"Democracy versus populism – on the power of parties, history and media", Brian Milne (II/II)


The emergence of parties

Parties as we know them in the modern world arrived in England when the successor to Charles II (son of the executed Charles I), James, was found to be a Catholic. Those parliamentarians who wished to have James excluded from succession to the throne came to be known as Whigs and those supporting him known as Tories. An incidental aside, the two names have inherently negative connotations: ‘Whig’ means a horse driver in Scots Gaelic and ‘Tory’ means outlaw in Irish Gaelic, a less than auspicious beginning to the existence of political parties. Over time Tories came to represent and support the Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) Church, gentry and maintenance of a reasonably strong monarchy, whilst Whigs supported non-Anglican protestants, the wealthy middle class and later on industrial, mercantile interests whilst being generally supportive of the supremacy of parliament’s power to govern, while the authority of monarchy was to be largely reduced. As the power of monarchy declined, those parties gradually transformed in to the conservatives and liberals we have in their respective parties today. What is part of the overall picture today, different forms of socialism and social democracy, actually had quite apolitical origins, in fact in its earliest forms were both influenced by and influenced Thomas Paine. The politicisation followed later. As industrialisation and industrial capitalism replaced monarchy as the most powerful political force, parties changed to align with particular interest groups, thus conservative groups like the Tories remained royalist but were moving closer to capitalist interests, Whigs were becoming modern Liberals and Democrats who were closer to progressive, educated middle classes, whereas socialist parties took sides with workers in lower paid trades and manual labour in general.

During the 19 century the preoccupation with the ‘working class’ led to the divisions that saw derivative forms of socialism emerge as  workers’ associations or cooperatives with individual worker and peasant possession to end private ownership and favour of the nationalisation of land and workplaces. They were, respectively, so-called anarchism and communism, neither of which set out to be or become parties. What they became, as too others that incorporated aspects into their brand of ideology, bears no similarity to the original proposition. What they share is merely a claim that they ‘lead’ the workers for whom they exist. If we retrace history we find pure opportunism whereby the workers’ parties tended to be formed out of the trade unions that were a modern version of what had been trades guilds that were opening to larger membership than their predecessors.

What all types of party had in common was having a strong controlling hand in all public affairs in such a way that they had greater control than any interest group or sector of society. Ministers and secretaries of state often came from sectors in which they had particular interests or investment, thus often spoke through the medium of their party manifesto in such a way they exerted influences that attracted extra-parliamentary members into parties that best represented their interests. As distinct ideologies developed with the support of members, they began to declare they represented the particular interests of those people, thus partisanship without too many questions arose. Again Simone Weil analysed this very precisely when she wrote: ‘When a country has political parties, sooner or later it becomes impossible to intervene effectively in public affairs without joining a party and playing the game. Whoever is concerned for public affairs will wish his concern to bear fruit. Those who care about the public interest must either forget their concern and turn to other things, or submit to the grind of the parties. In the latter case, they shall experience worries that will soon supersede their original concern for the public interest.

In fact – and with very few exceptions – when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, ‘As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that . . .’ It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.’ (p.21)

The dichotomy of politics into left, right and centre is in fact little different to the formation of parties. It dates back to the French Revolution when, in 1789, the National Constitutive Assembly met to decide whether, under France’s new political regime, the king should have the power of veto. If that was to be the case, they asked, should that imperative be absolute or simply suspensive. When they voted either way, supporters of the absolute veto sat on the president’s right, the noble side, which according to Christian tradition, is the honour of being seated at the right side of God or to the right of the head of a family at dinner. Those who wanted a highly restricted, suspensive veto were seated on the left. At the time of the Revolution the notion of having parties had not been part of political thought, except through the eyes of their most favoured philosopher and father of the revolutionary ideology, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as an evil that must be prevented. However there was the Club des Jacobins that was originally a forum for free debate. Its transformation within a short time was never anticipated, but under the pressure of impending war and the ever present threat of being sent to the guillotine, in due course it turned into a totalitarian party.

Bearing in mind the following was written in 1943 whilst the author, a French Jew, was a war refugee in England, we see that very little has changed from their origins to the present: ‘Political parties were established in European public life partly as an inheritance from the Terror, and partly under the influence of British practice. The mere fact that they exist today is not in itself a sufficient reason for us to preserve them. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness. The evils of political parties are all too evident; therefore, the problem that should be examined is this: do they contain enough good to compensate for their evils and make their preservation desirable?

It would be far more relevant, however, to ask: do they do the slightest bit of good? Are they not pure, or nearly pure, evil? If they are evil, it is clear that, in fact and in practice, they can only generate further evil. This is an article of faith: ‘A good tree can never bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree beautiful fruit.’(Weil, p.2)

From later in the 19 century onward, subcategories developed in order to place every political party or their factions on a kind of spectrum from left to right. Thus, political parties can be said to be more or less left wing, more or less right wing or centrist in relation to one another. Individual party members, especially those prominent as actively engaged as parliamentarians or high profile activists can also be categorised, even within their party when they deviate from party ideology. As the vocabulary describing political position developed it expanded into ‘far-right’, ‘far-left’, ‘centre-right’, ‘centre-left’, ‘right-wing coalitions’, ‘left-wing blocks’, ‘left leaning’, ‘right inclined’ and several others. However, they also provide one of the clues to the lie of the populist right-wing parties who deliberately gather support among the lower socioeconomic and least advantaged classes. They deny their own history, in many cases to make themselves more attractive than they would otherwise be, to particularly impressionable people who they can offer all manner of promises. They play the card of the once monarchist, truly patriotic party that has both the nation and its people as its cause, when often such parties attract the most ambitious and covetous individuals who lust for power, wealth and often both.

Populism – Italy and Salvini

The present Italian populism is an interesting example of having fictions become what is accepted as truth. Matteo Salvini, now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, began his political career as a member of the left-wing Leoncavallo that shaped his political orientation before his metamorphosis into the main representative of the right-wing faction of Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania, that is now simply Lega.  Originally they stood for independence of Padania, their name name for the Po Valley, in the north of Italy. They also have a close relationship with the Lega dei Ticinesi in the Italian speaking Swiss canton Ticino with whom they share an interest in the Insubria project, a historical-geographical region which corresponds to the Duchy of Milan  that existed from 1395 until 1810 when it formally became part of Lombardy at first under Austria then later Sardinian rule. In 1861 it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. For several centuries it was an area stretching between two rivers, the Adda in the east and Sesia in the west, between the San Gottardo Pass in the north and the Po in the south, thus larger than Padania. Either as a part or whole of the old Duchy of Milan, the area has never been independent, having been first a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, then crown land of France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburg monarchies respectively. Lega became Alleanza Nord, a merger of Lega Lombarda and Liga Veneta, eventually amalgamating sister movements in Piedmont, Liguria, Emiliano-Romagnola and Tuscany. The present configuration is neither exclusive to Padania nor Insubria, but simply most of northern Italy, the area wealthier than the south. In any of the forms it has adopted or aspired to, it is nostalgia for the rebirth of a territory that has never been independent, as least since 1395. Northwest and northeast Italy are very dissimilar culturally, linguistically and historically, have even been enemies. Bringing them together is without historic foundation. Now Lega appear to have given up their cause founded on the idea that northern Italy should secede from the south and has become a national part by abandoning their argument that the north discard the poorer south that has always been its burden. It has been a process of invention and reinvention that has captured hearts and minds, but when scrutinised is simply a product of propaganda that relies on the ignorance of the people it attracts.


Matteo Salvini

There are also significant contradictions in the position of right-wing populist parties as champions of the poor and oppressed, given that whilst they have mostly been anti-monarchist, their roots have most often been monarchist and sometimes still undergoing a transformation from pro-monarchists. They are always conservative, often nationalist and frequently proclaim their version of Christianity as a fundamental value, thus not historically workers’ parties at all given the secular or religion neutral and internationalist basis on which those were mainly founded. Spain stands out as an exception after being declared a republic by a short lived left-wing government in 1931; from 1936 to 39 Francisco Franco led a pro-monarchist nationalist alliance that won the civil war. He formally declared it a kingdom in 1947, although the monarchy was not actually restored until after his death in 1975. Other populist movements are simply regional; some of them even creating an image of an old ethnically distinct group that has been oppressed and absorbed to the point of near extinction they will turn around. Thus Lega has gone from being a regional independence party to possessing a national identity with people they proclaim to be their natural following very successfully by carefully handpicking their political manifesto that includes forgetting their original exclusively localised ambitions. They have transmuted from a movement to a party without formally denouncing their past. Furthermore, in the 1980s, even as a separatist movement they proclaimed left-wing ideals that have now been transformed into essentially hard right ideology. In simple terms, it is pick and choose politics where the ‘ingredients’ that have appeal in left-wing movements have been snatched up and carefully absorbed into their apparatus to make them attractive for grassroots voters. Thus far populist parties have not shown signs of any becoming pro-monarchist, although their propositions are not always clearly republican. As Napoleon Bonaparte should remind us that the line between a supreme leader, for instance a dictator, can easily be crossed into becoming a monarch. It is a tendency toward the disingenuous rather than the unambiguous that is ever present in the presentation of nationalism that inevitably relies on reconstructed histories of times when kings and queens were often recognised for heroic leadership of ‘their’ people. As it is, a number of men who have become president of their nation have been the first of a dynasty where that line is blurred. For them, the vagueness between idealised history and their form of power is the lie that lends legitimacy to their position.

Populism and nationalism

It is therefore extraordinary to look back over history at how political parties evolved. In most cases they were a development that began as rivalry between absolute-monarchist and pro-parliamentary with less royal powers groups within parliaments that eventually directed their countries toward constitutional rather than absolute monarchy and then on to abolishing or at least diminishing royal rule. The factionalism that bred the extremes within parties and the differences between them relied on, and to this day still relies on, different presentations of nation, past, present and future. Sifting through those differences there is no absolute certainty any of them will be the truth, indeed even where truth is present it is usually embellished with reconstructed history. In that respect, even nostalgia of the kind we are experiencing at present is as much self-deception as it a ruse to make an impossible return to the values of a glorified past. Nations and their people who populists proclaim as unique are now becoming embroiled in a contradiction as one of their most prominent political faces at present, Salvini, wants to bring together nationalist movements and parties across Europe. Those are, he said, parties who wish to defend their people and borders against outsiders, that he calls ‘free and sovereign movements’. Whilst being a Eurosceptic, he is also proposing to bring together groups which, on the basis of their ideologies, exist exclusively for and within their own countries. Such an alliance would thus be a consolidation of nationalist groups who reject internationalism to oppose a union that came to be for a large part as a force against nationalism and the wars it has caused over the centuries. It suggests there is good reason to suspect the motives of movements who respond to his appeal. Consolidation and success would end liberal democracy as we know it, exactly one of the things already common to regimes in Hungary and Poland where institutions such as judiciary are ousted and media are being subjected to intervention that is seeing interference, censorship and complete domination increasing, reminding us repeatedly of Germany immediately after the election of 1933.

Part of the greater dilemma is how governments use their powers. At present in the UK we are seeing the governing Tories excluding a large part of the electorate who voted against Brexit by use of the expression ‘will of the people’ as though the result of the referendum was unanimous. Theresa May has also claimed to have the entire population of 65 million behind her. However, look closer. We have been told very often that there are around three million EU nationals in the UK. There are also citizens of the 53 countries in the commonwealth plus Irish nationals. There are unknown numbers of others from other countries that include a probable legitimate number, but also uncountable illegal immigrants. The majority of people definably resident at the time of a national census are counted. That was her 65 million. The June 2016 referendum was extended to the over 46 million registered voters who include commonwealth and Irish citizens; of the total population, 19 million were excluded by being under the age of electoral franchise or excluded for such reasons as being imprison or simply not registered but also over one million of the estimated over 13 million UK nationals living abroad, of whom UK authorities believe 1.2 million are in EU states, but estimates run as high as three million, were excluded under the ’15 year rule’. There were also three million EU nationals who were excluded, except Cypriots and Maltese who are also commonwealth citizens and Irish nationals. An estimated 167,000 postal ballots were rejected and an unknown number either sent out to late to return or did not arrive although people were registered. When May made her claim of having the support of 65 million people, we can already calculate that that was fewer than 42 million, allowing for only around 23 million we know were not included, but then more than 16 million did not vote to leave the EU which brings her support down to lower than 27 million of the 65 million in her claim. Again a political fabrication; call it what one will; a lie or fake news by any standard.

Professionally I have seen enough regimes where egos comparable with the one running amok in the USA at present were running the country. Working in those countries, some of them ‘communist’, others military juntas and others simply corrupt dictatorships,  I could never feel free, because there was always somebody ‘breathing down my neck’ in case I learned something, heard something or worse than that, I discussed something that was critical of the regime and its head especially. I did, of course, report negatively, knowing I would never work in those countries again whether I wanted to or not. The USA was still considered the model of democracy and global progress then, for many people in this world that persists, for them the USA represents freedom. The hard line Trump is proceeding along is precisely the inspiration the right needed. Now he seems to be moving into overdrive to drive populists into a frenzy that will stir up the people who believe that they will make the world better for them to go out to elect. The right is gaining momentum in Europe with nobody doing anything substantial to turn that round, to recuperate lost ground in what were liberal democracies that emerged from the grossness and ruins of WW2. The left and centre are floundering wondering how to gain or regain power, thus missing what is happening under their noses. Nationalism is resurgent and internationalism being kicked into the long grass. Recently Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times hit the nail square on the head in one of the closing sentences of a critical article about the present. What he wrote, ‘The blooding process has begun within the democratic world.’ is frighteningly true if we look about us in the world; fascism has every prospect of returning as we believed never again, but this time it knows what mistakes it made last time. Trump is a warning, but also a symptom of a malaise that is killing democracy. Now is the time for people who have the courage and will to act rather that sit waiting to be invited to their own ideological funeral along with democracy.

Parties in competition

Politics has been contained as a form of contest between parties but not as interest groups representing particular constituencies. When parties were forming within parliaments, they basically consisted of monarchists, those who wanted another royal family and those who were opposed to monarchy to some degree. The common people were of little interest to them, especially because they could not vote – that was a privilege for a quite small minority of men. In Western Europe, that tunnel vision was disturbed by the Enlightenment which in turn contributed to the appearance of early ‘socialists’ who were actually non-political in the sense that they put the common people before the privileged minority. That clearly contributed to the configuration of overtly anti-royalist parties and, very early on, created the need for a fixed party ideology that transformed loyalty to the crown into party loyalty, in turn into what has become partisan alignment. Since universal franchise began people have often stuck with one party for generations, sons as their fathers, but in many cases have no notion or care what that party’s actual ideology is. If one takes the UK, with its so-called mother of parliaments and all the mythology attached, no party dares to be overtly anti-royalist because that is said to be unpatriotic, although their origins may well have been republican. Certainly liberals, now Liberal Democrats, can trace parts of their origin back to Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’ from 1653 to 58 where the proposition was as it was named, the common wealth of the nation. Despite the sentiment, the implied equality did not happen. Rather than be a pioneering nation that broke the European mould, they brought back monarchy then set the course for parties to start the process toward modern politics. Although some political rights were extended further than before, voting was still a minority privilege, most certainly not even giving women due consideration for two and a half centuries.

Fast forward, after 1789 into the 1790s, the French Revolution allowed what might have settled down to be an apolitical system become a party oriented system. Not only did royalists hide behind their new ‘conservatism until they could restore or replace the old regime, but allowed already strong religious influences to shape emergent parties. Saying separation of religion and politics is stating an ideal, however politics lost all ideals it my ever have had by the mid 19 century, then watched capitalism take over the strings from the church without dropping the veil of religious morality they could hide behind whenever necessary. Thus parties are an aberration, but one we are stuck with, that even undermine principles a nation is built on such as the constitution of the USA. Since we are stuck with them, one might simply say they should at least raise their own money from members, rather than earn generous politicians’ salaries, but in an ideal world they would simply disappear. That would necessarily need to be without any movement dominating to bring about  a one party state as some countries did to the extent that the single remaining party was actually only predicated on a kind of perverse ideology that only called itself a party since in a party system, a single party is not possible.

The US constitution does not mention parties as either mandatory or optional but that does not mean that it has the power to prohibit or direct them. There again, the constitution does not include an official language in the USA, although English was perhaps taken for granted since the nation was ‘born’ in the 13 colonies that fought their way out of British rule. Almost as soon as the ink was figuratively dry, the nation was expanding to take in former French and Spanish territories without taking in those languages. Indigenous languages appear never to have been on the agenda, indeed every attempt was made to eliminate them entirely.   The contemporary political party system in the USA is effectively a two party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party although there are around 45 functioning parties nationally. These two parties have won every US presidential election since 1852 and controlled the Congress to some extent since at least 1856. Although the notions of left and right are used, sometimes more libertarian Democrats referred to as socialists, the reality is that there is probably far more difference between factions in the two parties than there is between the actual parties according to electoral manifestos. Democracy is shaped by the interpretation of the agenda on which the party in power defines it. At present, Donald Trump has gone far further to the political right than most of his party’s members. He is also a president who has never wasted his breath on praising predecessors, but thus far has never spoken out against the founding fathers or George Washington who would not approve of contemporary US governance that defies the principles that were behind the constitution they gave life to.


It is ironic that in the UK the memory of Winston Churchill is so often invoked as a great patriot at the point in time the country is withdrawing from the EU given that he was an advocate of a federal Europe, which toward the end of his life he even foresaw the UK part of, and is considered one its founding fathers. Again, those deceitfully using Churchill as a beacon to illuminate their version of what he was are omitting what he said about democracy and governance, cited at the beginning of this article. That is pick and choose history in which the true accounts are omitted in order to construct hyperbole because facts too often give rise to opposing arguments. I imagine that Churchill would have read Weil’s essay in which her first assumption was that the parties and those in a parliament prevent democracy, meaning the electorate, finding out what the true, correct solutions to problems are. That most certainly describes the present UK situation and, assuming we can still call it a liberal democracy, the USA despite Trump. Had Weil been alive now she would probably have critically revisited the opposing positions of Burke and Rousseau, found that it would be better to oppose both the direction Burke’s conservatism led to and the over interpretation of Rousseau by revolutionaries and, in turn, fascists who adopted some of the mantle of revolutionary thought. She may well have taken note of Theresa May’s use of the expression ‘will of the people’ that is so close to Rousseau’s ‘general will’, which is a means of escaping the predisposition toward enthusiasm in all arguments for use of ‘the will of the people’ that becomes invalid the moment there is actually any form of resistance such as a challenge to the claims of nationalists, fear of counterrevolution against what is actually exclusively the will of government or even the kind of confrontation there is at present between the two ‘tribes’ of ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ in the case of Brexit. Those change it in to ‘the will of some people’ which is not useful political rhetoric.

So here we are with Trump, Orbán, Salvini and others who use populist messages that are carefully embellished to gain and hold widespread electoral support. The most successful tool at present is fear of the other which manifests itself in the shape of immigrants. It has maintained others in office, May for example, and is threatening to undermine the position of others such as Angela Merkel. Trump has been a pioneer of political chicanery of a kind seldom tolerated in a true democracy. Every possible titbit of gossip through to exaggerated claims about Hillary Clinton as a rival contender for the US presidency was heaped into the pages of all available media. Even Clinton supporting media repeated accusations in detail before reports then moved on to repudiation. Fake news, targeted propaganda and all manner of less than honest reports were used in such a way that they overshadowed the many reasons the US electorate had for not trusting, thus electing, Donald Trump. It worked. Nobody has successfully cried ‘Foul!’, although it has been attempted. The Republicans won, by their democratic standard that is all that counts.  Orbán, and Salvini are both in high office because they stirred emotions, their questionable pasts are overlooked because the propaganda machinery that worked for them painted their rivals as worse. In the UK, May contemptuously uses untruths, allows her cabinet to do the same, yet whilst the truth is available to those who wish to see it, she still holds office and may well see the present term out. Voters appear either so used to not having the truth or have simply given up and become complacent, so that with trust in politicians almost completely gone, no effort is really made to protest with the intent of removing them from office. The two sides stand firm against each other, Leavers and Remainers, locked in a slow motion battle of words that appears to go nowhere. The opposition is generally not opposing, not even as a gesture that would convince people to vote for them next election. Democracy is in some kind of stasis, perhaps close to death, the main parties are moving in the same direction although saying very different things and there we find Weil yet again, back in 1943, describing the illness that has dulled minds to take a strong hold of the political world and determine political alignments:

Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking.

This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.’ (page 32)

For democracy to be real, the hypocrisy of parties who play out the role of defenders of democracy, whereby no description matches another, that use hyperbole and even blatant lies to take and hold office must be dismantled. In that respect the EU is failing dismally since each of the political blocs in its parliament contain at least one party that does not fall in line with an intended shared ideological framework. Thus, not only is it a further level of factionalising by grouping but even then there is no consistency. The only ones that actually appear consistent are the two hard right wing groups, Europe of Nations and Freedom and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, that are both essentially anti-EU, although the fact the two are separate also adds a grain of doubt to their substance. Too many parties, in too many blocs, with so many ideological positions and no assured consistency within their groups does not inspire confidence. At this point in time when truth can be so easily dismissed by somebody calling it fake news and untruths can be widely acclaimed as facts, Weil’s leprosy is already spreading; a cure can only happen if we contain further contamination whilst looking at the bacterium under a microscope, then finding treatment to contain it until the remedy is discovered then shown to work. It is perhaps too late to actually ever abolish political parties, but there is always the compromise that would allow people to be elected as party members who once in parliament will not sit in party blocks, not debate and vote under party directives but as representatives of constituencies who take their party line and their constituents’ views into full consideration then, unfashionably, put country before party. If Europe is going to be successful, our continent must be innovative, trying political approaches that have never been tried in the modern political world, thus bringing us closer together instead of running the risk of too many parties and groups opposing each other that it slows governance to close to permanent deadlock. I have relied on Simone Weil a great deal, not absolutely because her essay contains solutions, rather more because it is full of clues. That 75 years on from when it was written so much has changed little, if at all, should be an alarm bell that we cannot refuse to hear. We can begin by examining history, warts and all, learning from mistakes and not reconstructing versions that make nations rivals, then we can move on to the most difficult step. Honesty.

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