The Tories’ populist agenda seeks to silence the voices of reason

The Conservative Party conference has opened the floodgates to a torrent of populist policies aimed firmly at what Theresa May calls ‘ordinary working-class people’. The NHS is to become self-sufficient in British doctors. British firms will come under increasing pressure to hire British workers. Our military will ‘opt out’ of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The hard-working people of Britain, says Theresa May, will no longer be ignored by ‘the powerful and the privileged’. And she rails against those who see their patriotism as ‘distasteful’ and call their fears about immigration ‘parochial’.

The message is clear: If you’re working hard to make ends meet, the Tories are the party for you.

I have to admit that it’s a clever strategy. This pro-British, anti-foreigner approach appeals to the many people who feel that previous governments have left them behind, while also being a sort of political catnip to Tory stalwarts. And it cleverly taps into the popular sentiment underlying the Brexit vote, without needing to refer explicitly to the shambles that is the Government’s Brexit policy.

The Prime Minister is seeking to unify the two sides of the traditional class divide, bringing blue blood and blue collar together in a populist crusade.

The voice of reason is left sandwiched in the middle.

The Conservatives are setting us up so that anything we say in criticism of their xenophobic agenda can be derided as the unpatriotic protestations of a ‘liberal elite’. They will say that we don’t understand the lot of the ‘ordinary working-class’ voter. And that we don’t care.

The Government is playing cynically on the fears of the ordinary people about whom it claims to care so much. It is creating a society where criticism isn’t tolerated. Where to question the Tory orthodoxy is tantamount to treason.

And they call it the ‘new centre ground’.

But this is not the centre ground. It is a path that leads but one way: to the right. It is a path not to openness and tolerance, but to prejudice and fear. And is it the refuge of those who would manipulate us to achieve their own ends.

* Simon Perks is a writer, political philosopher and Liberal Democrat campaigner. He blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • So what are the Liberal Democrats going to offer-a new New Deal? One that gives all young people the skills they need in a globalized age, jobs and homes.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Oct '16 - 1:16pm


    Excellent but for your blue blood point. The analogy doesn’t wash . The only people ever called it , or described thus,are aristocrats. There only number, in a much more classless age than once , are decent , moderate types , even if Tories. And our royal family , extended and all, are the very essence of an apolitical centre or middle ground . The only power they have is money , the only money they have is ours. They serve the country and do so at our bidding and do so very well indeed.Indeed their power is really a role , not power at all , and their role is as far from the xenophobia of the age as is possible to imagine. Our monarch is Diplomat in Chief, Ambassador to the World.

    Compared with the Tories , the royals are liberals proper . We have a female head of state married to a Phillip. And a female head of government married to a Phillip. The first is a phillip to the country , the second , to the party !

    We are experiencing something odd. There is a genuine disconnect which this party would do well to understand . Too much cpmplacency hugging is as meaningless as tree hugging in green politics ! It is not the antidote to nationalism. What is , must be to understand anger, fear, even irrrational though it may seem, and see the logical too and relate to it .

    This government is not doing that . We need more of the outspokeness of Anna Soubry and less of Amber Rudd.

  • Lorenzo
    The Queen has done an excellent job but by basically keeping her mouth shut. Her successor may not be so reticent.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Oct '16 - 1:49pm

    The Conservatives’ policies are starting to make me uncomfortable, especially as a potential expat. I want migration controls but I don’t want foreign workers treated like dirt and basically made to go home as soon as they are not needed. I suppose they could apply for British nationality but some countries don’t allow dual nationality and I expect this process to become harder.

    There is a demographic that is not really interested in anything outside of Britain besides holidays in Spain and we can’t base national policy on these people alone.

    Having said all that, we need a bit more Labour bashing. Their new top team is terrible.

  • Eddie
    Yes there is nothing like being on the receiving end. The trick is at foreign government offices to remain completely calm all the time and never raising your voice.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Oct '16 - 2:44pm

    I’ve had enough. Despite my concerns about the Conservatives I can’t cope with seeing all the bitter remainers constantly moaning about brexit and blaming the UK every time an EU politician says they want to punish us.

    For me it’s the Conservatives or spoiling my ballot. Lib Dems are not standing up for Britain sufficiently well.

  • Eddie
    Conservatives always put their own interests first. Britain requires economic strength and that is not going to come from bashing foreigners.

  • No great surprise. Populism is the crack cocaine of politics. It provides a quick high, but overindulgence is always harmful in the long term. It’s used by those desperate for power without responsibility, and I say “without responsibilty” because the populist will always blame “the others” when things go wrong, legitimising narrow mindedness along the way.

    True progress requires vision, courage and leadership. May lacks all of these qualities. She is merely a middling politician who was in the right place at the right time as her political rivals committed suicide and/or fraticide all around her.

  • Eddie Sammon

    “For me it’s the Conservatives or spoiling my ballot. Lib Dems are not standing up for Britain sufficiently well.”

    You won’t be alone, when the Brexit negotiations get tough – and they will – the people will want a political party that’s supporting the UK. It has to be the Tories because there is no other choice.

  • Philip Rolle 7th Oct '16 - 9:50pm

    May’s mistake this week was to think that essentially fair minded British people do genuinely want foreign people treated essentially as second class. They don’t. Brexit was essentially a protest vote. If immigration can be sensibly reduced and people are permitted to voice concerns without being called racist, then opinion will swing back towards the centre. Few of us respect a government that indulges in populist rhetoric to disguise that it is split and does not really know what to do. There is obviously an opportunity here for the Lib Dems. Tim Farron may have to change tack however.

  • @Philip Rolle
    Surely May was saying the exact opposite. In fact she said very explicitly that having “sensible” controls on immigration would lead to immigration becoming much more popular and the recent tide of xenophobia going in to reverse. You are correct that there is a political opportunity here, but it is May who is grasping it. The Lib Dems have profoundly misunderstood what happened on June 23rd and are still comforting themselves with the idea that anybody who talks about controlling immigration, for the optimum benefit of host country and immigrants alike, must be some kind of crypto-racist.

  • “Left them behind” from what exactly? This is a very vague concept that seems to borrow from the evangelical Christian language associated with the Rapture.

  • To me it seems entirely hypocritical that the British media are more than happy to indulge British tastes in living (part or full time) in Europe, either working or not, but then criticise free movement when it is in the opposite direction. David Cameron’s fundamental mistake, apart from actually calling the referendum, of course, was to start collating and publishing stats of “net migration”, allowing the right wing press to take advantage. It’s the old “cake and eat it” story, I am afraid. Talk of “punishing” Britain is just rot. What has happened is a Club member has not been able to have it both ways, and is trying to stalk out in protest. Is it any wonder that other members feel angry about that?

    The high net inward migration figures are mainly about the economy (dysfunctional, and generating too many low quality, exploitative type jobs) and the English language, which more people outside have a knowledge of than other languages. So should a logical approach have been, if we wished to avoid strain on services etc, to build on the rhetoric of “rebalancing the economy” rather than give people a chance to reflect the press’s prejudices in a referendum result, which I am afraid DID have strong racist overtones.

    Cutting down on immigration will ultimately be impossible except very superficially, but it seems easier to make loud noises about it, than to indulge in the hard graft of redirecting our economy.

  • Katharine Pindar 8th Oct '16 - 9:26am

    ‘A political party that’s supporting the UK’, Malc ? Exactly what part of the UK? The business people who are alarmed at the possibility of no more free trade with the EU? (See e.g. today’s Financial Times.) The 48% of voters who saw the many advantages of staying with the EU? And, Eddie Sammon, I should forget the idea of ever being an ex-pat if Britain closes in on itself, shuts off from the Europe that the majority of young people wants to stay open to us, and views foreigners with resentment and suspicion. It is the Tory view of our future that is potentially disastrous. Yes, we Lib Dems will campaign against Brexit altogether, and if it has to be, strive to mitigate its ill effects.

  • People migrate all over globe without being part pseudo super state . You can relocate and become an expat in lots of countries that we do not share open borders with. Most of this angst is about a politically disastrous policy that only dates back to the early 20000s. As of March 2017 it will be essentially a dead issue. Mass immigration has never been popular and never will be. Once the controls are in place few will vote to remove them.
    The problem isn’t that Conservatives are trying to block dissent. it’s that rather too many in the progressive political camp have spent so long waffling about internationalism that they’ve forgotten that elections are dependent on local votes. If it turns out bad then the Tories will collapse. If it doesn’t, then really the Lib Dems and Labour will have to learn to reconnect to the electorate on domestic issues.

  • Glenn
    So if “mass immigration is not popular” why is mass emigration?
    Sauce for the goose and the gander? See above.

  • Glenn
    “People migrate all over globe without being part pseudo super state . You can relocate and become an expat in lots of countries that we do not share open borders with.”
    Indeed, but many patterns of migration are to neighboring states i. e. the Mexicans going to the US. Lots of Burmese to Thailand through an “open” border, they just walk across the land border. As for the super state, many Filipinos are taking advantage of the Asean Economic Community and relocating to Thailand.

  • Tim 13
    Not popular with local populations virtually anywhere in the world.

    True, but Mexicans going to the US are technically supposed to have work permits and do not have the automatic right to citizenship. The relationship between Canada and the US is little closer to the EU, but even they then don’t find it necessary to have a parliament Also it is possible to own and run business in countries without ever being a citizens of those countries.

  • Glenn
    So really you are arguing against supranational democracy? Surely the nature of our ever “smaller world”, the many issues which cross national boundaries, and globalisation, it makes sense to have democratic input and a level of popular influence that you can never have at international summits?

  • Glenn

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Oct '16 - 3:41pm

    Stuart. You are incorrect. Vince Cable has talked about managing immigration, Tim has talked about additional funding for areas affected by high levels of immigration. Yes one or two people said I’m not going to listen but I haven’t seen any Lib Dems calling anyone a crypto racist.
    May is assuming that everyone who voted Leave is anti ” foreigner”. I do not believe this, in fact I think this assumption is very dangerous. Some Lib Dems voted Leave because of the lack of democracy in the EU and their view that the EU is a trade bloc which works against other countries’ trading. May is taking us down to the lowest common denominator in politics which shows a total lack of faith in the decency of the British people. I do hope Tim will start ticking her off for this.

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