Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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