When the peasants are truly revolting

August 25, 1995

Ged Martin takes a serious look at the historical darlings and devils of English popular culture.

As a term of abuse, "populist" is used by intellectuals to reconcile their own elitism with a theoretical attachment to democracy. Any issue on which the masses are wrong can be dismissed by labelling their response "populist". Ordinary people want a crackdown on crime - call that a "populist" view and it can be ignored. If Paddy Ashdown or Michael Heseltine or John Prescott are inconveniently prominent, the incantation "populist" destroys their spell.

Yet populism could be a useful historical instrument. Some historians still see the past two centuries of British history as the age of reform, the march of the people. Most stress the conservatism of the British experience. British political history is a narrative of linked landmarks, all of them serious - from the Reform Acts of the 19th century, free trade and the Irish question, leading to Asquith and Attlee in the 20th.

The problem with this linear and logical approach is that it finds no place for sudden upsurges of apparently pointless mass feeling. We need a way of looking at modern British history that can take serious account of personalities like swindler MP Horatio Bottomley or outbursts like the Gordon Riots of 1780, when London was swept by a week of anti-Catholic anarchy. We need a way of understanding glamorous but unclassifiable figures - William Cobbett, Feargus O'Connor, W. T. Stead, Lord Randolph Churchill, Oswald Mosley - all of them dots that do not fit the child's painting book of modern British history.

That is where a proper definition of "populism" comes in. Peter Wiles saw it as a syndrome rather than an ideology, a shifting set of impulses that require not abuse but subtle analysis. To Wiles, the basic tenet of populism is the belief that virtue resides in the common people, who retain the right to assert their moral superiority over those placed above them - to correct, not to overturn, the system. Hence the significance of the abdication crisis of 1936, marked by the grim resolve of ordinary people to part with a glamorous king who had flouted their moral code.

Far from offering revolution, populism appeals to a golden past, and populists dream of a harmonious society, transcending class lines, and rejecting selfish, secret interests. Monarchs as unappealing as William IV and Edward VII have actually been hailed as embodying the essence of their people. The populist impulse is usually harnessed in support of the single, symbolic purification which will restore the tried and true. Hence populist movements are rarely long-lasting.

Populist leadership is complex. Some populist upsurges rally behind renegade aristocrats - from Lord George Gordon to Gough Whitlam - while others idolise consciously anti-heroic figures - such as Canada's mild and spectacled Preston Manning. In the era of political repression after Waterloo, the populist impulse asserted itself to demand that Queen Caroline be crowned in the Abbey alongside George IV.

This suggests that populism can be morally ambiguous. If Queen Caroline was a slut, so what? What right had they, the rich and powerful, to sneer at the people's darlings? But the populist thread is not confined to rampages in favour of undignified queens. Once identified, it may be traced as an impulse present in the mainstream milestones of "serious" history.

The great populist personalities were those who could make ordinary people believe that it was their right to judge the powerful and privileged. Daniel O'Connell's dismissal of the Lords as "the soaped pigs of society" went beyond mere abuse. He claimed the right of the downtrodden Irish Catholic to scorn his Saxon superiors. Farm labourers and factory hands stood taller when they read Cobbett's omniscient contempt for the stupidity of the rogues who ran Britain.

In 19th-century political history, "Reform" with a capital "R" meant the purging of just one institution - the House of Commons. All else would flow from that single cure. The jokey Whig Sydney Smith warned against the euphoria of 1831: every young lady, he said, expected to be married the moment the Reform Bill was passed, every schoolboy thought it would abolish Latin verbs.

Since Waterloo, Britain has fought three European wars - and in each a herbivorous and colourless prime minister has been ousted by a maverick. Aberdeen, Asquith, Chamberlain - these are the grey and rational figures. Yet their supplanters - Palmerston, Lloyd George and Churchill - were old-guard politicians, just as responsible for the mess whose rejection they personified. All three had tasted disgrace not long before seizing the highest office: Palmerston had lost the Foreign Office for offending Queen Victoria; Lloyd George had been caught Whitewatering his Marconi shares; Churchill was half dinosaur, half joke. The very ambivalence of populism helped sweep them to power in a crisis.

But has populism faded as we have become more sophisticated? Perhaps, but it has not vanished altogether. Harold Wilson harnessed a populist vein in 1964 as the man of the people who was so much smarter than that quavering toff Sir Alec. Like so many populist outpourings, the Wilson government went up like a rocket to its 1966 triumph - and then collapsed just as fast. Edward Heath's 1970 promise to cut the rise in prices "at a stroke" tapped the populist belief in a single miracle talisman against secret mischief. The remarkable swing to the Green Party in the 1989 Euro-elections was a classic populist episode. The Greens offered a single purificatory answer: just change your whole way of life. The sneers of the experts proved only that they are as stupid and corrupt as Cobbett constantly proclaimed. The Greens combined a golden past with the chance to administer a surrogate correction of Margaret Thatcher. They came from nowhere and soon imploded into nothing.

Historians have tried to portray our past as All's Well That Ends Well. A populist analysis can explain why our history has more often resembled Much Ado About Nothing.

Ged Martin is deputy director of the International Social Sciences Institute, Edinburgh University.

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