Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The rise of the new populism

Yes, yes, I know I've been silent, but it's been the start of teaching period and the new semester, so I've been busy.

To be honest, so much is happening that it's a problem holding myself back from writing. There's no need to chain myself to the keyboard, that's for sure.

What's most interesting about the past week or so is the rise of a new type of economic populism. The rich? They're a problem. Financiers with titles, such as the notorious and now-ex 'Sir' Fred Goodwin? Strip of them their baubles. High earners? Make sure they don't earn multiples of fifty or sixty more than their cleaners. Tax evasion? Close it down. Make everyone pay the same income tax rate.

Everything we're seeing - Royal Bank of Scotland bosses being forced to pass up massive bonuses; Newt Gingrich's insurgency against Mitt Romney's taxes and high living; President Obama's State of the Union Address, praying in aid the so-called 'Buffett rule' under which executives shouldn't pay less tax than their secretaries; Francois Hollande (above) and his 'war' on the financial sector as the French Socialists' candidate for President this spring, and his proposed Financial Transactions Tax... All of it says that we are now in an age of economic populism and discontent with our economic elites.

It has to be said that this is hardly a surprise, given that those elites have led us to the brink of a financial abyss that Greece and others (or everyone) might yet fall into. But it's an interesting counterpoint to the politics of attacking the poor and blaming welfare recipients for our problems - citizens who, whatever their strengths or flaws, had absolutely nothing to do with taking the world's money and ladling it into a blast furnace.

It reminds me and others of the days of President Theodore Roosevelt's 'new populism' - hardly socialist or radical, but muscular, aggressive, progressive, alert to vested interests and drawing on deep roots nurtured by ideas of what is fair, what is moral, and what is right. What will it mean in politics? It should be a gift for the Left, and indeed President Obama's ratings are steadily (if gently) rising, and Hollande is likely to become French President this year. Ed Miliband looks less secure, despite his many tactical victories, from phone-hacking to RBS. Why? Er, he doesn't look 'Prime Ministerial'. Voters thought the same of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s and early 1990s, whatever his many qualities, and look what happened to him.

NB: It's been another record month for 'Public Policy and the Past', with traffic to the site doubling on its level in October and November. Do keep reading - I appreciate it!

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