The Peter Young Column: Populism And Nationalism - What Happens When The People Feel Abandoned

Critics of the spread of populism are quick to blame leaders like President Trump for cashing in on all this by promising to overturn the status quo and restore the rights of individuals.

Critics of the spread of populism are quick to blame leaders like President Trump for cashing in on all this by promising to overturn the status quo and restore the rights of individuals.


Peter Young

It is said the rise of populism is a dangerous phenomenon in world politics. This has come to the forefront again following the heavy losses suffered by the mainstream political parties in last month’s European Parliament poll. A wave of populism arising from antagonism between voters and the so-called political elite is sweeping through Europe and the issue will doubtless be debated once more in the run-up to next year’s US presidential election.

Populism has been defined as a political stance or approach that seeks to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns and interests are disregarded by established elite groups, especially those promoting globalisation, and it is normally associated with right-wing politics. But others maintain, rather than categorising it in this way as a political movement, it should be described more accurately as an expression of resentment against existing authorities - elected politicians and governments, big business, multinational corporations and banks - which are claimed to be depriving the people of their rights and prosperity.

So this can be considered as a reflection of the public’s dissatisfaction with the ineptitude and hypocrisy of the existing political class in a situation that leaves people feeling marginalised and left behind by a global economy, technological change and growing inequality. They also perceive politicians as being more interested in feathering their own nests than protecting the interests of their constituents when it is clear that power and wealth in the world is in the hands of too few at the top of the tree.

Critics of the spread of populism are quick to blame leaders like President Trump for cashing in on all this by promising to overturn the status quo and restore the rights of individuals. But, in so doing, such leaders are accused of distorting the truth and stoking up anger and division and preaching that existing democratic freedoms are insufficient while failing to propose an alternative way forward. Such critics consider populism is dangerous because it can destabilize society.

That is the received wisdom among political scientists, but perhaps it underestimates the reality that it is the people with genuine concerns who are speaking and that in practice this is not really distinct or far removed from democracy itself. To that extent, it can be argued populism is democracy in action through direct contact with people – for example, the Trump mass rallies and his endless tweeting. Nonetheless, it seems some politicians remain complacent and increasingly disrespect the electorate while conveniently forgetting their existence in positions of power and influence is dependent on the will of the people.

The debate about populism invariably includes not only globalisation but also the related important issues of nationalism and patriotism that some regard, incorrectly, as virtually synonymous.

The nation-state in today’s world can be traced back to the break-up of the medieval structures in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries into groupings of people united by language, culture and customs. This led to establishment of control over territories that developed into countries. The concept of national sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of others dates back to what became known as Westphalian sovereignty -- from the peace treaty of that name in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

This also saw the birth of nationalism. The traditional definition is the readiness of people in a territory with shared interests to establish an independent state, and it is generally accepted democracy works best within such a state. Nationalism creates a sense of community and belonging and, as such, has for long been considered the foundation and basis of modern society. But there is also the darker side of people behaving belligerently because they consider their country superior to others. This may be seen to justify not only the legitimate pursuit of a country’s interests but also projection of those interests at the expense of others and, ultimately, domination of them, and that can lead to xenophobia and racism or even war. This was recognised by the European Union whose founding principle was that integration was essential because nationalism causes war, though this is a questionable claim when trans-national ideologies like fascism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism have caused the worst conflicts of the modern era.

The ugly side of nationalism can lead to demagogy and totalitarianism. It is also the antithesis of globalisation, but the rise of supra-national institutions - and even the doctrine of the international community - have weakened the aggressive nationalism of the past while the benefits of economic globalisation, bringing millions out of poverty and reducing inequality, will help further.

By comparison, patriotism is seen as positive because it means admiration for and love of one’s country together with feelings of pride and loyalty and a belief in, and appreciation of, its values and way of life. But this is generally in a passive manner that eschews jingoism and aggression.

Attitudes do, of course, vary considerably. But, while pride in one’s country is desirable, globalisation involving elimination of barriers to trade and the promotion of improved communications and exchanges at all levels among nations should surely also be welcomed. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum - you can’t please all of the people all the time. But it is now up to politicians to find a way of bringing huge numbers of disaffected people back into the fold.


Clive Lloyd lifted the cricket World Cup twice for the West Indies.

Oh to be at the Oval, on West Bay Street

Fans of the great game of cricket will be enjoying the spectacle of the World Cup now taking place in England and Wales. Ten countries are involved in a competition being played over a period of six weeks culminating in a final at the iconic ground of Lord’s, the headquarters of world cricket, on July 14. So far, it has been sunny and dry and a good summer is forecast.

The West Indies team has begun successfully with what famous former captain Clive Lloyd described as a clinical win over Pakistan which is considered a top team. During the heyday of West Indian cricket in the 1980s, teams comprising players mainly from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad were formidable competitors who dominated their rivals in world cricket with classy and inspired batting and athletic fast bowlers who struck fear in even the most experienced batsmen.

Here in Nassau, the Haynes Oval on West Bay Street is home to the Bahamas Cricket Association and is a fine venue for the game. Cricket is said to be the oldest sport being played in the country since it dates back to 1846, and the national team now plays in the International Cricket Council Americas Championship.

The cricket club’s restaurant and pub, pictured left, has deservedly become very popular. Owned and operated by Chris Robertson, who hails from Sussex in southern England, and his Bahamian wife Connie, it is open all hours of the day and offers splendid Bahamian and English cuisine together with a wide range of beers and other drinks, all at reasonable prices and in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. One can either stay inside in the air conditioned bar and watch live sporting events on large TV screens or sit outside on the balcony and watch a little cricket or admire the ocean view.

Great surroundings, great hospitality and a great experience - and don’t miss the full English breakfast which seems to be on the menu all day long. Congratulations to Chris and Connie who have been running this highly successful restaurant and bar for no less than 22 years – long may they continue to do so and to prosper!


Would-be PM Boris Johnson.

Boris in the dock? What a British farce

For those who follow the news in Britain, I wonder whether any were as shocked as I was at the recent announcement that Boris Johnson – the colourful and charismatic MP and former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London and now frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest – was facing a court summons on a charge of misconduct in public office.

Curious to learn whether this might have been a spoof, I was dismayed to discover it was indeed true. He is being dragged before the courts to answer a criminal charge that, in public comments before the 2016 referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, he had lied by saying Britain gave the equivalent of $450 million per week to the EU as a membership fee when the figure was quite a lot less because of an annual rebate.

Still reeling, I learnt this was a private prosecution by a member of the public who reportedly admitted he was hoping Brexit would be cancelled. A district judge sitting in Westminster Magistrates’ Court ordered the case should be sent to the Crown Court for trial before a jury.

Whether or not the facts as presented by Mr Johnson during the referendum campaign were accurate, the evidence suggests he used the figure in good faith and that his briefing was faulty. So it was clearly not a deliberate lie. But, even if it were, this would not have been a surprise because the sad truth is politicians on the campaign trail constantly lie, and that is the nature of politics. Nonetheless, this surely should not have developed into a criminal case. His lawyer is reported to have said it is the first time in English legal history that the criminal law is being used to regulate the content and quality of political debate. Flying in the face of hundreds of years of democratic tradition, it constitutes an attack on free speech. Commentators consider this is politically motivated and, in legal terms, vexatious. Politicians should not be taken to court for dissembling or making false promises because they do this all the time; and contending opinions and vigorous argument - even if the facts may not always be wholly accurate - are the essence of democracy. Charges of misconduct in public life should be reserved for abuse of public office and not used for lying or making contested claims based on disputed facts in heated political debate - and, most importantly, MPs need extensive free speech protection so that debate can be fierce and fearless.

This case may be bordering on the farcical, but it is also depressing - even sinister - in Britain’s ordered society that the judiciary should involve itself in the political process and seek to interfere with free speech in this way. The English legal system is based on the common law with judges exercising commonsense. So one can only hope wiser heads will prevail and the case will be thrown out by a higher court.

• Peter Young is a retired career diplomat and former British High Commissioner to The Bahamas where he is now a permanent resident.


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