Tony Blair is against populism because, in reality, he is against democracy

The one good thing about Tony Blair’s intervention on any issue on which I disagree with him is that his intervention is usually detrimental to his cause. The level of belief in his own involvement stands in exact inverse proportion to its reception from the British public. And is it any wonder?

Let us look at what Mr Blair is now arguing. First, he denounces what he terms ‘frightening populism’. Let us just look at the definition of populism:

noun: populism
support for the concerns of ordinary people.
“it is clear that your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder”
the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.
“art museums did not gain bigger audiences through a new populism”
[Source: Google]

Others define populism as a political doctrine that believes the common people are exploited by a privileged ruling elite and seeks to remedy this problem.

The issue here is that populism is being used as a derogatory term for anybody who happens to espouse policies that the majority of people actually want. In truth, it is often bandied around when the people vote or demand policies that do not accord with the majority view amongst the ruling elite. Blair may despise what he calls populism but he sounds troublingly like Sir Humphrey Appleby in this scene from Yes Prime Minister.

In comments made with no hint of irony whatsoever, Blair has claimed that he wants to combat the populism which is undermining the west’s belief in democracy. He goes on to argue – as stated in The Guardian – ‘Labour’s “essential duty” was that the party should be opposed to Brexit at any cost, keeping open an option that allows the British people to think again if they dislike the deal secured Theresa May’. In other words, democracy is being undermined because the will of the people is being enacted. What is popular doesn’t accord with the prevailing view among the ruling elites and thus democracy, according to Blair, is being undermined. He is, therefore, setting up an organisation that will undermine the popular vote in order to promote the views that he has determined are in the best interests of the people (even if they have voted to say they don’t want them).

In a psephocracy such as ours, elected representatives are vested with power by the people. Whilst they are, as Edmund Burke argued, able to exercise their own judgement, their power comes from the people. That is, if the people don’t like what they are doing they can vote to remove them at the next General Election. This means, at least to some degree, all politicians ought to be concerned with populism. There should be a conscious effort on the part of politicians to act in line with the will of the people. After all, it is the people who put them into power and it is the people who will determine whether they ought to stay there. When it comes to referenda – when our elected representatives defer a decision back to the people in a direct democratic vote – it is all the more important that the decision is upheld. Though any elected representative can, in the ordinary scheme of things, claim to be using their judgement on behalf of the people, they cannot make this argument in respect to the result of a referendum in which they took the decision – as is their prerogative – to devolve their decision-making power back to the people.

It is, therefore, rich for Tony Blair to decry populism and argue that it is responsible for undermining democracy. His call to stand against populism by refusing to support the Brexit vote is itself an undermining of western democracy. The elected representatives of the people chose to delegate their democratically mandated decision-making powers back to the people. Just as the people voted for their representatives to make the decision, the representatives deferred back to the people on the matter of continued EU membership. Having given their decision, albeit a close-run one, it is democratically vital for the elected representatives to enact the will of the people. It is not the people who voted for Brexit who undermine democracy. They, just like our elected representative, used their own judgement to make their own decision. Just as our elected representatives used their judgement to defer back to the people, the people used their judgement to vote to leave the European Union. It is not the people who vote – regardless of which way they voted – who undermine democracy, it is those who insist that the will of the people should be ignored who hold democracy in contempt.

The irony, of course, seems entirely lost on Tony Blair. For one, he decries what he sees as populism leading to the Brexit vote. Yet populism suggests that the people are being exploited by a self-interested ruling elite. What exactly does Blair think this intervention is doing to undercut that presumption? His view is manifestly that the people voted wrongly and the ruling elite ought to do all within their power to stand against their decision. Might it be, just possibly, that this sort of view is what drives the populism he so resents? To be asked your opinion then told you are a stupid dupe when you express it, and then to be told because of your gullible idiocy we – that is those in power – must do all we can to make sure we undermine your ridiculous decision, hardly screams we are servants of the people working in your interests nor undercuts the central claim of populism.

It is also interesting that Blair continues to presume this is a ‘right-wing authoritarian populism’. He knows his intervention will be met with force but states: ‘I am aware of all the problems and baggage I bring with me. The moment I even start to engage with this, I will have a phalanx of rightwing papers that are going to go into kill mode’. But what of the double leadership win of Jeremy Corbyn? Clearly here is a level of populism being promulgated on the left. And it can’t have escaped his notice that some of his fiercest critics come, not from the right, but from these quarters. Ask the so-called Corbynistas about the biggest threat to the Labour Party and you will almost certainly hear them say Blairites. I think this video from the most recent Labour leadership contest rather sums up the attitude from many on the left too.

These sorts of interventions do his cause no favours at all.

I am not of the view that those who voted to remain in the EU must now shut up. I do not believe that democracy demands they can no longer make the arguments they think are relevant. Just as nobody is called to say nothing for five years if their preferred government isn’t elected, I don’t think remainers are democratically bound to say nothing on the issue forevermore. What I am clear about is that the will of the people should not be frustrated.

When Scotland voted to remain in the UK, whilst the SNP and other nationalists were quite within their rights to continue making the case for independence, it would have been wrong for them to seek to push through independence despite the result. When the government you want isn’t elected, whilst you are entitled to continue making your case and holding that government to account, you are not permitted to install your own party despite the result of the election. In the same way, remainers are entitled to continue stating their case and holding the government to account for impact of their decision-making now we are leaving the EU, but they do not have the right to seek to keep us in the EU come what may in spite of the referendum result.

This is the fundamental problem with Tony Blair’s intervention. He has made it quite clear the Labour Party should ‘be opposed to Brexit at any cost’. To be so is to hold the people, and democracy itself, in utter contempt. There is a legitimate case to be made that all we have decided is to leave the EU but the terms on which we have decided to leave were not listed on the ballot. Therefore, there is a legitimate argument to be had as to what represents an acceptable deal. What is not legitimate is to openly work against the result of the referendum or to surreptitiously seek to keep us in all the mechanisms of the EU without official membership. Either position is to effectively stick two fingers up at the British public.

I shall leave the final word to Tony Benn in which he is quite clear about where the power comes from, the fundamental issue with the EU and perhaps why Tony Blair (in respect to Peter Mandelson) has form on this issue:

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