Canada protests are a reminder that Britain is vulnerable to populism

  • Insight
  • 15 February 2022

by Luke Tryl

The British stiff upper lip can be overplayed. We are, after all, a country that biennially convinces ourselves it’s coming home, turned a condemned alpaca into a national cause célèbre and nearly took to the streets after that ever so disappointing Line of Duty finale.

But when it comes to the sacrifices and hardships of the past couple of years, Britons have accepted lockdowns and pandemic restrictions without the noisy and sometimes violent protests we’ve seen elsewhere.

In large part, this is because Britain is not a libertarian country, but it also reflects the public’s willingness to do what needs to be done at a time of national emergency — and a disdain for those shirking their responsibility.

No surprise then that our polling found that people are ten times more likely to view lockdown protestors as a force for bad than a force for good — or that of all the different groups in society, Britons feel coldest towards the unvaccinated.

So then, as Canada’s trucker-led “freedom convoy” enters its third week of blockading Ottawa and similar movements begin to pick up steam in France and elsewhere, do we need to buckle up for our own Parliament Square blockade?

Naomi Mckinney 1Zl16crlnv0 Unsplash

The people we speak to aren’t yet ready to lead a fleet of Eddie Stobbarts down Whitehall, not least because the UK looks set to be the first advanced economy to drop remaining Covid restrictions.

But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that just as our antibodies to Covid-19 rise, our immunity from populist discontent is being eroded by a triple whammy of factors.

Firstly, the British public is quite simply exhausted. We may have borne lockdown stoically, but the burden of social isolation, worries about getting ill, cancelled weddings, holidays, parties and homeschooling — not to mention the very real pain of losing loved ones— have all taken their toll.

That fatigue morphs into frustration when it is combined with a sense that politicians are only looking out for themselves.

Even before partygate, four in five said our politics was rigged to benefit the rich and powerful. Add to that the recent revelations and frustration has turned to fury.

And on top of that, millions of families are starting to feel the squeeze of the cost of living crisis. About 62 per cent of Britons expect the cost of living to become more difficult to manage this year. Our focus groups are dominated by stories of people trying to make ends meet, perhaps best summed up by Shirley from Bolton who told us that her Aldi shop now costs as much as she used to spend at Tescos.

All of this means that Labour is getting a second look from voters, but isn’t yet sealing the deal. Parties of the populist right such as Reform UK have struggled, largely for being on the wrong side of lockdown sentiment. But it would be wrong to confuse that with a rejection of populism. The angry mob who threatened Keir Starmer last week are a minority, but they’re a stark reminder that even in the UK there exists a radicalised fringe willing to make themselves heard.

But beyond those extremes, we are also seeing the wider public’s anger at politicians turn into an appetite for something new – much like the turn to populism in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In focus groups, people tell us that they’re looking for a different style of politician, someone who’ll shake things up, who is on the side of the people. Boris Johnson may not be Britain’s Trump, but the appetite for someone who is seems to be growing.

Is there a booster jab that can rebuild Britain’s immunity against this type of populist politics? If there is, it lies in a proper political reset. When mistakes are made, apologies should be too. The resignation of Cressida Dick is a start, but accountability needs to be further reaching. When rules are broken, consequences must follow. When chaos distracts from delivery on key areas like levelling up or the cost of living, changes need to be made. And politicians need to stop engaging in the kind of rhetoric that inflames the radical fringe — no one-liner is worth putting your colleagues at risk.

Resetting with the public won’t be easy, but if Canada — a country renowned for being the antithesis of their hyper-polarised neighbour to the south — can succumb to a populist uprising, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the UK is immune. The rise of populism would be bad for all mainstream politicians, they would be wise to stop it in its tracks.

Luke Tryl is UK director for More in Common

First published: The Times, 15th February 2022