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The Spectator's Notes

I’m a part of the elite. So why am I cheering for the populist right?

If, in a parliamentary democracy, the establishment and the people diverge, one must surely bet that the elites are wrong

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

‘Are you Charles Moore of The Spectator?’ I answered to that description. ‘Well,’ said my questioner, ‘I am worried that you’re becoming very right-wing.’ We were sitting by the fire in a charming, smoky hut with no electric light and lots to eat and drink. It was a shooting lunch, the sort of occasion where one is seldom held to account for anything. I could have tried to laugh the question off, but my interrogator exhibited high intelligence and class confidence, so I sensed she wouldn’t let me get away with that. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to answer her.

I am not offended by being called right-wing, because I don’t agree with the left-wing view that right-wingery is a mark of personal turpitude. I don’t much like the term, though, because it suggests a rigid ideological position. I prefer the word ‘conservative’, because it expresses a disposition, not a programme. But my companion was obviously raising the matter because of my — and her — reactions to this strange year. So I tried to analyse with her what these times mean, and work out whether they were driving me to some extreme of which I had been unaware. Was I guilty as charged?

It is true that I am thrilled by Brexit (assuming it actually happens), somewhat pleased by the defeats of Hillary Clinton and Matteo Renzi, and more interested than horrified by the victory of Donald Trump. On the other hand, I don’t actually like any of the great populist institutions of the age — Mr Trump, Vladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, the Daily Mail, Breitbart, or the ex-populist, now EU lackey, Alexis Tsipras. Instinctively, I prefer a more establishment style — courteous, gently humorous, inclined to admit error when challenged rather than to shout louder. I admire the Queen. I want archbishops, generals and senior judges to be intimidating (though kindly) people who find it hard to unbend. I am upset that the Speaker no longer wears a wig. There aren’t many traditions I wish to overthrow. I hate politicians tweeting, appearing in dance programmes, or abusing parliamentary privilege to denounce supposed child molesters.

So, if the free world is riven by a battle between the highly educated elites of which I am, I suppose, a part and a bunch of seditious oafs and show-offs, why do I nowadays find myself inclined to the latter? It may sound Marxist to say this, but I do think the elites have constructed a world order which serves their interests, not those of their subject populations. You see it in little things, like the fact that European commissioners, when they leave their posts, receive enormous ‘transition’ payments (it was reported that Peter Mandelson got £1 million) on top of their salaries and pensions. You see it in big things, like the fact that nearly half the young people of Spain, Italy and Greece have to go without jobs in order to enforce Germanic theories about central banking and Brussels doctrines about European integration. In the second half of the 20th century, the huge projects to which the western world bent its mind more or less worked — the Marshall Plan, Nato, the United Nations Security Council, even the European Community, when it had only six members. What are the equivalent achievements in the 21st century? A pseudo-virtuous climate change agreement reached only because its members know it won’t be observed. A banking crisis resolved in the interests of bankers. A threat from Islamist terrorism which the outgoing President of the most powerful nation on earth still cannot admit even exists.

The response of elites to their failures is too often to stigmatise the people who complain. Those who protest at immigration levels ten times higher than 30 years ago are treated as racists. Even the ballot box itself is seen as ‘populist’. Remainers argue that the referendum issues were ‘too complicated’ for voters. They seem actively to dislike the idea that our nation should once more be governed by its elected representatives. Having failed electorally, they turn to ‘lawfare’ — preferring a case before the Supreme Court to the direct implementation of what Parliament handed to the people to decide. Voters now believe that their rulers really do not like them very much, so the feeling becomes mutual.

In this respect, the culture war matters. You cannot go on saying that white straight males are brutes without eventually annoying them (and even a significant proportion of what John Prescott used to call their ‘womenfolk’). The cultural signals from the powerful are almost unthinkingly hostile to majority populations. This month, to take a minor example, a report into ‘diversity’ in the theatre commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber reported (reusing a phrase from Greg Dyke years ago) that it is ‘hideously white’. Why should the dominant racial characteristic of all western societies be considered ‘hideous’? If you said that anything was ‘hideously black’ you would (rightly) be shunned by polite society. Such asymmetry inspires revolt. The rise of Trumpery shows that the right has learnt a tactic of the left, which is to play up grievance to get power, money and attention. Grievance politics is extremely unattractive, but if western societies no longer deliver rising general prosperity and disrespect the people whom they are failing to serve, what do you expect?

Our conversation by the fire ceased: there was one more drive before dark. I stood in an enormous, old, disused walled garden as the dusk crept in, and shot a few pheasants and partridge. Was this column, as my critic perhaps implied, doing its tiny bit accidentally to hasten the twilight of the European civilisation we share and love? It is not the sort of accusation which one can disprove. But if, in a parliamentary democracy, the elites and the voters markedly diverge, one must surely bet that the elites are likelier to be wrong. Strange if this has now become a ‘right-wing’ thought.

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