Populist challengers are as bad as the elite

Cover of RebelRebel: How To Overthrow The Emerging Oligarchy
by Douglas Carswell
Published by Head of Zeus, £18.99
(Buy at Amazon)

Douglas Carswell has had an eventful few years. After moving from the Conservatives to Ukip in August 2014, he managed to hold his seat at both the subsequent by-election, and the 2015 general election. However, his libertarian views sat uneasily with Nigel Farage’s populist approach, and the two have clashed over a wide range of issues, culminating in his recent decision to quit Ukip and become an independent MP.

Carswell’s new book, Rebel, is an attempt to outline his political philosophy. In it, he argues that the current establishment, both political and business, is corrupt and deliberately constructed so as to avoid public scrutiny. This isn’t a particularly new idea: you can hear variations on this theme from everyone from Beppe Grillo in Italy to Donald Trump in America. However, the big twist is that Carswell thinks that the populist challengers to the status quo, such as Trump, Grillo and Farage, are just as bad as the elite that they are trying to replace.

Indeed, Carswell is particularly scathing about the Ukip leader. Rather than trying to change, or at least reform, the system, these politicians are only concerned with trying to grab more power for themselves, he says, using fear and hysteria to further their own interests.

Instead of trying to replace the people at the top, Carswell thinks that we need to make some fundamental changes to the way that we regulate business and finance. We need to avoid following the example of medieval Venice and early modern China, where entrepreneurial activity and businesses ended up being enmeshed in a web of regulation designed to maintain the elite’s stranglehold on power. This led to stagnation and decline, while countries that stayed open to innovation, such as 16th-century Holland and 19th-century Britain, became economic superpowers.

This is all heady stuff. But look closely and much of Carswell’s programme is standard libertarian fare, such as dismantling the welfare state, replacing public services with personal savings accounts, and breaking up the BBC.

Such policies would accentuate inequality without stimulating enterprise, and would make the oligarchy even more powerful. His idea of growing UK-US trade by accepting US standards also deliberately overlooks the fact that US standards are much weaker than ours. Finally, some of the stranger ideas he puts forward include ending limited liability for bankers and having multiple currencies circulate in the UK at the same time. These proposals are simply unworkable in a modern economy.