Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, understands the new politics. This week he put it about that he wanted to provide the British public with a dividend from Brexit by increasing funding to the NHS to the tune of £100M a week (or £5Bn a year). If the facts don’t suit you, you create new ones; emotion beats dispassionate analysis every time. This is the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is working very well for him. Is there anything sensible politicians can do about such behaviour?
There are plenty of good reasons to increase funding for the NHS, but a Brexit dividend is not among them. Such a dividend, famously estimated at £350M a week, was one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016. It had only a slender basis in fact. Britain’s gross contributions to the EU are in that order, but most of the money comes back to Britain, including an unconditional rebate. So even if EU funding to poorer regions like Cornwall and Wales was cut off, along with farming subsidies and other goodies, there would still not be £350M a week of extra funding to go round. And that assumes that the economy, and the taxes funded by it, would not be adversely affected by Brexit. These criticisms were made during the referendum campaign, but the objections only served to publicise the original claim. People believed what they wanted to believe. For many this was the extra £350M a week for the NHS, starting on the day after the referendum result. Most were no doubt more realistic, and simply took the wrangling to mean that something was up, and there would be some kind of dividend.
But, a year and a half on, it is clear that any Brexit dividend will be a long time a-coming, if it ever does. It is not so easy to escape many of those payment obligations (e.g. to fund the pensions of British members of the European Parliament, such as the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage). There will be at least two years of transition in which not much will change, and certainly not the money the UK is paying out to the EU. And then even most Brexit supporters accept that there will be some economic dislocation, even if it does not turn out to harm the economy overall in the longer term.
Mr Johnson is well aware of all this; he is a clever man and very much part of the political class where such discussion is common currency. But the recent success of populist politics means that facts don’t matter any more. So why not just claim a dividend even if one does not exist? And so what if the government overspends a bit? It isn’t clear what adverse consequences would flow, after all. It would also show a government taking the initiative, rather than being trapped by events. A bigger political problem is that the government could announce the extra funding and then nobody actually notice any difference to the NHS. Its problems run deeper than money – such as its loss of EU national staff, and the reduced ability to recruit immigrants. The government already claims it has increased funding by a similar amount, and and the NHS winter crisis seems more dire than for many years. The NHS is an organisational monster than can quite happily eat money to no effect: it would takes greater management skills than Mr Johnson’s to achieve anything noticeable.
You don’t have to be much of a cynic, though, to think that Mr Johnson has no intention that the policy actually be implemented, knowing full well that the government will stamp on it, as it duly has. The whole thing is got up to improve his own chances of taking the top job, before a supposed generation of Tory bright young things pushes his generation out of leadership contention. MPs are rumoured to organising a putsch on Theresa May quite soon. There is a snag to that theory, of course: it might work. If Mr Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister, he would be left with the responsibility of managing the NHS.
Which is where the example of Donald Trump is instructive. Mr Trump was elected on a series of unachievable promises, based on a deep emotional appeal. That he has failed to implement many of these does not seem to bother him: he either pretends that he has, or blames some popular scapegoat group for any lack of progress. And it works. His approval ratings may be dismal by the standards of earlier holders of the office in the first year, but support amongst his base looks rock-solid. Few seem prepared to bet against him making it to the end of his term in 2020 and then being re-elected. He does the new politics of emotional manipulation too well.
Is there anything liberal political types can do? Mostly their attacks on populist politicians backfire.They either make dry intellectual arguments using facts, which are then ignored, or express emotional outrage, which tends to simply wind up the populist supporters even more. Trump supporters doubtless think that calling African and Middle Eastern countries “s**t-holes” is merely talking truth to the liberal elite.
People suggest that liberals should follow either or both of two strategies: to meet the populists half-way to undermine them, or to counter emotional appeals with emotional arguments of their own. The former is happening quite a bit already: it is becoming the centre-right mainstream in Europe. That is what the British Conservatives are trying to do, along with similar parties in other European countries – including Germany’s liberal Free Democrats. And it seems to guide the practice of Emmanuel Macron’s French government. While I would like to say that such strategies are doomed, it looks more like a response to political reality. The problem is that it is impossible to back it up with an emotional appeal that will beat the populists. That appeal is based on closet racism and an attachment to old values that contain the seeds of their own destruction: it is an attack on an important part of liberals’ own base.
Having said that there are two emotional strategies that might work: fear and backlash. For the former it is necessary to find a weakness in the populist position that will make people fear for their security and savings. But that is actually quite quite hard: the Remain campaign in the British referendum conspicuously failed, perhaps because the Conservatives in the campaign pulled their punches for the sake of party unity. Mr Macron did succeed in the final round of the French presidential election, however, when Marine le Pen’s ambiguity towards the Euro suddenly frightened a lot of her potential supporters.
The backlash idea takes the emotional appeal of the populists as the starting point, and stokes up outrage amongst those it attacks. But it is quite hard to appeal beyond a minority – populism’s targets are often chosen with care. Not always: the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has real power, feeding off the misogynist attitudes of Mr Trump – that is surely the reason why this campaign is succeeding now where its predecessors over the years have fizzled. Women are not a minority, and you don’t have to be liberal to think that sexual harassment is disgusting.
But both types of emotional appeal suffer a problem in the political sphere. You have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Fighting emotion with emotion leads to either prolonged conflict or depression. In the end society must be healed somehow, and that healing takes place through putting emotions to one side, and understanding what people have in common and using a gradual process of persuasion and confidence building. That is one reason that populists will ultimately fail – and it helps that so many of them, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson included, do not value hard work or competence.
So what is the liberal strategy? They must let the populists burn out and collapse under their own contradictions. And then they must be ready with new ideas that will help society to cohere.