When The Spectator was founded 188 years ago, it became part of what would now be described as a populist insurgency. An out-of-touch Westminster elite, we said, was speaking a different language to the rest of London, let alone the rest of the country. Too many ‘of the bons mots vented in the House of Commons appear stale and flat by the time they have travelled as far as Wellington Street’. This would be remedied, we argued, by extending the franchise and granting the vote to the emerging middle class. Our Tory critics said any step towards democracy — a word which then caused a shudder — would start a descent into chaos. On the contrary, we said, the choice was between reform or a ‘revolution of the most sweeping character’.
After some struggle, the British political system’s sense of self-preservation kicked in and the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed. That year was tumultuous, certainly, but less so than the revolutions that went on to sweep so much of unreformed Europe.
For all of its anachronisms, the British parliamentary system has proved itself to be the most responsive in the world. For almost two centuries, it has offered a lesson in how to handle what is too often called populism: if you respond to what is troubling people, the ‘populism’ tends to go away.
It might well be that 2016 will be remembered as a year when one decaying order finally collapsed and a new one took its place. New, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean better. What happens next in Britain remains an open question: Brexit is not (as some of its more naive cheerleaders suggest) a guarantee of a better future. It is merely the removal of a constraint. Whether we flourish or flounder will depend on how well, or badly, Theresa May and her successors handle the transition.