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Blame Liberals For the Rise of Populism

Have the left’s policies of high immigration and multiculturalism caused the disaffection which has given rise to populism? Or is it the right, with its tabloid scare stories about foreigners eroding national identity?

The figures are startling. More than a quarter of Europeans voted for a populist party in their most recent elections. Populists have swept to power in 11 countries in Europe. Brexit, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro – these phenomena are all symptomatic of a new kind of politics sweeping across the world, which promises to defend the interests of ordinary people against the allegedly corrupt, self-serving elites who have held sway for too long.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Some would argue the blame for the rise in populism rests with liberal left politicians in the West. For decades, they promoted high levels of immigration and a policy of multiculturalism, which left the native white populations feeling that their traditional culture and identities were being downplayed. For example, in her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton showed how deaf she was to such grievances by referring to many of Trump’s supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’. That was a gift to her opponent, who claimed he understood the concerns of ordinary Americans. And on the economic front, the mainstream liberal parties’ pursuit of free trade and globalisation outsourced jobs to the developing world. The ensuing wealth was largely funnelled to the 1 per cent, while incomes for average earners stagnated. No wonder the demagogues cashed in.

But is it fair to blame all this on the essentially well meaning policies of the liberals? Is it not in fact the right who have created moral panic with their tabloid and shock jock scaremongering about immigration statistics? This has led to completely false perceptions about levels of immigration, with, for example, the Italians thinking that one in five of the population is Muslim when the true figure is 3.7 per cent. And in Russia and Eastern Europe, where there is scarcely any immigration, anti-liberals have cooked up stories about plots to import foreigners, bolstering populist leaders such as Putin and Orban, who offer robust nationalism and the preservation of their countries’ traditional culture.

On February 18th, Intelligence Squared is bringing together a panel of experts to argue the causes behind the rise of populism and to debate what should happen next. Should mainstream parties adopt the policies of the populists in an attempt to appeal to people who have hitherto felt unheard? Or should liberals refuse to abandon principled and economically necessary immigration policies? Join us, hear the arguments and have your say.



Ritula Shah

BBC journalist and broadcaster

Award-winning BBC journalist and broadcaster. She is the main presenter of the World Tonight, Radio 4’s main evening news programme, which focuses on domestic politics and international affairs. She has presented the programme from all over the world and is passionate about bringing global stories to the widest possible audience. Shah is also a regular presenter of the political panel programme, Any Questions, and has made a number or documentaries and series for Radio 4.


Speakers are subject to change.


Matthew Goodwin

Professor of Politics at Kent University

Author of the bestselling books Revolt on the Right and National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. He is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Kent University, a Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and has studied populist movements for over a decade.

Daniel Hannan

Former Conservative MEP for South East England

Former Conservative Member of the European Parliament for South East England, who was a prominent campaigner for Brexit. He is a prolific journalist and author of nine books, including A Doomed Marriage: Britain and Europe.

Elif Shafak

Award-winning novelist

Award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Shafak is a TED Global speaker, a political scientist, and was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. She campaigns for freedom of speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights and literacy. Her work has been translated into 50 languages and she contributes to the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New York Times and other publications across the world. Shafak taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK.

John Simpson

BBC World Affairs Editor, columnist and author

BBC World Affairs Editor, columnist and author. He has reported from 140 countries and interviewed around 200 world leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Muammar Gaddafi and Nelson Mandela. He has covered 46 wars on four continents.