Introduction: Jake Rooke, Populism and Grandpa’s lesson

My name is Jake Rooke and I am a first-year M.A. student in EURUS. My story originally began in South East London, the UK in 1990. I grew up in a working-class family, with a single mother that worked many precarious jobs to help feed, clothe and house my brother and me. Thus, adversity has been a large part of my life; coming from a single-parent household, being dyslexic and moving to Canada when I was twelve, I’ve learnt how to ‘roll with the punches’.

I have been fascinated from a young age with history, particularly on British imperial history, the 1930s and World War Two. I had two great grandfathers serve in WW1, and two grandfathers in WW2. As a boy, I would cherish the ‘war stories’ that my grandpa would tell me of his time as a ‘Desert Rat’, and his subsequent deployment to the Indo-China region. It was in Singapore, after a long fight through then Burma (now Myanmar) that my grandpa’s hair went white, horrified from the destruction that war had caused. Nonetheless, it was always a lesson learnt though for my grandpa, “the war taught us to listen to each other”.

Both my grandparents grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and taught me lessons of compassion, diligence and thriftiness, all in the face of adversity. They truly were the members of the Greatest Generation. But it was the haunting stories my grandparents would tell me of the rise of fascism that still disturb me. ‘The slow march’ into intolerance, the populist narratives and subsequent discrimination and destruction that it brought upon the world. “Where did this all come from?” For my grandparents, it was a mixture of complacency and polarization in our politics. My grandpa, as he’d watch divisive politics would point out “the further we get away from the war, the more we don’t compromise”. I knew what he was getting at. Partisanship produces polarization, and polarization produces further partisanship. The end results in a big bang, of sorts.

Where did this all come from?

It’s with this in mind that I have studied populist movements. I wrote my Honour’s Research Essay (undergrad thesis) with Dr Hurrelmann on Brexit, focusing on local rationales for leaving the EU in South East London. I focused on this area, as I lived there as a boy, but also worked there from 2014-2019, during the referendum. In Bexley (the borough I focused on) before and after the referendum I heard and saw attitudes that reflected an atmosphere of polarization, discrimination and post-truth hyperbole. These were mentalities I hadn’t heard since I was a boy when the skinhead ‘National Front’ and British National Party were popular in the area. I felt worried for my community and the direction they were heading. However, I also saw working-class people struggle to make ends meet and provide for their families. It’s with this in mind, I feel a need to turn the tide and prevent the resurgence populist narratives.

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