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Ed Balls has been on a journey… in more ways than one

January 27, 2020 - 6:00pm

“Across Europe a wave of controversial anti-establishment parties are on the rise, and millions are voting for them … If you dismiss everybody who votes for one of these parties as extreme and nasty, you miss what’s going on.”

So begins Ed Balls’ Travels in Euroland series on the BBC, which has already been hastily dismissed as ‘superficial’ (The Telegraph), “guilty of journalistic cowardice” (The Times) and an answer “in need of a solid question” (The Guardian).

Personally, I found it highly engaging, and effective in its stated purpose of seeking to understand these movements on a human level.

Ed Balls may be married to arch-technocrat Yvette Cooper, but his language in this programme (and subsequent statement that the new Labour leader needs to “unite the cities and towns”) sounds distinctly more Lisa Nandy than Keir Starmer.

In fact, in passages of the programme Balls sailed well beyond Nandy and gives a robust small-c conservative defence of tradition. While out on a fishing trawler, a populist-voting Dutch fisherman tells him what he would like to see: “Wake up the people. You know we started the Kingdom of Holland in the 1600s when the Spanish war was here. The Prince of Holland, he used us fisherman to kick out the Spanish guys. That’s the thing we need. We have to make a fist at Europe, to stand up against Europe.”

Instead of being alarmed by such fighting talk, Balls’ conclusion is philosophical:

Restoring pride in who you are is a potent rallying call for populist parties across Europe. And I think I’m beginning to see why… Fundamentally what these fishermen are doing hasn’t really changed for 100s of years, and what you want to do is celebrate and preserve something that has been in your family and in your community for centuries. Maybe, at a time when there’s so much change in the world, that change seems like a threat.
- Ed Balls, Travels in Euroland

Ed Balls has been on quite a journey since 2015. It will be interesting to see where he ends up.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.


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