by Peter Franklin
Monday, 8
March 2021
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Memo to populists: it’s security, not liberty, stupid

Laurence Fox's launch is all about freedom — but is that what drives populist voters?
by Peter Franklin
The electoral system is one obstacle — but the most crucial problem is what they stand for. Credit: The Reclaim Party

A busy weekend for British populism. The big news was that Nigel Farage is quitting politics — for good this time. We also learned that Laurence Fox is running for London mayor.

The Farage headlines were somewhat over done. Read the small print and you see that all he’s quitting is party politics: “I’ve knocked on my last door. I’m going to step down as the leader of Reform UK.”

You can’t blame him. He may well be the most influential politician of his generation, but he’s stood for Parliament seven times and lost seven times. The Brexit Party/Reform UK has never won a Westminster seat. Defecting Tory MPs handed UKIP two Westminster seats, but those successes were short-lived.

It seems that Brexit Britain has no room for populist parties. Apart from the odd council ward, their last remaining refuge is the Welsh Senedd where the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party is likely to win seats in the forthcoming elections.

So why can’t the populists break out of their single issue niches? Obviously the electoral system presents an obstacle, but beyond that the basic problem is what they stand for. It’s illustrated by the Laurence Fox campaign video. Lozza strides through an empty London bar lamenting lockdown. He wants to “reclaim your freedom”, he says.

But the issue he comes up against is that the ‘freedom’ that Britons are most interested in right now is freedom from Covid-19 — and they’re willing to make sacrifices. Popular support for lockdown measure is strong and consistent — and, if anything, the public are more authoritarian in their attitudes than the Government is.

King’s College London research into underlying voter values shows that the people most in favour of curtailing civil liberties during the lockdown are most strongly orientated to the ‘security’ value. Crucially, Leave voters were also most strongly orientated in this direction (in contrast to Remain voters for whom ‘universalism’ is the key value).

In attempting to rally the Leave electorate around a new issue, it seems the populist parties might have chosen the wrong one. Indeed, the leadership of these parties have once again revealed that their own primary values do not align with those of their target voters. It’s not that this slice of electorate is anti-freedom, it’s just what it wants more of most is security, not liberty.

The libertarian orientation of Reform UK and the Reclaim Party therefore just doesn’t work — something that Farage must have realised by now. Reform UK, now led by Richard Tice, appears to be doubling-down on the freedom rhetoric. Rather than follow suit, Reclaim should take the opportunity to differentiate itself.

There’s a lesson to learn from the official Leave campaign. At the time, the slogan “take back control” was praised for its impactful simplicity. However, it’s true brilliance lies in the fact that it can be interpreted in two different ways: as an appeal to the libertarian values of the Leave ‘insiders’, but also as a pathway to greater security for those voters who proved most crucial to the Leave victory.

In getting Brexit done, Boris Johnson has had to decide whether to emphasise a ‘liberty Brexit’ or a ‘security Brexit’. So far, and perhaps because the pandemic gave him no choice, he has prioritised security.

If he deviates from that path, then the populists will have a chance again.

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Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
1 year ago

Even if “freedom from covid” trumps freedom from lockdowns in the popularity stakes, doesn’t mean campaigning for the end of lockdown is wrong. Powerful dissenting voices voices are always important.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

Please explain how lockdowns provide ‘freedom from Covid-19’. Is this truly still the position of most people in the UK?

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
1 year ago

Well this is what most people in the UK have been taught by government, Sage scientists and the MSM, and that’s the voice of authority as far as they’re concerned.

David Slade
David Slade
1 year ago

Can we really be said to be supporting lockdowns as an exercise of our free will when fear of this virus has been exacerbated as a deliberate act of policy (as the SAGE minutes show)? Isn’t that a bit like saying an abuse victim ‘consents’ to being with their partner?

The outcome for anyone standing on a freedom ticket will sadly be the same either way – it won’t bring electoral success.

I would agree with another comment here though – some messages are just too important to leave unsaid, regardless of the futility of saying them (and haven’t we all felt that over the past twelve months).

Last edited 1 year ago by David Slade
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

The contradiction between voting for Brexit and supporting the lockdowns is indeed strange, and extremely dispiriting. The Project Fear propaganda campaigns waged by the government and media with regard to both Brexit and Covid were very similar, yet the same people only saw through one of them. I suppose age is a factor. Assuming that those who voted for Brexit were on the older side, they did at least have some reason to fear Covid.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Being from both sides of the Atlantic – after leaving school I moved to USA to get to a freer society, and coming and going all the decades since I find that is the truth. after two weeks in UK I soon want to go back to USA because I feel so stifled in London, it feels, in contrast to USA, how I imagine China would feel to you Brits. Monitored, that which is not specifically legal is illegal, that everyone is exceedingly worried about what everyone else is doing, and if it is not groupthink, being very disapproving. In USA people do not expect a uniformity of adherence to rules and a mono-culture, and so are not judging every one based on conformity – USA it is still accepted people are different, and they are. We have rednecks, different races who are different culturally but American, middle class, Liberals, Right wing, crazies, religious, secular, scary people, all rubbing shoulders together in Walmart, and all very different in mindset and beliefs. You know those around you think differently, and accept that. In UK people think thinking like them is correct, and not thinking like them is incorrect.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Interesting. I wonder if you go elsewhere in Europe and whether it’s a UK thing or a European thing? I’ve never felt differently in that way in other European countries and I’m UK based.
Always thought it was weird that jay walking was illegal in US. But on the other hand US is relaxing drug laws and UK has more CCTV than almost anywhere else.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I can only speak of the Netherlands, but what I miss from when I lived there is that you can speak your mind and still be friends with people. It’s considered weak to be easily offended, which is the complete opposite of the Anglosphere at the moment.

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

In my job I visited the Netherlands and Belgium (Dutch version) many times – this was around 2005 to 2015. At first I was shocked about the way people spoke to me but after a while I got to like it.
Apart from all of the modern fuss about wokeism the British have always had a strange, indirect way of speaking, like “Yes, I’d really love to come out for a drink sometime.” can mean ‘I would never go out and meet you socially.” It is just a way of speaking.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago

the British have always had a strange, indirect way of speaking, like “Yes, I’d really love to come out for a drink sometime.” can mean ‘I would never go out and meet you socially.” It is just a way of speaking.

Yes. And it fits me like a glove, being prone to that kind of obliqueness myself which caused lots of misunderstandings back in my plain-speaking birth country. (They didn’t seem to understand that “uh oh sure, maybe in two weeks’ time…” means “oh please fark off already“, and the next thing you know a knock on the door two weeks later just when you sit down for supper.)

Last edited 1 year ago by Allons Enfants
Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The traditional British Law only outlaws specific acts. You’re confusing the EU-Napoleanic Law which makes everything not specifically legal illegal.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As a British expat living in the US. I know exactly what you mean.

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Maybe you have to accept it because they all carry guns. I worked for a company in Louisville, Ky and I saw quite a few guns. Makes a difference to your freedom, I think.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
1 year ago

I’ve noticed a disjoint between people who supported Brexit and support for lockdowns. It seems to be dependent on why you supported Brexit. There were two separate groups people who wanted our independence because they viewed the EU as an undemocratic institution and those solely concerned with immigration. The first group value freedom. The second would happily accept an authoritarian government providing it kept foreigners out.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Uzzaman
Frederick B
Frederick B
1 year ago
Reply to  David Uzzaman

And it’s that latter group which will provide an electorate for a populist party which majors on immigration. No sign as yet of any such party achieving significance, but that could change post-Covid as Boris’ new immigration policy begins to push immigration to new heights.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago

It’s interesting how being pro- or anti-lockdown is aligned by political stance.
In Hungary, it’s the small left/lib opposition which is fervently anti-lockdown, while the centre-right majority is pro-lockdown – they have good trust in the government, because the government has proven consistently that it is serving the people of the country (which is what it was elected for). So lockdown-compliance is high, and they handled the whole covid thing fairly well.

Su Mac
Su Mac
1 year ago

I think the ambiguity lesson from the Leave campaign slogan “take back control” could be applied to the King’s College research regarding “security” being a common key value.
Suppose for those anxious about Covid it means “the government must keep us safe from threats” but to Leavers it meant “we want to control our own borders and be free of foreign rule”. Not the same kind of security at all. Intuitively to me Leave voters still seem less Lockdown friendly, although the higher age of the Leave group may whittle that opinion down a bit…

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
1 year ago
Reply to  Su Mac

Well I proudly voted Remain, loathe Boris and his crew, and I’m firmly against Covid hysteria (and compulsory vaccination, which I don’t expect to bring a final end to lockdown) – so maybe I’m just a contrarian.

Steve Garrett
Steve Garrett
1 year ago

Is it just me, or does Foxy sound like Kier Starmer? Close your eyes and give it a go. Secret love-child perhaps?
On the content of “Reclaiming” London – Foxy focuses on ensuring we can travel freely, socialise freely, go to work where and when we want etc. Am I missing something? Won’t all these (normal) things be “restored” (without restrictions) once we’re all vaccinated? In other words, the gov will deliver everything Foxy is planning to deliver! Ergo – manifesto redundant!
One other thing (philosophical) can one person “deliver” freedom to another person, let alone 9 million people. Imagine any despotic, kleptocrat in Africa announcing – “I bring you freedom to vote for any Party in the new elections”, whilst he (it’s always a “he”) arrests and/or kills all the opposition Party candidates. Or an overly-concerned mother (mother’s aren’t always a “she/her” these days) telling her little Megan – go and play with the other children – be free, enjoy yourself – just don’t get your shoes dirty”. Surely, we “take” our own freedom, when controls (political, legal, social, cultural, self-imposed etc.) are removed? I’m sure Foxy has his own internal representation of what freedom looks, feels, smells and tastes like (maybe a London where he never has to queue up outside his favourite restaurant?), but, I doubt it’s of much interest to most Londoners.