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Pop-up populism and the splintering of Britain

British identity is fragmented like never before, with the rise of pop-up populism dividing people into ‘them’ and ‘us’. Author PETER POMERANTSEV takes a deeply personal journey through Britain to find out what it means for the country

I used to think the British were different: that if anyone in the world knew who they were it was them, a people defined so precisely by class, accent, schools, postcodes, counties, parties and sports teams it could be hard to know, for an immigrant like myself, how to fit in. But in the delirious year that encompassed the Brexit referendum and a general election, something has shifted. A sense of uncertainty underlies everything.

Campaign managers used to define electoral loyalty by class – your background would equal your party, or by consumer profile in the decades when government was seen as a service provider. Now they find themselves having to reimagine their electorate even though, or indeed because, they have more data than ever: from what you eat through to what you tweet.

Pollsters, who an age ago selected ‘representative social samples’ based on the newspaper a person read, and later by what sort of house one lived in, find that people who live in similar-looking houses and share a host of other habits nonetheless vote differently. The organisations who put together audiences for political TV debates, audiences which are meant to reflect society, find that despite their best efforts to choose the right mix of partisans and neutrals they are accused from all sides of selecting biased audiences, as if the very consensus on what is non-biased, on what is balanced, has been undermined. During the referendum and the following election, voters moved capriciously between camps and candidates, and everywhere I heard the refrain ‘I just don’t know’ (who I’ll vote for, who will win, what the future holds).

The British struggle to define themselves is both provoked by and reflected in attitudes towards immigration, though sometimes in somewhat unexpected ways. The discomfort some in Britain feel with the influx of recent European immigration isn’t because the Europeans who have come here have turned out to be so unlike the natives – but because they have turned out to be rather similar. For a people whose culture depicts itself as eccentrically unique, the most disturbing thing is to find that they are not so unique after all.

I was struck by this thought during the last election, in Peterborough. I was covering the political campaigns all along the East Coast train line between London and Edinburgh, which I used take as a student, alighting at the stops I had never gotten off at. In Peterborough I was tailing the Liberal Democrats as they canvassed. We knocked on doors along a monotone Victorian terrace, which in a bygone decade would have been home to an equally monotonous set of voters, but now we found a different universe behind every door: white guys with bellies and tattoos; shy Muslim teenagers in religious dress; nurses who were sleeping off a night shift; recent graduates angry at tuition fees; and families with two kids, two jobs and two cars. A man of South Asian extraction, wearing a red polo T-shirt with the Spanish flag and designer trainers, gave one Lib Dem canvasser a lecture about how this used to be a nice street but had changed: he couldn’t sleep due to the drunk Eastern Europeans shouting and fighting through the night (he wasn’t sure if it was Poles or Romanians as they weren’t speaking English); Romanians (he was pretty sure it was Romanians) had scratched the doors on his new Mercedes; in the morning the street was lined with beer cans. The area had changed, he lamented.

The Lib Dem canvasser, a neat, dark-haired lady, listened quietly – which must have been difficult as she was Romanian herself. When we walked on I asked her how she’d felt. She’d been in the UK a decade, was married to a Brit, but couldn’t get her head around how the British had previously taken in immigrants from South Asia who had been culturally quite different, and yet hadn’t been able to get used to Eastern Europeans who were broadly similar and did very English things like drink and fight all night long.

I wondered whether the older immigration from former colonies, even when integration failed, still reminded the British of Empire and, thus, of how special they were. The current immigration doesn’t. I asked the Romanian canvasser what she thought ‘integration’ meant. She answered, ‘Being able to function in society and not bothering anyone so no one bothers you,’ which is quite a climb down from the Eastern European immigrants at the start of the twentieth century who felt they needed to Anglicise their names (Vinohradov to Grade, Brokhovich to Brook) and ape English manners. Nobody would bother with that today, partly because it’s less clear what greater Britishness one would integrate into.

This uncertainty is in turn producing a new sort of politics, which recreates and reconfigures identity with every campaign. The voting dynamics in Peterborough are a case in point. Peterborough had voted strongly for Brexit, with its slogan to give back control to ‘the people’. When I visited it had an out-and-out Brexiteer Conservative MP, Stewart Jackson, who had been tweeting nastily about the ‘Remoaners’ on the Remain side of the referendum. ‘Suck it up whiner,’ he told one journalist concerned about leaving the EU. No one expected him to lose in the general election a year later. Yet on election night Peterborough swung to Labour, with its slogan of ‘For the many, not the few’, electing a black, Nigerian, female, evangelical Christian, a first-time MP who wasn’t even from the city. She only won by a small margin – 607 votes – but it still shows how fluid our contemporary electoral identities have become.

We are living through a period of pop-up populism, where each political movement redefines ‘the Many’ and ‘the People’, where we are always reconsidering who counts as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’, where what it means to belong is never certain. It’s a politics partly born out of the nature of social media, where interest groups are at once fractured and easy to micro-target. Amorphous movements are needed to make people vote together: but when movements travel as fast as they do now, they create bubbles of identity, which then burst, crack and are then reformed as something else.

What are the new rules? How do they differ from the old politics? Where do they succeed and fail?

I’d first noticed something was changing in Britain while talking to one of the architects of the Brexit campaign, soon after the referendum in a pub in North London. He started a sentence by saying, ‘The problem for people like you is –’. I can’t remember the rest of the sentence (it may have been something like ‘metropolitan liberals are so out of touch’), because it made me feel so happy. It was one of the few times in my life I could remember being included as part of Britain’s national conversation. This was new.

Though I have spent half my life in London, I have always been aware of only being accidentally British. After being exiled from the USSR in 1978 when I was a toddler, my father by chance got a job at the BBC World Service and brought me, my mother and grandmother to London.

Growing up, the natives I knew, in the little bubble in London I never left apart from a stint at university in Edinburgh, were happy to have me around because I showed British political culture was superior to Eastern Europe. After all, my family had fled here. I always perceived myself as no more than a fortunate guest. I had voted only once in my life, and it felt a little transgressive, like using a stranger’s toilet.

But when that Brexiteer’s sweeping statement included me, I was no longer being asked to play the part of the outsider. I was in. This made me feel warm. That happiness, however, was quickly followed by dismay. The only reason I was being included was to play the puppet enemy. ‘People like you’ was only being invoked as a contrast to the ‘real people’.

In the following months I saw the reorganisation of the idea of the ‘people’ continue apace. The right-wing newspapers began using the language of the Soviet Union my family once fled, attacking ‘Enemies of the People’, calling to ‘Crush the Saboteurs’, while the Prime Minister invoked the ‘People’s Will’. The Labour Party, too, began to frame things in terms of the ‘People’ versus the ‘Establishment’. I saw hints of what from afar looked like something of a personality cult. ‘We Are His Media’ is a Twitter handle I came across on one of the popular pro-Corbyn accounts. It was as if Britain was becoming the sort of country one traditionally fled by coming to Britain.

‘Populism is not an ideology, it is a strategy,’ a spin doctor had told me in Mexico City, as we sat in a bar on an avenue so surrounded with foliage it was darker on the street than in the blue sky above. The spin doctor was wearing a pinstriped shirt with heavy cufflinks of precious metal. He told me he was a leftist, but had to work for anyone who paid the bills. He explained to me that the old notions of class and ideologies were dead. When he ran a campaign, now, he had to take disparate, discreet interests and unite them under a new notion of ‘the people’, whose coherence depended on effectively defining the enemy – ‘the non-people’ – and choosing a metaphorical policy which may be unworkable but the aim of which was to seal identity. Think of Trump’s ‘build a wall’. Or the Brexiteer’s ‘£350 million for our NHS’.

The nature of social media encourages this strategy. Facebook groups people into narrow interests and disparate causes. The job of a campaign is to link these Facebook causes to a certain idea of the ‘people’, which should be as vague as possible. You don’t have to build any unity among the groups along lines of ‘race’ or class’, they don’t even need to know about each other – their interests can even be fratricidal, just so long as they collectively imagine there is one answer to their discreet problems. This means one no longer needs to take ‘the centre’, one just needed to define the ‘non-people’, the enemy, as that which is at the root of voters’ (actually very different) problems. The sad thing is that this approach doesn’t work without casting your opponents not merely as being wrong, but as actively nefarious. This could get nasty.

Trump and the Brexit campaign both used this strategy to great effect. A recent study by the Cato Institute think tank shows how the Trump campaign managed to unite free-marketeers, American preservationists, and ‘anti-elites’ who have little in common save for a dislike of Hilary Clinton, and that doesn’t even scrape the multitude of micro-groups they targeted on social media. The very point of the term ‘Brexit’ during the EU referendum was to be empty, to let people put their own meanings into it – from ‘Save the NHS’ to libertarian economics to animal rights to immigration – and thus allow voters to imagine a new identity inside the emptiness. The ‘EU’ and ‘immigrants’ were to blame for any number of disparate ills: from EU regulations which were allegedly cruel to animals through to immigrants taking up too many beds in hospitals. Theresa May has been teased for saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and giving no further detail, but the phrase is indicative of the political currency that empty signifier was meant to hold.

I told the spin doctor that I had seen the same strategy of conjuring up new ideas of the ‘people’ extensively in Russia, where political technologists reinvent society on a whim: ‘I had to first invent the idea of the Putin Majority’ one of them, Gleb Pavlovsky, had told me, ‘and then it appeared’.

The Mexican spin doctor said that while the Russians were pretty good, his personal inspiration came from Colchester, where at the University of Essex theoreticians like Chantal Mouffe had reinvented populist strategy in the 2000s. They’d meant it to be used to advance a new kind of socialism, but the right used it just as easily – and often more effectively.

Pop-up populism seems most prevalent in countries that have run out of political projects – and where economic inequality loosens older bonds. There’s Russia, where the future arrived earliest when it became the place where both Communism and then democratic reforms came to die in the early 1990s. Mexico, whose dreams of empire had been replaced with socialism and then with America-imitation, only for all to fail. And then there’s Britain and the US, who invented a model of globalisation they themselves have come to resent. It’s when you get to the point when people don’t believe in anything any more that you have to find a politics that reimagines the people.

The logic of pop-up populism was in evidence when Theresa May launched her election campaign in a column in the Sun. It opened with a list of grievances ‘ordinary working families’ had: job insecurity, mortgage payments and the lack of good schools. Then, a few paragraphs in, it used a sudden parenthesis to link these ‘families’, now defined by different grievances, with the reader, who was in turn pitched against the elite:

‘These families – families like yours – have been ignored by politicians and by others in positions of power … They – you – are the people to whom my manifesto today is dedicated.’

May’s aim was to collapse ‘they’ into ‘you’, to turn her readers into a single, universal ‘people’. But it quickly became clear to me that not everyone in the Conservative camp understood the new game.

Darlington and Bishop Auckland were the sort of traditional Labour area the Tories aimed to take from Labour: they had voted strongly in favour of Brexit. The Tory campaigners I tailed during the election already knew exactly which doors to target: patriotic pensioners. They must have been encouraged when the retirees opened their doors and talked about immigration as trying to fit ‘a quart into a pint pot’, how they wanted to identify themselves as English in their passports, how they were seriously considering breaking the habit of a lifetime and voting Conservative.

The amount of newcomers in the area is actually very low: immigration doesn’t mean the same thing in the North East as it did in Peterborough. Places like Darlington used to pride themselves on being global centres of engineering. Global companies are still based here, but the cultural cachet that used to come with the work has disappeared. Over the last decades, being a lawyer or broker in London – not a bridge builder in Darlington or Bishop Auckland – has become the desired thing to be. And as the official national narrative focused ever more on celebrating diversity, places like Darlington could be made to feel inadequate simply because they had no diversity to celebrate. For a certain generation, then, being anti-immigrant was a matter of pride.

At a Facebook hustings, the Conservative candidate for Darlington Peter Cuthbertson, staked his claim as representing a reinvigorated nationalism: Britain should stand up for its colonial past, he argued, as many of the former colonies had been better off under English rule. Gone, however, was all the language about ‘working people’. Somewhere between the Sun and the campaign proper, the Conservatives had lost their way. The Tory campaign had become a single issue: nationalist revolt set in an old people’s home.

When the Conservatives gained among older voters but failed to take constituencies in County Durham or Yorkshire by storm, and actually lost seats in places they thought safe, it struck me their focus on a single story had been part of the problem. There was something rigid about the approach, as if the country was full of easily defined Tory, Labour and swing voters, who one could poll once at the start of the campaign and never again, and which one could bring over with a single focused message. But if the nature of the new politics is to hook in as many causes and interests as possible, if identity has to be constantly reshaped, then one can’t take any vote for granted.

If the Tories wanted a better template for how to reconfigure national identity, they could have drawn on the example of the Scottish Nationalists. When I lived in Scotland in the last years of the 20th century, the Scottish Nationalist Party were still a fringe group. Back then, Edinburgh encapsulated everything I disliked about British identities: a university divided between clever, state-school educated Scots and stupider, posher, southern English students. The city was dominated by the feudal and colonial symbolism of the castle, where your class seemed to define the height above sea level you lived at – upper and upper-middle classes on the hills of New Town, lower classes down the slope at Leith. To be British would have meant to take sides in this squalid game. I hid away from all this in a place identity didn’t seem to matter, among the permanently-high eaters of MDMA and mushrooms, where the only dividing lines lay in choosing whether one came up in the techno or jungle rooms of stuffed-to-suffocation clubs, or in the bathroom where all the music would clang together in a metallic mess along the pipes and all classes and nationalities mixed to snort, while some sort of liquid dribbled down vibrating walls and along my cheek as I lay my dizzy head against them.

Since I had lived in Edinburgh the SNP managed to pull off a similar blurring of identities by selling themselves as the solution to the interests of utterly disparate groups, from Little Scotland isolationists to the pro-EU bourgeoisie and the working class. They pioneered the use of a set of social media ads each aimed at a different audience – showing a different reason for independence to every voter. With this strategy, the SNP went from six seats to 56 in the 2015 election. Scotland was the first in the UK to experiment with the new politics: but it also became the earliest to reveal its limitations, even when the end result was one of decent civic nationalism.

Once in Parliament things got harder for the SNP. While pop-up populism is great for campaigns, it’s difficult to govern when you’ve sold yourself in different ways to different groups. In Scotland, Labour could appeal to economic issues the SNP struggled to satisfy. And while the SNP initially defined Tory English Colonialists as ‘the enemy’, a new generation of highly Scottish, working-class Conservatives undermined this image in the run-up to the next election. Suddenly it was the Scottish Nationalists who looked as if they were obsessed with a single story: a second independence referendum. Like May they allowed themselves to become trapped inside one meaning, and when people voted again the SNP lost 20 seats.

When I caught up with the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, I was reminded of pop-up populism’s other great definer: its relationship with the media. There was a crowd of supporters waiting for Sturgeon at a children’s welfare centre in Oxgangs: from teenagers to pensioners, bright yellow SNP T-shirts against a leaden sky. Across from the crowd was a small flock of journalists, in dark suits and raincoats.

Sturgeon arrived, 40 minutes late, in a long black Mercedes. There was another car playing Gaelic folk on a public-address system behind her. For the next hour and a half she evaded the journalists as they chased her round the children’s centre. She shook hands and petted kids and tapped her foot along to a ceilidh class while her bouncers blocked the journalists off.

They told me this was how they were normally treated by Sturgeon. The SNP felt, not unjustly, that journalists had been unfair to them when they had been moving from fringe to power, and had built part of their identity around opposing the media (or the media they didn’t like). President Trump, of course, takes this to an extreme – defining himself as at war with the media. He’s even gone so far as to tweet a doctored video of himself wrestling and beating up the CNN logo.

When trying to construct identity in an age of ever-increasing, multifarious media, one of the few things that can bring people together is the very act of watching, and hating, the media; a movement builds a bond with the viewer by putting itself on the couch next to it, criticising media along with them. Whatever else we may be, we are all viewers. This tendency finds its most extreme form in the US. To watch Fox Prime Time is to watch TV shows about other TV shows: Fox regularly features long montages of clips from rivals such as CNN or NBC, which the Fox hosts then ridicule. Liberal pundits on shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the Daily Show do the exact same thing.

The result is a country where there is no public space left for any sort of discussion. It’s no accident that, at its extreme, the new populism chooses conspiracy as a favourite form of discourse. Conspiracy is a way of fencing in identity: ‘with ideology you can argue’ says Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian political scientist, ‘with conspiracy you are either in or out’.

In England the right-wing Daily Mail has long been playing with this approach. But now some Labour supporters are at it too. Pro-Corbyn sites such as The Canary spend much of their time writing about what they find at fault in the ‘mainstream media’. When I turned up to the Labour Manifesto Launch in Bradford University, a man stood behind the BBC correspondent Laura Kuenssberg holding a sign reading ‘fake news’.

The trick of the Corbyn campaign was to appeal to this ‘anti-mainstream’ electorate – while also coming across rather well on the BBC. The May campaign had portrayed Corbyn as a traitor, but when he decided to embrace the BBC debates rather than run away from the TV cameras, he came over as far more English than his opponents, with his allotment and jam-making. Even his foreign policy was a very English way of criticising England: blaming all the ill in the world on the UK’s foreign policy is still a way of making oneself feel important. Anti-imperialism still harks back to imperialism, rather than irrelevance. Corbyn and Cuthbertson were two sides of the same coin.

Corbyn’s strategy, however, was starkly different to Tony Blair’s centrism under New Labour. ‘New Labour did not try to establish any sort of alternative to the hegemony established by Thatcher. It did not even try to create an alternative to the neo-libreralism. Blarisim was Thatcherism with a human face,’ says Chantal Mouffe, one of the theoreticians the Mexican spin doctor had quoted to me, when I met her in Vienna one stifling day after the election. Despite spending many years in the UK she told me she had never felt British (it was the humour she couldn’t understand), but was delighted about Corbyn. ‘Corbyn is a form of left-wing populism … around Corbyn are people with different interests, one type is traditional Labour who want to come back to traditional social democracy, on the left you have the Trotskyites, in the middle you have those who are what I would call left populism, who want something new.’ The articulating agent, she explained, is the figurehead, the leader, ‘because it’s a strategy that tries to articulate heterogeneous demands, and for that reason they need an articulating principle – one person’.

Corbyn’s campaign certainly managed to appeal to heterogenous groups. In Notting Hill I met with pro-immigration Remainers who liked the campaign’s stress on ethnic diversity; in Doncaster I met anti-immigration Brexiteer pensioners nostalgic for Corbyn’s rail nationalisation. But I had also visited plenty of places in the North East where local MPs avoided using Corbyn’s name or face on their advertising as he was perceived as so alien. And even in the areas where he was popular, Corbyn’s ‘populist’ leadership, was given a very British twist. The Corbyn rallies I came across in York and Islington were filled with students and hipsters, and their many chants of Corbyn’s name were always followed by little smiles of self-irony. The irony wasn’t because the social causes they espoused were unserious, but that Corbyn himself didn’t seem to be interested in power. So it was OK to mock-invest him with almost Trumpian attributes. It could be seen as a way of mocking real authoritarianism, mocking the models May had tried to imitate seriously in her cack-handed attempt at National Populism, which itself degenerated into farce. The irony is given another layer by the fact that Corbyn himself seems to genuinely admire authoritarian regimes, with his paid appearances on Iranian TV and praising of Chávez’s Venezuela.

Maybe this is a way to understand the last election: Britain experimented with the pop-up populist political strategies we have seen across the world, but remade them as comedy. Whether this reveals Britain’s self-accredited genius for humour, or whether it makes it a laughing stock, I’m not sure.

When I travel the country now it doesn’t seem like much has changed in the landscape: the approach of towns is still signalled by the sight of castles or the tips of cathedrals; pulling into stations still feels like sweeping under the russet underskirts of a vast Victorian matron. Yet beyond that it’s clear that the society is less structured than it was before.

Even the Islamist terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, which punctuated the election so horribly, showed up the fluid nature of national definitions: on the one hand they were seized on by nationalists as evidence of the dangers of immigration and an attack on British values; on the other hand the terrorists attacked bits of the country which revel in their multiculturalism. Many of the victims in the London attack were not even British, yet they defined ‘what brings us together’.

If the idea of the ‘people’ in Britain is becoming less rigid, does this also mean we can start to imagine new ways of being British? Does it mean that I need to reconsider my own relationship to British identity? More concretely: should I embrace voting?

I began asking myself these questions in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town hazily in the border between English and Scottish identities. I’d been watching the leadership debate in a pub with a Tory landscape artist (who was thinking of voting Lib Dem because he was sick of May), and his friend, a Corbyn backer who worked at Morrisons and had frighteningly good knowledge of all the manifestos. After the pub we walked across one of the city’s three bridges: a stone foot bridge, a rail aqueduct and car suspension bridge, each more spectacular than the last, binding the country through the centuries.

‘That thing you have about not voting when you’ve been here half your life,’ the artist told me, ‘it’s a pathology.’

It struck me halfway across the Tweed that he was right. I realise now where it came from. Growing up in a country where everyone is obsessed with difference I’d accentuated my own – stressing my own outsider status was a way of playing the British stratified-identity game. I hung onto it as hard as others did their school or postcode. Voting was not merely a case of choosing one set of policies over another, but a symbolic act of belonging – being granted the ‘right to vote’ is the moment a foreigner becomes part of ‘the people’, which was something I wasn’t sure I wanted. Was it time to get over it? I’d always reckoned it took three generations to become properly British, but maybe that was changing. And as my grandmother had been the first Pomerantsev to die here, a couple of elections ago, maybe that added up to three generations in an odd way?

I had been thinking of my grandmother a lot during the campaign. When visiting Yorkshire pensioners I was constantly reminded of Galina Ivanovna every time I was hit with the smell of carnations and perfume. A certain type of beige frame for glasses made me miss her terribly. As she got older she would take a fold-up chair with her on the walk to the post office to collect her pension, and have a rest sitting by the Harrow Road, singing Russian and Ukrainian ballads as she got her strength back: she was from the part of East Ukraine where identities are as smudged as in Berwick.

I know this might sound odd but when I voted this year I did it as a way of mourning my grandmother. The only way I can remember her is by insisting that I am in Britain, that although she is gone her movement here from the USSR is still tangible, it really happened, it’s engraved in my vote. And elections, in turn, use a lot of the language of the rituals of death and rebirth, with their (ridiculous) claims of starting a new country every few years, a new way of doing politics, of reviving ‘Spirit’.

The day after the election I arose elated – closer to belonging than ever before. And yet I was also confused. While I had been stressing my identity as a foreigner in Britain, I knew where I stood. Now I was uncertain. I, too, was one of the people, but if the people are set to be reconstructed anew with the next campaign, what sort of person am I meant to be?

Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE, where he directs the Arena Program dedicated to overcoming 21st century media manipulation. His memoir of Putin’s Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, won the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Award.

This article also appears at

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