As promised, a text of the speech I made in Hamburg last night, at a conference of German business leaders, scientists and thinkers, based around the theme of ‘the next ten years.’
I began in German, partly to show off my new lockdown-learned skills, partly to wind up the non-German speakers in the room, and get a cheap laugh out of them looking around the room, and under their chairs, to see if there were translation services.
There was a musical element to the evening too, with a lecture and performance on Beethoven 250 years on from his birth, and when the organisers learned I played the bagpipes, they sourced a very good set from a local pipe band (there are three in the Hamburg area would you believe?) and so I played Ode to Joy, accompanied by a top pianist. Like you do.
Now, the speech …
So, the world in ten years. Any forecasts we make now, we should make them with humility. Futurology had a bad decade.
Ten years ago, 2011, did we foresee Donald Trump in the White House? Or a 78-year-old Biden to follow? Chancellor Scholz? Mmm. Maybe. But did the futurologists predict Brexit? Or that other dreadful ailment, Covid-19?
I suppose we might have guessed Putin would still be ruling Russia. And that US China relations would fall as fast as they appeared to rise. But, were we taking seriously the existential threat to the planet? And, in our excitement about technological advance, did we fully see the potential for social media to be such a force for change, good and bad, the bad being frankly that it is eroding truth as a democratic currency and so undermining democracy itself?
One of the main strands of my life now is mental health. Pressing government and business to do more. Campaigning. Making films and writing books about it, one of them called The Happy Depressive. That’s me. A depressive in that I get very bad depression. But broadly happy in my life.
A big component for happiness is hope about the future. Right now, I am struggling. And, frankly, being British doesn’t help.
Cast your minds back ten years. If I asked you then, just ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, does the UK have a good or bad reputation in the world, what would you have said? Hands up for good? Hands up for bad?
(For the record, in an audience of around 100, all hands went up for good, apart from one.)
Today, how do you see the UK’s reputation, post the 2016 Brexit referendum, with Boris Johnson now Prime Minister? Hands up good. Hands up bad. (Exact reversal)
That is as depressing as it is unsurprising, but evidence of how quickly reputations can fall. Somehow, with Cameron’s referendum and all that has followed, and now Johnson’s Premiership, we have managed to create the polar opposite of the Olympic spirit.
My speech today is going to address what I believe to be one of the causes; ‘sado-populism.’ Johnson is but the newest sado-populist leader. Putin came ahead of him. Trump followed. Erdogan, Orban, Kaczynski and Duda, Bolsonaro, Duterte all show signs of the same phenomenon. As the next French election nears, President Macron now has to face up to not just one, Mme Le Pen, but now another, Eric Zemmour.
If we are looking for a new geostrategic dividing line in the next ten years, might it be less East v West, North v South, left v right, than democracy v authoritarianism, and within democracy, serious government aimed at improving the lives of people, against sado-populist government which makes life worse. It is democratic accountability versus impunity, in which the powerful feel there are no checks, legal, cultural, political, to their power. Both democracy and dictatorship can come in many different forms; and dictatorship can creep up on us all too quickly.
Impunity can come in large doses and small, but stems from the same notion – that the powerful set the rules, but apply them to themselves as they please. So in the UK, government is supposed to be governed by seven inviolable principles – Honesty, Openness, Objectivity, Selflessness, Integrity, Accountability and Leadership; Johnson violates them on a daily basis. When countries like Trump’s US and Johnson’s UK, not to mention China and Russia and their satellites, behave with impunity, then should we be surprised that in conflict zones around the world, as our former foreign secretary David Miliband put it recently, ‘impunity is on the march’?
Now head of a global humanitarian organisation, he said that whether Saudi Arabia bombing a bus carrying Yemeni schoolchildren or President Bashar al-Assad targeting health facilities in Syria, governments and rebel groups increasingly violate international laws and norms without fear of being held to account. As a result, civilian death and displacement are on the rise: an average of 37,000 civilians killed in conflict each year between 2016 and 2020; so two and a half times as many as in the previous five-year period and nearly ten times as many as from 2005 to 2009. Around the world, a record 79.5 million people forced to flee their homes, primarily as a result of conflict. Attacks on health facilities have also increased. Since the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning attacks on hospitals in May 2016, there have been over 2,000 such attacks worldwide. Even during the pandemic, more health workers and patients were killed in 2020 than in 2019. Meanwhile, ethnic cleansing and killings of aid workers have accelerated as well.
I recommend to you a speech made earlier this month by another David, British film-maker David Puttnam, who until his resignation recently was a Labour peer in the House of Lords. One of his most ground-breaking film projects was with Nazi architect Albert Speer after his release from jail for war crimes.
It was during those conversations with Speer, he said, that – quote – ‘I came to understand what we now call ‘the fascist play book’ – the way democracy can be corrupted and overturned by a few malevolent but persuasive politicians, those who are prepared to exploit divisions in society with simple populist messages.
Speer explained the extent to which we were all vulnerable, and the importance of developing the ‘moral vigilance’ required to recognise nascent evil for what it is. Not for nothing did former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright call her last book, ‘Fascism: a Warning.’ It too merits reading.
Dictatorship requires ever tightening power structures within the centre of government. It requires media control, and the packing of institutions with like-minded, non-independent people. It involves the elevation of propaganda to a level that objective truth is deliberately debased. Like the title of a brilliant book on Putin’s Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Like Trump’s ‘alternative facts.’ As for Johnson, as his own former adviser Dominic Cummings put it, he lies so often, so effortlessly, that he no longer knows the difference between lying and telling the truth.
The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said recently he did not think Boris Johnson was a bad man, but a trivial man. I disagree.
Dismissing him as trivial, a joker, a clown, is a mistake many have made … I wish I had a pound for every time someone had assured me Johnson – or Boris as he is invariably called … all part of the populist shtick – would never reach the top. Too irresponsible to be an editor. The guy had been sacked for lying! Became an editor. Too scandal prone to be London Mayor. Became Mayor. Too big a liar and opportunist to be credible as leader of the Brexit campaign. Led it. Won it. Too undiplomatic to be Foreign Secretary. And so it went, all the way to 10 Downing Street.
So why do I think he is bad, not merely trivial, and why is this part of the sado-populist pattern? Partly because of the trivial point … it is bad to have a PM who does not take the consequences of his job seriously, who cares not whether what he says is true or false, who puts his own leisure and pleasure ahead of a pandemic, who is cavalier about strategic alliances, who puts the future of Northern Ireland peace at risk to maintain the purity of Brexit lies and British exceptionalist fantasies. And always blames others.
What was it he said at the UN recently when speaking of the climate crisis? “We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done. We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again.’ Freud had a word for this … Projection.
But he is not stupid. So what is going on?
I first heard Timothy Snyder, a Yale Professor, author of many books, about the holocaust, Hitler and Stalin, about the fragility of democracy, outline the concept of sado-populism in a speech about Donald Trump in 2017.
Trump and Putin, he said, are often described as ‘populists,’ but ‘a populist is someone who has a policy offering, a promise to the people’ to make their lives better. ‘I don’t see that in Trump and Putin. I see policies that if implemented would hurt the people … it is sadism, the deliberate administration of pain.
‘That probably sounds strange,’ he admitted, ‘how can you possibly govern by hurting the people who put you in office?’ Good question.
The answer is that you fuel fear, rage, resentment, hate; but you make people feel better by making sure they know others are far worse off; and you create blame and division between the various groupings.
Sado-populists do not ask “how do we make people better off? But how do we revive enmities?” Discrimination and racism are key to this. Trump fostered and revived them by trying to teach white people they are DOING better – or they ARE better – than blacks, Hispanics, Muslims. So, you pick the people whose support you want, and no matter how poor they are, no matter the state of their housing, failing schools, falling living standards, rising crime, you tell them, consistently, they are doing better, and they ARE better, than others. And as for any problems, they are not caused by you, nor the government, but by others. Mexicans, for example. Closer to home in the UK, Poles and Romanians, gypsies, welfare scroungers and asylum seekers, Brussels, bureaucrats.
I recently read Populismus für Anfänger (Populism for Beginners) by two Austrians, economist Walter Ötsch and journalist Nina Horsczek.
Written before Johnson became PM, it focuses primarily on Trump, and far right politicians from Austria and Germany. I hope an updated edition might include more on Britain than the half-page covering ten Brexit lies and broken promises.
Among the insights in their analysis of modern demagoguery – propaganda is more important than policy; simple untruths beat complex realities; you must demand loyalty of others but not give it yourself; stirring up division is vital; build slavish media backing and sect-like support; develop a unique way of speaking, rich in imagery and the exploitation of emotions and symbols; rewrite national history; say unsayables; use baseless claims and insults; ignore conventions; weaken Cabinet, Parliament and bodies that threaten ‘the will of the people’ as you define it; never admit you’re wrong, never accept your opponents are right and always blame others if things go wrong. They should update it and rename it The TrumpJohnson Doctrine.
Compare with how democracy works in normal times. One party says “we will make the future better this way,” the other says “we will make it better this way.” This battle produces the future.
Sado-populism loops back to the past … not Make America Great; but Make America Great AGAIN. In France, Le Pen and Zemmour both talking about restoring French former glory. Or, the Brexit campaign slogan, Take BACK control.
I am not sure we ever lost control. If anything, we are losing it more now than we did pre-2016. We have certainly lost power, influence, respect. Add in empty shelves in supermarkets, empty tanks in petrol stations; fears that we won’t have enough food or presents for Christmas; labour shortages in key sectors. I could go on and on. But the government is in wilful denial. All global issues. ‘Nothing to do with Brexit’ has become the latest in a long line of Brexit lies. And it is doing the opposite of what traditionally governments have sought to do, which is make life better for their own country.
Trump’s policy programme was sadistic because it was specifically designed not to make the people who put him in the White House better off, but worse off. Tax breaks for the rich, at the expense of middle- and working-class people; removing health care from the very people who put him in office, from the Mid-West, when the last thing they needed was less health care. This was deliberately designed to administer pain in American society, said Snyder.
As to why that ‘makes sense,’ from the perspective of the sado-populist, it is the creation of this reservoir of pain, anxiety and fear that can be directed against others. You teach people this is normal. “The government cannot help you, life is full of pain but we have the consolation that others are suffering more grievances.” You hurt and you want someone else to hurt more. Instead of thinking about how we might all do better together in the future, we think about how we are doing better than others.’
This is an old story. Survival of the fittest.
That works on the global front too. America First. America always doing better than others, even when they’re not. World-beating at everything, as the very not-world-beating Boris Johnson might put it, and often does. Right now, the only thing we can genuinely claim to be world-beating at is Covid cases.
Russia is already well down the next stage of the sado-populist journey – the deliberate undermining of democracy. Trump tried hard to follow, not just in voter suppression, still part of the Republican strategy, but also in refusing to accept the democratic outcome that ejected him from office.
‘If in the long run,’ said Snyder, ‘you govern by making people hurt, and who don’t mind because others feel worse, what you intend to do is take the vote away from people who expect more, the people who need government. You move slowly away from democracy. And if where we end up is the sense that “government can’t do anything,” you have more inequality, less social mobility, more hopelessness.’
This all fits with the pattern of the ‘Sovereign Individual’ approach, the right-wing libertarian worldview that allows the wealthy to operate free from government or democratic control, and have total control of what the Sovereign Individuals like William Rees-Mogg, who coined the term, and whose super-wealthy son Jacob now sits in the UK Cabinet, called the serfs.
They have the right-wing papers to remind their readers that Muslims, immigrants, welfare scroungers are the cause of the problems we face, not an incompetent and morally corrupt government. You have papers like the Daily Express, slavish in their support and stirring of division, to proclaim ‘Boris vows to keep us all warm at Christmas.’ Like, keeping the lights on and the fires burning is now some great achievement.
Hear populists talk about asylum or immigration, and often you hear someone exploiting a problem, not providing real solutions. Less worried about the impact of policies on those who will be directly affected by them, up to and including those who drown in the sea, than the reaction of people unlikely ever to meet the kind of people getting into the dinghies. ‘At least we’re not drowning in freezing water because we were stupid enough to think we would be welcome here.’
On overseas aid, in which we once genuinely led the world, the Tories’ manifesto-breaking cut is less about the huge damage done to some of the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world, than a vehicle to tell people in Britain that we matter more, we are better, than poor foreigners in places far away.
Apologies so much of this focuses on Britain, but I worry much of Europe still sees Johnson the joker, not Johnson the sado-populist threat to liberal democracy. If a government in the developing world was bringing in new laws to curb the role of the judiciary, and the right to protest, to limit protection of whistle-blowers and journalists, to curb the power of the Electoral Commission to investigate wrongdoing by parties, to limit academic freedoms, to make it harder for poorer people to vote, I know what Tory MPs would call it. Yet they have recently voted for all of those things, none of which is trivial.
As David Puttnam put it: ‘With every passing month there are more – each of them setting out to chip away at and undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that’s trampling on long held rights and conventions, with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power. Which is why a free and fearless media is essential to democracy.’
Most of ours, however, tends to echo and amplify the lies and distortions not challenge. And one of the worst offenders, a former editor of the Daily Mail, a long-time peddler of hate and prejudice and political bias over decades, is the man Johnson is determined to put in charge of the media regulator, Ofcom.
Brexit is a sado-populist classic. It was secured on the message of taking back control, resurrecting lost British pride, with the big lie of more money for the NHS thrown in. Much of the fuel of the campaign came from enmities – immigrants, as always; Turks; ‘Brussels,’ unelected bureaucrats, and the very word ‘Europe’, itself became a byword for an enemy, often spoken of in the language of war. Now that Brexit is going badly, the British negotiators, led by unelected bureaucrat David Frost, blame the Europeans for letting them have it; ‘we have all the cards’ has become ‘we were weak and they exploited us.’ In Northern Ireland, as a result of the border in the sea Johnson said would be created over his dead body, old tensions are resurfacing, the threat to the integrity of the UK is real, and it is quite something to see the EU take the peace process more seriously than Northern Ireland’s actual sovereign government. In the rest of the UK, all too easy to look towards the Province, and say ‘ah well, at least we don’t have violence on the streets to worry about.’ And if a trade war is sparked by it all, let’s blame big bad Europe for starting it, and we can hate them even more.
If you’re a medium sized business finding the new import and export red tape a bit of a nightmare, hey, it could be worse … you could be a farmer looking at rotting fruit in the fields because the pickers have all gone home. If you’re a City worker seeing capital flow to Frankfurt and Amsterdam, at least you’re not a fisherman losing his livelihood. Johnson is happy to dress up ludicrously in an England football shirt over his work clothes, partly to signal support for England in the Euros no doubt, while simultaneously encouraging those who boo the players who take the knee, but also because he doesn’t mind further fuelling the antagonism some Scots and Welsh feel towards England. Division is all part of the sado-populist’s book of tricks.
When people ask how Johnson gets away with it, our media is a big part of the answer. It is a big part of how we got into this mess in the first place. But so many of our major media groups, owned by right wing foreigners with a seeming aversion to living or paying tax in Britain, invested so much in Brexit they cannot bring themselves to be honest about it or about the politicians who made it happen.
The bias in the press has a disproportionate impact on the broadcast media. Part of the sado-populist’s trick is to build major media support, and intimidate those who don’t echo that support. The right-wing media, for whom the term sado-populism could have been coined, has always had a nerve in claiming to speak for the national mood or national interest. But the BBC has lost its nerve as a result of the weight of that media drumbeat, and the threat to its funding model from political foes, and seems scared of its own shadow. Scandals come and go. Lies are unchallenged. Mistakes overlooked in favour of reporting – as if the mistake never happened – the policy to put it right.
On Covid, there came a point where Johnson no longer even disguised the fact his policies will hurt, and even kill, people. 130,000 dead from Covid. We were told 20,000 would be where expectations should be set. Some days recently more cases in the UK than the whole of Europe. Yet the government barely held to account. I find myself looking longingly at Brazil, where a congressional inquiry suggests another sado-populist, President Bolsonaro, should be charged with homicide.
World Health Organisation advisor Dr Mike Ryan called the UK government policy ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity.’ But the sado-populist sets pro-maskers against anti-maskers. Pro-vaccers against anti-vaccers. Health first against economy first. And meanwhile Johnson has a ‘culture war team’ inside Number 10, ready to pounce on any passing story, about flags and symbols, statues and history, that can fuel further anger and division. Culture wars are crucial to sado-populists. They’re cheap; it doesn’t cost the government a penny to drive divisive debate about what gets played at the Proms, taking the knee being gesture politics, the National Trust allegedly being run by woke lefties, cancel culture on university campuses.
The good news, so far as I am concerned, is Trump, the sado-populist pin-up who debased debate well beyond America, is no longer President. The bad news is he got 71 million votes, including from many who were negatively affected by what he did as President, will run again, could win again. The worse news for a Brit like me is that in our system Johnson won’t need much more than a third of votes to stay in Number 10 – which is all he cares about. And the Opposition seem thus far unable to develop the policy agenda, the strategy or the style, to threaten him. Scotland of course, and the SNP’s dominance, makes a tough challenge even tougher. The BBC recently broadcast a five hour documentary series on the Tony Blair Gordon Brown years. It was a reminder not just of what a serious government looks like, but also that winning from Opposition is hard. Labour today are struggling to adapt to facing a sado-populist government. In seeing normal political tactics against a deeply abnormal government, it is like watching Queensbury rules boxing versus thugs with knuckle-dusters, with the Mafia hanging around in the background in case the Queensbury guys are any good.
Snyder said we needed this new word, sado-populism, to make sense of what was in America a baffling situation. Our government too is far from trivial, but doing bad things which will hurt the people who put them in power … and doing them deliberately.
It sounds crazy. But these are crazy times. Only if we admit what we face can we defeat it. Sado-populism is a real thing, a real threat. It has to be called out to be properly challenged. How best to challenge it, that is the hard bit, and I cannot claim to have the answers, but we need to find them pretty fast.
I look to two places for hope. A younger generation that won’t tolerate this indefinitely. Look at how the Greta generation has shifted the dial on climate change. And I also look, yes, to Europe, and perhaps especially to Germany. Problems galore, for sure, but a greater maturity in your political and media cultures, space for ideas to develop, compromises to be reached, extremes taken on not pandered to, the genuine public interest at the centre of debate. Yet here too, and even more so in France, there must be vigilance. 20percent for your hard right populists in some parts of the country. So worth reflecting, are there special reasons why you have done a better job pushing back on this phenomenon? – your unique history as a stronger guardrail perhaps, an economy that has worked better than most, a more sober media? Is one of those special reasons the special Chancellor you have had for sixteen years, whose personal history, political skills and good luck combined to make her what she is, and modern Germany what it is? Might more normal trends now become more apparent? We shall see. But vigilance will be required everywhere.
We know that Merkel stayed the extra term because she feared in Brexit and especially Trump a real threat to a world governed by rules and order. She was right to do so. Trump has gone, for now, but the risk has not. Post-Merkel Europe faces the same challenge, and remains the best bulwark against sado-populism, even as some of its members to the East seek to exercise it, and weaken the EU as they do so, unless properly held to account against the principles to which they have signed up. Europe must deliver, at European and national level, the cleaning up of the funding of politics, internet regulation, challenge more effectively the interference in our democracies of those who wish to undermine them.
And the answers we need are not merely in politics, especially not in an era when so many of them start or are exacerbated there. Indeed, a lot of the problems we face would be addressed by the actual implementation of existing laws, norms and conventions, rather than new laws. The answers are also in education and citizenship. They are in institutions defending themselves better. In opponents of the sado-populists working together on what they have in common, rather than being divided and ruled. We see the beginnings of this in the East, but nothing like it, as yet, in the UK and elsewhere. They are in technology, and surely we have reached the point where the internet giants must be viewed as publisher as well as platform, and made to take more seriously their impact on democratic debate.
Perhaps above all they lie in rediscovering the meaning of the famous quotation, of unsure origin, that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The sado-populist wants a becalmed population, and in our culture I sometimes get the sense people care more about who wins the latest reality TV show, how their football team is doing, than who governs us and how. Activism is needed as never before. It is the key to moral vigilance.
I am sorry if my speech is on the depressing end of the scale, and that it is stronger on analysis than on answers. But I think unless we face up to the scale of the problem, we will not even begin to work out the solutions. This next decade must be the one in which we find them, in which the battle for democracy and truth is recognised as being such, and fought with the same determination that the sado-populists have shown, in storming so many citadels of power. Complacency is their friend, and they exploit it well. If we don’t wake up pretty soon, then, to use a famous English phrase, we are going to hell in a handcart and I don’t want to go anywhere in a cart driven by Johnson, Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro – let alone to hell! So let’s all of us work out what we can do, how we can join with others to do it, and do it.