Political scientist Matthew Goodwin (b. 1981) is a professor at the University of Kent. One of the world’s best-known experts on national populism is the author of six books, the most famous of which is probably “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” from 2018, co-authored with Roger Eatwell. He is probably better known to the general public for his numerous articles for outlets such as Politico, New York Times, Financial Times, Sunday Times, and UnHerd.
Why are the conservatives in Great Britain so successful when it comes to formal political power (they have been in power for the last 13 years) but so unsuccessful in the culture war?
I think, essentially, the Conservative party is dominated by liberal conservatives, especially the parliamentary party. And liberal conservatives are quite different from cultural conservatives. They have tended not to intervene in the culture wars, they have tended to be much more focused on things to do with social status, business, and economy. Also, they have tended not to take issues around history, woman’s rights, and children’s welfare as seriously as they really should. For me, one of the key reasons why the conservatives have not been successful in culture wars is because they have been reluctant to get involved with them.
Relatedly, the Scottish government recently passed a law that greatly liberalizes gender reassignment, even though the vast majority of voters oppose it. Why are minority groups of progressive activists so successful in imposing their agenda?
If you look at Scotland, all of the polling suggests that the gender reform bill is only supported by about 20 percent of people. About 80 percent oppose changes that are being introduced. A large majority of people also oppose children being able to legally change their gender, especially without medical advice and without their parent’s involvement. But the reason why radical progressives are so successful I think is because they tend to be very organized, tend to be very loud, tend to dominate social media, and tend to be very aggressive in pushing back their critics and opponents. They tend to advocate speech codes, and political correctness and they are very willing to prioritize limits on freedom of speech to pursue their goals. That matters because it means that moderates feel unable to speak up against radical progressives. That, I think, is what we have seen not just in Scotland but actually in many of our other debates over for example the legacy of history, empire, and identity more broadly.
Do national populists have anything in common in terms of values — from the USA and Great Britain, through France and Germany to Italy and Eastern Europe — or do they only have in common that they are part of the anti-establishment that wants to become the establishment?
I think that national populists essentially do have a lot of things in common. We have tended to define national populism as a movement that prioritizes the values and culture and interests of majority groups against minorities and against what they see as distant and self-serving elite. So they do share in a common strong focus on a national community, the principle of a national preference, putting the national majority first, and also wanting to prioritize a direct conception of democracy, wanting to prioritize majority will over minorities on issues to the with the nation. So, they do have quite a lot in common in terms of their values. They also tend to see their national communities being under threat from an array of external challenges – from immigration to the European Union to social liberalism, and the presence and increase of Islam within European societies.
You argued earlier that the relative success of national populist parties is not a temporary issue, but that they will remain a lasting force. What are the main prerequisites for their strengthening in Europe?
Essentially, national populism has become successful because it is been able to tap into four distinctive currents. Firstly, it taped into people’s fears over the destruction of their national community, identity, values, and history. These things matter a great deal to people, and they feel that they are under attack. National populism has also tapped into widespread distrust in politics, media, cultural institutions, and creative industries. It also benefited from people’s anxieties over a sense of relative deprivation – that some groups are getting ahead over others, that some groups are being prioritized over others. And it also benefited from what we call dealignment. It benefited from the breakdown of the traditional bonds between parties and voters. Putting those together – a sense of destruction, distrust, deprivation, and de-alignment – we used to draw together a lot of research and show actual drivers of national populism, as we have seen in 2022, remains very strong – in France, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. We have seen these movements reach records level of support once again. The argument, that these movements would peak during Covid, is proven to be quite misleading.
The conservative electorate mostly voted for Brexit. How much does post-Brexit Britain align with their anti-EU sentiment?
What we have seen since the vote for Brexit is a realignment, a political realignment in which the conservatives have tried but failed to connect with many of the people who voted for them in 2019. That’s really why they have struggled since the exit of Boris Johnson, and why we have a lot of voters now who feel that their values have not been respected by this new elite, who feel that they do not have a voice in the political institutions, and who feel that they are not being taken as seriously as other groups in society. I think conservatives have certainly delivered Brexit. But many other areas… They have liberalized immigration, they presided over these changes, they have not pushed back on the culture wars, and they have not taken any of these issues as seriously as they should have done. As a consequence, they have struggled to cut through seriously.
Interview by Tomislav Kardum and Matija ŠtahanLast modified: 8. 2. 2023.