“It is a hoary old cliché, but anger is not a policy…”

John Walsh in the Irish Examiner warns not so about the rise and rise of populism, but the consequence of the adoption of opportunist tactics by the Irish opposition parties. Interestingly he begins with the populism of early 80s Britain when busting trade unions and a populist sell off of public housing stock he reckons set of a long slow timer for many of the difficulties besetting the UK today…

Despite the claims of Gerry Adams and co that they represent a new form of responsible, citizen-based politics, their policies have a very populist hue.

In the run-up to the 2011 general election, Mr Adams said repeatedly he “would send the troika packing”. Given the level of anger and humiliation about the EU/IMF bailout, it was a statement that resonated well with large tracts of the population.

But it was in effect a meaningless soundbite. The budget deficit was €15bn and the country was locked out of the international markets. If Sinn Féin had been in government and had followed through on its leader’s advice, it would have had to implement the most painful budgetary adjustment in the history of any western democracy practically overnight.

While in opposition, Sinn Féin has opposed the property tax and water charge, as well as every spending cut and tax increase needed to bridge the budget deficit. The party campaigns large on an anti-austerity platform.

Then he borrowed a key lesson from recent Irish history. Not least that it was Fianna Fail’s own populism under Bertie which led the party and the country into such a deep abyss:

But there is a warning from the recent past about this strategy. The 2002-2007 Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government was implacably opposed to any form of austerity. Bertie Ahern ramped up spending and cut taxes in an effort to buy electoral advantage.

Sinn Féin says it would introduce a wealth tax to balance the books. But it is not clear how exactly this wealth tax would work, and even more uncertain how much extra revenue — if any — it would raise.

A quick perusal of The Sunday Times’ rich list reveals that the vast bulk of Irish entrants do not live here. It is hard to know what legislation could be introduced to get even 1c from these.

And he concludes…

It is a hoary old cliché, but anger is not a policy. However, whipping up anger for electoral advantage is a very effective strategy. But unless this is accompanied by some coherent vision, then the consequences for the economy over the longer term could be very damaging indeed.

By way of a footnote, this brief exchange between Steve Richards and John Kay…

Richards: Opposition politics is partly an artform and policies are symbolic.

Kay: I really don’t think policies are symbolic. I think they about what you’re actually going to do. And we need some observations about what you’re actually going to do.

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  • There is a very thin line between “responsible democracy” and “irresponsible populism”.
    Every O level Politics student is taught to beware of Populism.
    Those of us previously in the chattering classes despise Populism.
    Yet those of us who embrace Tinternet will have to recognise that is the perfect test tube for breeding the Populist virus.
    Those who claim that social media will change Politics need to aware that this is one of the changes…the growth of Populism.
    And encouraged by idiots in responsible politics to be populist.

    There is a difficulty with Democracy….we presumably dont want to live in a place where EVERYTHING is decided by Referendum. Presumably we dont want the populist view on Migration, Capital Punishment, Speed Cameras to prevail.
    We do need a “priesthood” of politicians, lawyers, journalists and the rest to be a kind of gatekeeper where civilised democracy is protected from Tinternet mob.
    Of course even in using that kind of language, I am deploying the same argument “mob rule” which has been used by the elites to restrict the franchise.
    Where is the line between Democracy and Mob Rule?
    Between Democracy and Populism?
    has it moved because of technology or the policies adopted by the Political Elites (like Bank bail out for example).

    The truth is that when a politician or party we liike changes course….we applaud them for “listening to the people”. When a politician or party we do not like does the same thing…we say that they are being “populist”.

    No Anger in itself is not a policy….but it is an emotion that can lead to a considered response…a policy.
    It makes me angry that 200 girls have been abducted in Nigeria.
    It makes me angry that I see kids starving and exploited in too many places.
    It makes me angry that six Iranian teenagers are arrested for making a video on YouTube.
    It makes me angry when Islam is called satanic.
    No…my anger is NOT a policy but it certainly influences the policies I support.

  • Mc Slaggart

    ” anger is not a policy”

    True. Their 2014 budget is below which could be taken as them having an economic policy?


  • Who they going to tax. If they raise tax on business, less to invest in jobs and so on. A pie chart is not a policy.

  • Mc Slaggart


    The do have a full document on the web site for you to read. I also think they had it checked by the department officials.

    You may not agree with it but you cannot say the do not have a policy.

  • Jagdip

    Is it just in the British isles that the term “populist” is pejorative?

    Classically, it means
    “a political doctrine that appeals to the interests and conceptions (such as fears) of the general people, especially contrasting those interests with the interests of the elite”

    The counterfoil to populism is the Simpsons-like heartrending complaint from FG’s finance minister
    “will no-one think of the taxpayer”

    Populism should be the representation of the wishes of the majority; somehow, it has become corrupted as a concept in this part of the world.

    Like “unionism” and “unionist”, I suppose, when you really mean “partitionism” and “partitionist”

  • SDLP supporter

    Jagdip @ 10.23 am
    Your own quotation from Wikipedia answers your question. If you know anything about the history of NI you will know that an appeal to look after the political interests of “the majority” ended in disaster. There should really no such thing as majority interests as a representative democracy should aspire to working for the interests of all: “we are all minorities now” (Alban Maginness.

    When you appeal to fears, it’s a short step to creating bogeymen and whipping boys and scapegoats, whether these be nameless elites, the Jews in Nazi Germany, the ‘dirty, disease-ridden Irish Catholic immigrants” in the 19th century US’ or the unfortunate Irish spailpin fleeing the Great Famine in Victorian England.

    I don’t know what the outcome of it all may be but the rise of Sinn Fein, UKIP and the Front National in France, as well as our three Eurosceptic/phobic MEPs are all interconnected.

  • Charles_Gould

    SF’s wealth tax is 1% on all assets over 1m Euro, including shares and housing.

    Say you have 1.5m of assets. Then you would pay 500,000*0.01=5000 Euro per year.

    I have a feeling this would be relatively few people – some would move their assets.

    The UK Labour and Lib Dems propose something similar but limited to housing valued over £2m; this would be a tax on those with high-value property. Personally I favour this idea, as one of the less distortionary ways to tax those most able to pay. (Houses cannot move, hence there is limited distortion).

  • Charles_Gould

    Incidentally there is a lot of talk of wealth taxes and it isn’t just populism. Economists have lately become concerned about the trends in the distribution of income, which is heading back to 19th centuty levels – see Picketty’s book which documents this. Many economists are suggesting that a weath tax can play part of the policy response. The high and increasing levels of income inequality have started to worry writers such as FT’s Martin Wolf who are not ideologically very doctrinaire, nor can be accused of populism.

    I don’t know who John Walsh is, but he sounds a tad too complacent about the rising levels of economic inequality, and its implications social and economic.


  • megatron

    Has John Walsh ever heard of America or France? America taxes all its citizens regardless of where they live. France has a wealth tax.

    If anyone is being populist it is John Walsh – the majority of the Irish electorate believe SF’s economic policies are daft. Rather than critically engage in the policies he just trots out (by his own admission) a pile of clichés.

  • Charles_Gould

    Megatron – I agree with you 100%.