways, to act significantly different for a significant period of time, and to do things (and not do things) that the population would not otherwise do.
Such a public mobilisation needs, in a word, leadership.
There needs to be a sense of legitimacy.
There needs to be an understanding of the evidence and the reasoning on which such a lockdown is based.
Laws – however ‘tough’ – are not enough.
It is not even a question of making laws clear, or resourcing their enforcement.
The broad behavioural change being sought cannot be brought about by coercion alone.
And the irony is that the current pro-Brexit government has become so complacent on the basis of the supposed ‘will of the people’ referendum mandate justifying what they do that they have disengaged with the people.
There is a disconnect.
Legitimacy is an ongoing process, but it can be lost as easily as it is to make a visit to Barnard Castle.
Clarity and transparency cannot co-exist with closed and politicised decision-making.
So there is another political gap.
And when there are political gaps, the political hobgoblins appear.
They are an index of the failure of a government to properly explain a complex policy issue and to engage with the public.
The easy answers promoted by the political hobgoblins have little or no merit in themselves, but this does not matter.
The political hobgoblins do not care, for they thrive in the political gaps.
And that is why political populists should always be taken seriously, for they are an indication of political failure.
Political hobgoblins exist to warn us.
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