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A new venal populism gathers pace

04 October 2013

Paul Vallely laments a wave of crowd-pleasing by politicians across the world

WE SHOULD, I suppose, be grateful that we do not have politicians like those in Greece or Italy. Far-Right MPs in Athens have been arrested on accusations of being part of a criminal gang responsible for extortion, possession of unlicensed weapons, and - most chillingly - murder, after the disappearance about 100 immigrants.

Italy is being brought to the brink of crisis by Silvio Berlusconi, that acme of political self-interest, who has collapsed the coalition government after only seven months, amid moves to expel him from parliament after his conviction for tax fraud and accusations of sex with under-age girls.

Some might argue that the situation in Italy is proof of the practical inadequacy of the fairer-sounding system of proportional representation - just as others could point to the paralysis to which government in the United States is prone, in its split of power between President, Senate, and House of Representatives, and its locked-in cycle of elections to each.

Let us leave arguments of systems of government to another day. What recent events have thrown up more urgently is the increasing attraction of politicians to a venal populism which is distinctly unhealthy for our public life. But it is not just Mr Berlusconi's refusal to allow Italy's budget deficit to be curbed, or the wilful refusal of the neo-Nazi Golden Order party to face the reality of Greece's economic plight. It is as alive at home, too, as the party-political conference season has repeatedly shown.

I am not just talking here about the delusional fantasy offered by Britain's blokeish poujadist-in-chief, Nigel Farage of UKIP. Indeed, he has been anxious to row back from the further reaches of BongoBongoland, where sluttish feminists fail to clean behind the fridge, by sacking the most populist of all his MEPs, Godfrey Bloom.

But buy-a-vote tactics have infected all the main parties. So we had Ed Miliband piously announcing to the Labour Conference that, in 20 years' time, his children would say to him: "Were you the last generation not to get climate change, or the first generation to get it?" His answer was to freeze fuel prices - hardly the most obvious start to reducing greenhouse gases.

Then George Osborne joined in the election bribes by promising motorists that he would freeze duty on petrol, so that he could electioneer that petrol would have been 20p a litre dearer under Labour. The Conservative Party Conference also heard Michael Fallon, the energy minister, pledge to scrap proposed green taxes.

These are odd priorities within days of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's announcing that man-made global warming is now 95 per cent certain, and that, if the science is more complicated than previously thought, the situation is no less urgent (Comment, 27 September). At least Nick Clegg did not hammer the environment further with his pre-election bung of free school meals for the middle classes.

But the prize for the queasiest piece of political crowd-pleasing went to the Home Secretary, Theresa May. The woman who in opposition called her Conservatives "the nasty party"seems in office determined to fulfil the prophecy. She announced a plan to deport foreign criminals first, and then make them fight their legal appeal from abroad. There is about this a suggestion of "shoot first, ask questions later", which smacks of state vigilantism.

Pursuit of the popular vote is seducing our politicians away from the common good. The will of the majority is not synonymous with what is best for society. Responsible politicians need to face up to that, not to exploit it.

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