Dr Helen de Cruz on pluto-populism, no-deal Brexit and the Conservative Party.

First published in August 2019.

Pluto-populism is the use of populism by governments that seek only to help the very wealthiest through e.g., tax cuts.  How do voters end up voting for parties and policies that help the very rich?

Martin Wolf’s article in the Financial Times “A Republican tax plan built for plutocrats” is worth re-reading. He identifies as one of the key strategies of pluto-populism the creating of cultural and ethnic divisions. Creating diversion away from policies that help super-rich by appointing scapegoats.

An example: The 19th century southern United States was a plutocracy. Over 300,000 confederate soldiers died defending slavery, yet, “a majority of these men had no slaves. Yet their racial and cultural fears justified the sacrifice.

Could something similar be happening in Brexit Britain?

What sacrifices is the Conservative Party asking ordinary voters to make? Not to fight in a war (in spite of all the war rhetoric), but austerity. This is not new. It started in 2015 when David Cameron campaigned on an austerity ticket and won the General Election.

Cameron then said that we needed to live within our means, which meant cutting schools, NHS, disability welfare, etc. to the bone. At the same time, he pledged tax cuts that would cost £7bn. These tax cuts disproportionately helped people making over £40k pa.

There was no set target for austerity – no figure to reach. The Conservative Party leaders simply said it should become a way of life. The Telegraph even said it could last 50 years.

Now, how can people vote for something that affects almost everyone (except the very rich, who can buy themselves private healthcare, private schools for their kids, etc), and yet also tolerate tax breaks for the wealthiest 10% costing £7 billion/year?

The answer: Pluto-populism.

The early days of Conservative government did this by shifting the blame on foreigners – in particular EU citizens. Rather than acknowledging that their net tax contributions actually helped fund schools and the NHS, they were now blamed for austerity cuts.

For instance, Priti Patel, now Home Secretary, then warned about “overfull class sizes” caused by EU migration. But EU citizens pay more into the services they use (including schools for their children) than they take out. So, their taxes could have been used to fund schools.

Instead, EU citizens’ net tax contributions were used to fund the windfall for the richest, highest earning UK taxpayers. It was brilliant: milk EU citizens for their taxes, then blame them for austerity.

Let’s fast forward to Boris Johnson...

Johnson’s announced tax breaks that would help the richest 8% of the UK population would cost £9 billion. That is about the cost of the EU membership fees. And while the advantages of EU membership are substantial, the advantages of “trickle down” economics are more controversial.

Boris Johnson's tax policies: what would they cost and who would benefit? / Institute for Fiscal Studies

Boris Johnson’s tax breaks are the real story. The no-deal bluster is just the mirage created around it, the identity politics (that the right is so effective in mobilizing) to goad people into a needless sacrifice.

The UK is woefully unprepared for no-deal Brexit. Let’s recap Operation Yellowhammer around March 2019: There is no guarantee that there would not be food shortages and medicine shortages. How do we deal with civil unrest?

One may only wonder, how can people want this blatant harm to occur?

Well, much like the confederate soldiers, they are made to believe that sacrifice is necessary because it is all about identity, their own identity. Hence the bluster around the backstop. The backstop, let’s not forget, is an insurance policy. The backstop is an insurance policy that will come into effect if no better solution is found for avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. It is a compromise between the UK and the EU, and the EU does not want it in particular.

A hard border in Northern Ireland would mean a return of “The Troubles”, a religious and national conflict that claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, most ordinary civilians. It seems surreal to think Brexiters want to jeopardize this peace process.

The backstop would keep Northern Ireland in the single market and the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU, unless a hard border could be avoided. Now, this is actually a pretty good deal for the UK. Lots of countries would love to be in a customs union with the EU.

Some EU countries were worried that the backstop could undermine the EU single market and customs union, but they agreed to it because it was a compromise. Still, now, it has become this highly symbolic, charged issue. People seem to forget it is an insurance policy.

But by now pretending that the backstop is not a compromise between the EU and the UK but an unreasonable demand of the EU (hear the “undemocratic backstop” narrative), and conveniently forgetting The Troubles, Boris Johnson seeks to shift the blame onto the EU when no-deal happens.

Who will benefit in the meantime? The very rich can buy up houses, the prices of which will almost certainly crash. The chaos will not benefit ordinary people.

No-deal Brexit, like Brexit in general, is simply pluto-populism.🔷

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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 1 August 2019, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Dreamstime/Nuvolanevicata.)



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Belgian philosopher and Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University who specialises in philosophy of religion, experimental philosophy, and philosophy of cognitive science.