It is a mistake to suggest that populism is an all-encompassing political creed and that it will automatically join with the forces of authoritarianism to permanently extend state power.
To imply that Farage and Le Pen, or Salvini all believe the same, as ‘populists’, is to state that Rawls and Nozick believe the same because they are both liberals. It achieves little.
Farage’s political protest came through opposition to the exchange rate mechanism, where a government was so unwise as to artificially peg the value of sterling. This came so soon after the currency had been allowed to float. Farage’s was a rebellion against an activist state, both the British government and the European authorities.
For Le Pen, it is different. The French political system is a rationalist conception, the inevitability of perfection through state intervention and planning. There is an economic and political legacy of protection spanning the entire French spectrum. The state is King, ironically, and it is not surprising therefore to see Le Pen’s parties advocate economic protection and a watering down of opposition to the euro.
For Salvini’s Italy, the decision on their economic future may be entirely out of their hands. As an economy, it is simply too vast to bail out, the EU’s finances are too weak and Italy too big. Alternatively, the EU might opt to institute a bail-in, the raiding of individual bank accounts to bail out the euro as was trialled in Cyprus in 2012-13.
The differences, however, between the Cypriot and Italian economies are striking and it would demonstrate the lengths the EU will go to preserve its currency union by trampling personal freedoms. We can all be agreed that for the state to automatically dip its hands in individual bank accounts is not conducive to individual liberty. Unlike Le Pen, this may pressure Salvini to rethink EU and Euro membership altogether. Then what of Spain?
It is unwise to conflate perceived populist opposition to ‘neo-liberal globalism’ with a rejection of freedom. The ‘ism’ of globalism necessitates uniformity, whereas the pluralist principles of liberalism sit in direct opposition. One size does not, and should not, fit or suit all.
Rather, populists argue with the imposition of international institutions that transfer sovereignty away from the nation state framework to a higher and, inevitably, less democratic structure. Decision-making going higher up and further away is as illiberal as it is unpopulist. The euro currency and ever-increasing political integration have directly fuelled the fires of protest against these impositions from above and are unlikely to go away.
Taken through the EU and the way it functions, ‘neo-liberal trade’ is anything but economic freedom. Trade agreements are put through the political mincer. Legislation becomes a Christmas tree, as each interest group wants to wrap their tinsel and place their bauble. Eventually it topples over and becomes a complex, unworkable framework where only the biggest of businesses can hire the required and expensive counsel to work around it.
The Single Market should be a blank piece of paper. Instead it is a rulebook of thousands of laws. Who pays as a result? First, the consumer in higher prices. Then small business, the proliferation of which is a determinant on how free the economy is – lower barriers to market entry make an economy freer.
The enemies of freedom will be examining the extension of the state in this crisis economy, which we hope remains temporary. Many, though not all, will see it as a chance to assert a new hegemony, either in the guise of political environmentalism or radical socialism. They hardly make for populist bedfellows.
Through looking at their history, populists, or at least many of them, are part of a new alliance, with traditional conservatives and classical liberals, to restate the fundamental principles of freedom we now see in jeopardy.