6.3.6 Uniting Against a Perceived Threat

It is widely agreed that a prime duty of government is to protect people (2.1).  When a leader tells people that they are threatened, their immediate reaction is to support that leader in repelling the threat.  The sense of belonging to a group and the desire to show solidarity with it are deep-seated and powerful instincts (4.3.2.2).

A threat which is genuine and unavoidable gives the population an incentive to pull together.  This is a form of political legitimacy which is not created by a government’s virtues but by a reaction to outside forces.  Several types of threat can have such an effect:

  • People rally to support their leaders in a country which is at war or is under the threat of war. Winston Churchill, for example, was immensely popular as a wartime leader.
  • When Argentina captured Britain’s FalklandIslands, Margaret Thatcher decided to recover them, claiming it as a ‘just war’ (4.3.5.5) to protect the islanders. History.com described How the Falklands War Cemented Margaret Thatcher’s Reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’.  It turned round her political fortunes: she became very popular (but General Galtieri, whom she defeated, was ousted – as noted below).
  • Coercive economic sanctions against Zimbabwe gave Robert Mugabe an excuse for his failures: they enabled him to deflect criticism of his mismanagement of the economy (3.3.7.2) and they gave him the political legitimacy of confronting an eternal enemy. He was able to rule for 37 years.
  • Boris Johnson, who has been described as An English Nationalist, and others persuaded many British people that the country’s sovereignty was threatened by its membership of the European Union (EU). The slogan “take back control” was effective in winning the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU in a ‘Brexit’ – as described later (6.6.5.8).  He stimulated a sense of patriotism and pride in a vision of an independent “global Britain”.
  • Donald Trump’s offer to “make America great again” was a call to combat what many Americans saw as a decline in their fortunes. He cited China and immigration as external threats to people’s jobs. 

Such legitimacy is swiftly lost, though, if the public becomes dissatisfied or when the threat is removed:

  • “Winston Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time”, but he lost the election after the Second World War when people wanted a different kind of government for the reconstruction – as the BBC argued when explaining Why Churchill Lost in 1945.
  • It is particularly difficult to maintain public support for an overseas war, particularly if it continues for longer than expected or if it appears to be going badly. A well-known example was the eventual unpopularity of the Vietnam War: illustrated by the BBC report, Thousands join anti-war movement.
  • The Economist obituary, Leopoldo Galtieri, described how General Galtieri’s government was experiencing protests when “Argentina was going through one of its regular periods of high inflation and poor growth.” His invasion of the Falkland Islands was initially popular: “The protests were largely forgotten when he announced that Argentina was to seize the Falklands”, but he was dismissed when the invasion was defeated.

It is very often the case that the legitimacy conferred by external threats is temporary.  Politicians may crave the united support which they receive in wartime, but it is not usually in the people’s interests to go to war – because, as discussed later, military force is of limited utility (7.4.1).  Foreign wars are rarely successful.

There is still considerable popular support for the chest-banging style adopted by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, which is referred to in this book as aggressive nationalism.  They brand their opponents as unpatriotic.  Ideally, though, patriotism ought to be understood as wanting what is best for one’s country – which usually means co-operating with other countries rather than stridently opposing them.  Aggressive nationalism is spreading, as described later (6.6.4.3), and this gives cause for great concern because it led to two world wars in the 20th century.

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/636b.htm