The rise of populism, regional disparities and the regional policy response

Cite as: Wishlade, F. (2019) The rise of populism, regional disparities and the regional policy response. European Policy Research Paper, No. 109, European Policies Research Centre, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

There has been a marked rise in support for ‘populist’ parties and causes in Europe over the last decade. Populism is a contested concept, but at its core is the opposition of ‘the people’ to ‘the elites’. Its emergence as a significant force in European polities has raised doubts about the hegemony of western liberal democracy, the path to which had seemed a ‘one way street’ in the immediate post-Cold War era. There is consensus around the significance of this shift in the political landscape, but less so about the reasons for it. Individual attributes – notably educational attainment, age and sometimes gender – provide some explanation, but not the whole picture. Two main schools of thought have emerged: first, that the roots of support for populism lie in economic inequality and job insecurity resulting from globalisation and the fall-out from the financial crisis; and, second, that the drivers are not material, but cultural or attitudinal and reflect a sense that some ‘progressive’ values have evolved too far and a rejection of liberal modernity.

Research on the geography of populist support suggests that the inequality/culture theses are too static and spatially agnostic to fully explain recent trends. This geography is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide: it reflects correlation patterns linked to personal attributes, interpersonal inequalities and attitudes and the interaction of these with environmental factors and economic disparities at different spatial scales. Over time, coupled with demographic change this is producing a patchwork of subcultures, antagonisms and lifestyles, and possibly one in which regional economic disadvantage may become more entrenched. What role should or can regional policy have in the face of challenges that have a distinct geographical dimension, but are rooted in issues beyond the purview of regional policymakers? Do the rationales for regional policy intervention need rethinking? How to respond in a climate of fragile public trust in government, which is most keenly felt by those most disadvantaged? 1

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