This book sets out to be an analysis of the dangers, particularly economic, of populism. But for Martin Wolf, like Humpty Dumpty, populism is what he says it is. And what he says it is turns out to be an elastic concept.
Wolf’s moving reminiscences of his family and their friends, and their suffering in the Holocaust suggest that his real worry is nationalism leading to xenophobia leading to worse extremes of behaviour and genocide. He is understandably concerned about conceding ground to such views.
But his book is written as if a populist is any popular politician who disagrees with Wolf himself, particularly if the politician dislikes the advice given by civil servants.
And yet there appears to be increasing politicisation in the public services – both Ed Balls and Keir Starmer were civil servants at permanent secretary level when Labour were in power before becoming front line Labour politicians pretty quickly after. It is hard for non-Labour politicians now not to disagree often with many civil servants. Democracy cannot work if civil servants (often acting in cahoots with their many media friends) have the power to veto policies for which the electorate has voted.
The book’s argument is that democracy is leading to populism and hence to policies which put capitalism under threat. Not all the links in this argument fall apart. Once, when I asked a Labour minister why pre-financial crisis his government had not put in place regulatory measures that would have halted the excesses that ultimately led to the crisis, his response was that fixing a problem before it blows up doesn’t win you votes. I suspect he was wrong because the problem that wasn’t fixed blew up enough to help his party lose the next election, but he was voicing a conventional wisdom in politics.
So there are reasons for suspecting that democracy and sensible economic policies do not always go together. Indeed, Wolf’s predecessor at the Financial Times, Sir Samuel Brittan, wrote about “The Economic Contradictions of Democracy” in a book that Wolf does not list in his acknowledgements. Looking back to the debates on the franchise in the 19th century, one is struck by the way in which Wolf’s concerns echo those of the then Lord Salisbury and others who worried about the consequences of the extension of the franchise.
Wolf admits that the genie is out of the bottle and points out that alternatives to democracy, although often leading to seductively high initial rates of economic growth, generally fail the test of time.
But he seems to have few constructive proposals for how to solve the problem (for him) of the masses voting the “wrong way”, other than for them to pay more attention to his views and those of others who think like him. He might have more success in persuading them if he took a less condescending line with them.
Perhaps the solution is to approach the problem the other way round. Maybe the divide in politics leading to excessive partisanship that impedes democracy reflects the fact that people like Wolf himself do not listen enough to people who think differently.
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Wolf’s 30 pages of suggested reading all look very much the same – reminding one of Shane Warne’s cruel jibe that: “Monty Panesar hasn’t played 33 Tests, he’s played one Test 33 times”. Martin Wolf’s 30 pages of recommended books and articles look a bit like one book read nearly a thousand times. If Wolf is interested in populists, it is a bit surprising that his reading list does not include the books that inspire them by Douglas Murray, Roger Scruton, Matthew Oakeshott and journalists such as Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens, or those from the US by Irving and Bill Kristol, Thomas Sowell, William Buckley and newer writers such as Curtis Yarvin and JD Vance.
It is also interesting that the bibliography contains a whole three and a half pages of references (over a tenth of all the references) to Wolf’s own work. Surely an alert editor could have helped him sub down?
I doubt if democracy is sustainable while the current level of partisanship exists. Democracy requires sufficient respect for differing points of view for those who lose an argument to respect the result. The current habit of trying to cancel or to refuse to report those with whom one disagrees and for media and officials to try to frustrate the operation of policies that the electorate have voted for rather than using persuasion to try to get their way creates a level of frustration in the electorate that can often lead them to vote for extremists. This habit, mainly but not exclusively from the centre left/Remain perspective, seems to stem from the Marxist assumption that those who disagree suffer from “false consciousness”. Hence the reliance on propaganda and subterfuge rather than debate.
If those who disagreed with the views of the masses made some attempt to engage with them rather than sneer and propagandise, we might at least start to understand each other better.
Tim Davie, the relatively new head of the BBC, has suggested that the BBC’s diversity training could include modules to help journalists understand people who are less left wing than themselves. I have separately suggested something similar for civil servants in these columns. Maybe this should be extended to a wider group of journalists.
And perhaps Wolf himself might make a useful guinea pig?
The author is the founder and Deputy Chairman of Cebr, the economics consultancy. His book “The Inequality Paradox” examines the causes of growing income and wealth inequality.
Martin Wolf’s book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, is published by Penguin this week.
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