Brexit is one of many examples of the disconnect between the political elite and the public

Brexit is one of many examples of the disconnect between the political elite and the public

In many of the world’s democracies traditional parties are on the slide and populist movements are on the rise. I have been charting their ascent and looking at how the establishment tries to fight back in my latest book, We Don’t Believe You.

In the USA, a populist candidate took over one of the old parties and got into office against all the establishment odds. In the UK, the two traditional parties boosted their popularity at the last general election by adopting the mantle of populism by espousing the cause of Brexit, only to wobble by not delivering on time. In Italy, two different challenger parties cast aside the ancien regime of the older parties, just as Syriza did in Greece. At the root of much of this is a row over money and tax.

The traditional parties have become wedded to higher taxes to pay for big government. They also impose higher taxes to virtue-signal over a wide range of behaviours they want to control, from driving cars and flying away on holiday to eating the wrong foods and buying expensive homes. It took a Trump to sweep in promising to slash individual and company tax rates, cuts which proved popular when he drove them through Congress. In France, the gilets jaunes protesters took to the streets to demand a reduction in fuel tax, as they were finding it too dear to drive to work or get their children to school by car. Mr Macron tried to turn it into a big conversation with voters, only to discover one of the main demands is lower taxes. Many people think they can make better use of their own money by spending on it on their family and their own priorities instead of the government spending it for them.

The wish to control individual lives has led to taxes on owning a car, buying a car, putting fuel in a car and driving a car. It has led to taxes on buying a home, living in a home, renting out a home and selling a home. It has produced new taxes on foods and drinks the state thinks dangerous, new taxes on rubbish, on plastic bags, on parking, on buy to let properties and much else. It spills over into a wish to control our very thoughts, with a wide range of concerns the subject of surveillance in case people have inappropriate ideas. Taking individually, some of these proposals are good. I for one think it right that we ban hate speech, and wish to see less plastic litter around. Taken altogether, it becomes too much for many individuals who feel circumscribed, their freedoms damaged, by too many instructions, fees, charges and taxes. Many of the frustrated take to social media to let off steam. That too is now coming under government control, with new regulations to extend usual media restraints to more private conversations.

In the UK a crucial argument in the Brexit campaign was the wish to take back control of our money. Many voters feel our budget contributions to a rich club of countries is too large. They want that tax revenue to be spent here at home, or given back through lower taxes. At a time when many think our schools and social care could do with some more cash, it seems perverse to send £1bn a month to the EU which we do not get back. Many voters dislike the draft Withdrawal Agreement because it casually gives away a huge and unspecified sum for no good reason. The Treasury thinks it will be at least £39bn. It would probably be considerably more, and stretching forward over many years. EU austerity budgets have done considerable damage to economies and to voter feelings on the continent. The disciplines of the euro have been stricter than the UK imposed budget rules, and have helped fuel much higher unemployment and falls in real wages which have angered many electors.

The populists are still gaining votes and friends. They offer people hope of a bit more of their own money to spend. They don’t lecture them so much on how they are to live or what they are to think the main problems of the world might be. When the elite come out now with their gloomy forecasts, people often bellow back “We don’t believe you”. The UK establishment came horribly unstuck over its economic forecasts of a recession in the winter after the Brexit vote. All the establishments failed to forecast and prevent the banking crash which went on to cost many their jobs or their businesses. The gap is growing between what the elite say the issues are and what the public wants sorted.

Social media allows the populists to send messages to the many at an affordable price. It allows the public to flag what they want tackled. Many of them want a bit more disposable income, so a bit less tax. They want to be able to get to work or take their children to school by car in an affordable way without too many delays. They want governments to listen to them, not to talk down to them.

Populism is an attempt to get politics to rejoin the public by taking their concerns seriously and trying to do something about them. Many old parties on the continent of Europe are no longer serious challengers for power because they ignored the growing gap between the public and their own views. They now disagree not just on how to tackle problems, but over what problems they need to tackle. Putting prosperity and wider ownership back on the agenda would be welcome for many.

We Don’t Believe You: Why Populists Reject The Establishment by John Redwood has just been published by Bite-Sized Books and is available from Amazon for £6.99