Wed, Mar 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Populists will eventually be found out — moderates must be ready for that day

Social democrats might be struggling, but there is little to suggest that voters are clamoring for the statist left or libertarian right

By Andrew Rawnsley  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

We can see just how alien the past can be by taking my time machine for a short spin back 20 years.

For many readers, especially younger ones, time tourism will be a shock.

In 1998, Amazon is a company struggling to convince people that there is a profitable future selling books online.

Facebook doesn’t exist. Neither does the iPhone.

The Russian intelligence service is run by Vladimir Putin.

Some things have not changed then.

Also in 1998 — and this will really surprise some people — Tony Blair is the most popular prime minister Britain has ever had.

He and other center-leftists of his type are dominant in the Western democracies.

Then-US president Bill Clinton, a “new” Democrat, is in his second term at the White House.

“New Labour” has recently surged to power with a parliamentary landslide in Britain. It will go on to win two further elections.

The neue mitte — the word new is much loved by this generation of social democrats — has been a winner for the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s (SPD) Gerhard Schroeder, who is embarking on the first of two stints as German chancellor.

The moderate left is in government in two-thirds of the nations that are members of the EU.

Their successful offer is broad support for free markets combined with good public services, a decent welfare state, internationalism and social liberalism.

This seems to be a magic formula both for the taking of power and the exercising of it.

At about this time, one of Blair’s senior advisers told me that they represented “a new common sense” so potent that neither the traditional conservative right nor the old socialist left could hope to compete with it.

How archaic that sounds when we return to this year. Just about everywhere you look, social democrats are being pulverized.

The latest example has been furnished by the populist earthquake in Italy, where Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico was smashed down to less than a fifth of the vote and the center-left came in third behind a right-wing bloc fronted by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is banned from taking public office, and the Five Star Movement, which was founded by a man who is, literally, a comedian.

An even more dismal fate befell the French socialists when their candidate for president finished fifth with less than 7 percent of the vote.

They then went on to lose 250 of their 280 seats in the National Assembly.

When Germany went to the polls in the fall last year, the SPD, for decades the most powerful center-left party in Europe, recorded its worst result since the creation of the federal republic in 1949.

Even though its junior role in the previous “grand coalition” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was electoral hemlock, the SPD has gone back into another one for fear that a fresh election would produce an even more dire result.

It is true that center-right parties have also been hemorrhaging support to the various insurgent brands of illiberal populists, demagogic nationalists and fascists.

The troubles of the center-right are scant consolation for the center-left because its crisis looks much more existential.

Social democrats neither head the government nor lead the opposition in Germany, Britain, France or Italy — Europe’s four largest economies.

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