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Gary Younge
Mobs and monsters

And what the conversation loses in logic it more than makes up for in moral certainty.

Paedophiles, agree Dave and Mike (not their real names), "need a slap" because they have committed "the mother of all crimes". But nothing, they say, can condone the rioting on the estate that made the headlines last week. The trouble, they insist, with young people today is that they get away with too much. "In my day if you got in trouble at school you'd get the cane," recalls Dave. "At home you'd get the slipper and in the street then a policeman would give you a clip round the ear. But you're not allowed to hit kids nowadays and they just run riot."

In short, there is so much violence because there is not enough violence. Between them, a few pints and a few hours, they come up with a wish list of things needed to put the country right that is long and broad as their tattooed arms. They flit between national service, longer prison sentences, greater parental control and order in Northern Ireland. They are no more contradictory or less cogent than barroom philosophers anywhere else in the country and their arguments are held together with the same strong, thin thread of political reasoning. It is called populism; and increasingly, in the presence of new technologies and the absence of meaningful, mainstream agendas, it is dominating the British political landscape.

The latest example is the News of the World campaign to avenge the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by "naming and shaming" paedophiles and establishing "Sarah's Law". But before then there was the drive to keep Section 28. And in between came Tony Martin, the Have-a-Go Harry who earned brief folkloric status when he murdered a teenage burglar, dump the pump and the standoffs at Drumcree in the north of Ireland.

Not all have been successful, since, where populism is concerned, success depends not on the power of the argument or the possible benefits of any particular outcome but on the degree to which those involved manage to locate the right nerve at the right time and in the right way. That is the very art of the populist. To tap a nerve that pits the wrath of the many against the perceived vested interests of a few. Dump the pump failed miserably; Sarah's law has made a definite but ill-defined impact; Section 28 still stands in England.

Whatever the outcome they share some common attributes. Each has at its root some visceral, atavistic nugget of "common sense" - "a man has a right to protect his property", "life should mean life" or "homosexuality is not natural" - through which any shaded argument, empirical evidence or moral alternative is first refracted to the point of distortion and then eliminated. And in order to have any hope of success each has had to rely on lowest common denominator politics that are necessarily crude and majoritarian.

Populism, while not a coherent set of political beliefs is nonetheless a coherent political strategy for cohering disparate forces. It draws its legitimacy from the support in enjoys among the working class. But it rarely draws its leaders from them. The campaign against Section 28 in Scotland was bankrolled by millionaire Brian Souter; in England it was lead by the unelected Lords. If populism's proletarian footsoldiers behave themselves they are idealised as "ordinary folk"; if they misbehave, as they did in Paulsgrove, their former allies disown them as an "uncouth mob".

Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of populism. It stands above party and beyond many, but by no means all, established social and economic constituencies in a bid to galvanise large numbers of people over one issue. Very occasionally its targets might be privileged and effete - high street banks, fox hunters or fat cats - but for the most part they comprise the weakest and the most vulnerable - asylum seekers, drug addicts, single mothers or gays and lesbians - who are less well equipped to defend themselves.

These scapegoats are never picked at random or in relation to the threat they may pose at any one time - none of the mothers in Paulsgrove could recall the last time there was a sex offence against a child in the area. They are deliberately identified as the group which would attract the broadest swathe of opposition and the deepest levels of resentment at any one time.

So while there is nothing intrinsically reactionary in populism, it rarely lends itself neatly to progressive causes either. Ken Livingstone and Jesse Jackson are two of the most talented populists on the left. But the list on the right, which would include Ian Paisley, Silvio Berlusconi, Jörg Haider and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is far longer and more powerful.

Wherever they exist, the populist cause has been greatly facilitated by both the internet and special phone lines. It is from the web that the list of "paedophiles" in Paulsgrove emerged and through it that the ill-fated dump the pump attempted to organise. Which shows that with the right subject it has the unique ability to create, forge and mobilise political communities literally out of thin air.

They have also taken to erecting parallel and impromptu pastiches of democracy to endorse their position. Brian Souter financed a "referendum" in Scotland; most news-based websites invite you to vote on an issue of the day; tabloids publish telephone referenda as a daily affair on anything from Hague's pints to the nation's paedophiles.

At a time when attendance at the polls is plummeting we have become a dial and click democracy. The number of votes cast last week to evict either Caroline or Thomas from Big Brother is only fractionally below the number of votes cast in both Scotland and Wales in last year's European elections. By the end of this week it will almost certainly have overtaken those who voted for London mayor.

The reaction of the political class to this new wave of populism has been uneven. The Liberals have stood consistently aloof. Labour, which is obsessed by focus groups, showed mettle on Sarah's Law but buckled over asylum seekers. Hague meanwhile has been a feather for every wind that blows. Slavish and opportunistic at every turn, he has rushed to grab every bigoted placard that comes his way, be it against asylum seekers, paedophiles or gays.

But the best is yet to come. For within a few years we will see the populists dream - a referendum on the single currency. On one side, will stand the unions, Labour, the Liberals, big business and the free marketers in favour; on the other will be the hard left, small business, the tabloids, the hard right, xenophobes and Tories. Those with concerns about sovereignty and accountability will take second place to those with a knack for demagogy. And like the conversation in the Beehive, there is no saying where it will all end up.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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