In Europe today, all kinds of political anxieties – and, less so, hopes – crystallise around the word populism. On one hand, liberals seem to be worried about increasingly illiberal groups, and often equate populism with nationalism or plain xenophobia; on the other, there are theorists of democracy – as well as intellectuals inside parties such as Syriza and Podemos – who are concerned about the rise of what they see as a ‘liberal technocracy’ (or outright oligarchy). Populism then is seen either as a threat to democracy or as a potential corrective for a mode of politics that has somehow become too distant from ‘the people’. One of these perspectives, one would have thought, must be wrong. Or is there somehow a sure way of telling ‘good populism’ from ‘bad populism’?
Things get even more confusing when one takes a transatlantic perspective. In the United States, the word populism is today mostly associated with the idea of a genuinely egalitarian leftwing politics – in potential conflict with a Democratic party which, in the eyes of populist critics, has become too centrist. In particular, the defenders of ‘Main Street’ against ‘Wall Street’ – from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – are lauded (or loathed) as populists. But even prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is now sometimes said to strike a ‘populist’ note in her campaigning.
In the US, it is not at all a contradiction in terms to speak of ‘liberal populism’, yet in Europe that expression would appear to be precisely contradictory, given the different understandings of both liberalism and populism on the two sides of the Atlantic. In north America, ‘liberal’ means, roughly, something like ‘social democratic’, and ‘populism’ suggests an uncompromising version of the same; in Europe, by contrast, populism can never be combined with liberalism, since the latter means something like respect for pluralism and an understanding of democracy as necessarily involving checks and balances (and, in general, constraints on the popular will).
As if these different political usages of the same word were not already confusing enough, matters have been further complicated by the rise of new movements in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, particularly the Tea party in the US and the Occupy movement. Both have variously been described as populist, even to the point where a coalition has been suggested between rightwing and leftwing forces critical of mainstream politics, with populism as its common denominator.
In short, we seem to be facing a conceptual cacophony: almost anything – left, right, democratic, anti-democratic, liberal, illiberal, Syriza and its nationalist (some would say racist) coalition partner, the ‘Independent Greeks’, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – can be called populist, and populism can be both a friend and a foe of democracy. Or so it seems.
To find some way out of this confusion, I shall suggest in this essay an understanding of populism that brings out clearly what I consider to be the crucial differences between populism and proper democracy. I believe the left has nothing to gain from styling itself as ‘populist’, if all that’s meant is that leftwing parties and movements should defend economically and socially vulnerable citizens. At the same time, they should reject the label ‘populist’ where this is meant to imply irresponsible policies – many neoliberal and conservative commentators try to pin this on anyone deviating from a certain economic orthodoxy. One should not want to be a populist, and one should bat away the accusation of being a populist, when this is no more than a label to discredit unorthodox policies (even where, in the case of Syriza, this is what used to be considered, for the most part, Keynesian orthodoxy).
Populism: a very brief history
The word ‘populism’ certainly has a history, and the expression ‘the people’ even more so. Since Greek and Roman times, the latter has been used in at least three different senses, each historically significant and influential. First, the people as the whole: all members of the polity, or the ‘body politic’. Second, the people as the ‘common people’: a particular rank or corporate body as part of a mixed constitution of various parts of the body politic – or, to put it in less neutral terms, the excluded, the downtrodden and the forgotten – all of which is to say, a particular section of the people. And, third and last, the people as the nation, understood in a distinctly cultural sense.
It is plainly inadequate to say that any appeal to ‘the people’ qualifies as populism. Less obviously, advocacy for the ‘common people’ or the excluded – even if it involves an explicit criticism of elites – is also insufficient as a criterion to determine whether a political actor is populist. Rather, what I consider the core claim of all populists is this: that only a part of the people is really ‘the people’ – and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents the real people.
An idealisation of the people – think of Bakunin announcing that ‘the people is the only source of moral truth … and I have in mind the scoundrel, the dregs, uncontaminated by bourgeois civilisation’ – would not necessarily be populism, even if the Russian narodniki in the late 19th century did just that, and the Russian term Narodnichestvo has usually been translated as ‘populism’. From this perspective, it is plausible that something called ‘populism’ arose in Russia and the US (via the Populist party) simultaneously at around this time. The fact that both movements had something to do with farmers and peasants gave rise to the notion – prevalent until at least the 1970s – that populism was bound up with agrarianism, or that it was necessarily a revolt of reactionary, economically backwards groups within rapidly modernising societies. While that association is largely lost today, the particular origins of populism in the US still suggest to many observers that populism must – at least on some level – be ‘popular’, in the sense of favouring the least advantaged or bringing the excluded into politics. This particular understanding is reinforced by a look at the politics of Latin America, where the advocates of populism have always stressed its inclusionary and emancipatory character in what remains, after all, the economically most unequal continent on the globe.
To be clear, one cannot simply eradicate these existing, normative associations – historical languages are what they are. But we have to allow for the possibility that a plausible understanding of populism will end up excluding historical movements and actors who explicitly called themselves ‘populists’. After all, with very few exceptions, historians would not argue that a proper understanding of socialism needs to make room for National Socialism, despite the Nazis’ own proclamations.
As noted above, the association of populism with ‘progressive’ is largely an American phenomenon (north, central and south). In Europe, one finds a different historically conditioned conception. There populism is associated, primarily by liberal commentators, with irresponsible policies or some form of political pandering (indeed, demagoguery and populism are often used interchangeably). However, populism is also frequently identified with a particular class, especially the petite bourgeoisie and – at least until peasants disappeared from the European political imagination in the last quarter of the 20th century – those engaged in cultivating the land. This might seem like a sociologically robust theory: classes are constructs, of course, but they can be empirically specified in fairly plausible ways. But such theories usually come with a much more speculative account of social psychology: those espousing populist claims publicly and, in particular, those casting their ballot for populist parties, are said to be driven by ‘fear’ (of modernisation, globalisation, etcetera) or – most frequently – ‘resentment’. Finally, populists are often said to be espousing ‘irresponsible policies’: they are ‘misleading’ the people with false promises.
None of these perspectives and seemingly straightforward criteria helps us to clearly identify populism. First, the focus on particular socioeconomic groups is empirically dubious, as has been shown in a number of studies; less obviously, it often results from a largely discredited set of assumptions drawn from modernisation theory. Second, the concentration on political psychology is not necessarily wholly misguided, but it is hard to see that certain emotions could only be found among populist politicians and their followers; and again, some of these psychological approaches are intimately tied to modernisation theory (people are said to experience resentment in reaction to modernisation, and then to long to retain or return to a ‘premodern’ world).
Finally, there is the question of policy ‘irresponsibility’. Of course, it is impossible to deny that some policies really do turn out to have been conceived irresponsibly: the crucial decision-makers didn’t think hard enough, failed to gather all the relevant facts, or – most plausibly – ignored the likely long-term consequences in favour of short-term electoral benefits for themselves. Truly, such concerns are not the product of a neoliberal delusion – but they do not serve to delimit populism. There is in most cases no clear, uncontested line between responsibility and irresponsibility. Often enough, charges of ‘irresponsible populism’ are themselves highly partisan, because it just so happens that the ‘irresponsible policies’ most frequently denounced almost always benefit the worst-off. Of course, this constellation of claims then reinforces the sense among those in favour of populism – as we see particularly in Latin America – to embrace the very label that is supposed to discredit them.
What populism is
So how should we think about populism instead, then? Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which places in opposition a morally pure and fully unified people against small minorities, elites in particular, who are placed outside the authentic people. In other words, ‘the people’ is not really what it appears to be, prima facie, in its empirical entirety, or what might seem, on the basis of voting or other political procedures, to be the ‘popular will’. Rather, as the important theorist of modern democracy Claude Lefort once put it, for populists, first ‘the people must be extracted from within the people’. The flipside is that populists claim that they – and only they – properly represent the authentic, proper, and morally pure people.
This is the core claim of populists. Political actors not committed to this claim, according to my understanding, are simply not populists. There is no populism without a pars pro toto argument and a claim to exclusive representation, with both primarily of a moral rather than empirical nature.
Most commonly, but not necessarily, ‘morality’ is understood by populists in the vernacular of work and corruption (which has led some observers to associate populism with an ideology of ‘producerism’). Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hard-working people against a corrupt elite who do not genuinely work (other than to further their self-interest), and also, in rightwing populism, against the very bottom of society (who also, ostensibly, do not really work but live off others). Rightwing populists typically construe an ‘unhealthy coalition’ between the elite – who do not really belong – and marginal groups that also do not belong.
The moralist conception of politics advanced by populists, then, clearly depends on some criterion for distinguishing the moral and the immoral, the pure and the corrupt. But this criterion does not have to be work. If ‘work’ turns out to be indeterminate, ethnic markers may come to the rescue. Yet it is a mistake to think that populism will always reveal itself to be a form of nationalism. In fact, critics of populism today make it too easy for themselves if they assume that populism is just ethnic chauvinism.
Indeed, one should give populists the benefit of the doubt and concede that, in many cases, they operate with an understanding of the common good that is close to epistemic conceptions of democracy, as opposed to defaulting into using ethnic markers of difference. Populists can and often do rely on the notion that there is a distinct common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) could unambiguously implement such a conception of the common good as policy. This emphasis on one common good, clearly comprehensible to common sense, and capable of being articulated as one correct policy that then can be collectively willed, at least partly explains why populism is so often charged with oversimplifying policy challenges.
The specifically moral conception of politics which populists espouse has two important implications. First, populists do not have to be against the idea of political representation as such; rather, they can positively endorse a particular version of it. Populists are fine with representation so long as the right representatives represent the right people, are making the right judgment and consequently willing the right thing, so to speak. Yes, there are populists who demand more referenda – but only as a means to confirm what they have identified as the morally correct will already, not because they wish for the people to participate continuously in politics, or because they want some number of ordinary people to have a say in government (as proposals for selecting representatives by lot, for instance, would suggest). Populists view the people as essentially passive, once the proper popular will aimed at the proper common good has been ascertained.
Second, it is crucial to understand that populists are not simply anti-elitist: they are also necessarily anti-pluralist. There are a variety of ways in which the distinction between moral and immoral can be developed, but there is no alternative to declaring the people themselves ‘pure and moral’. But here ‘the people themselves’ constitute a merely hypothetical entity existing outside of democratic procedures, a homogeneous body that can be played off against actual election results. It is not an accident that Richard Nixon’s famous (or infamous) notion of a ‘silent majority’ has enjoyed such currency among populists: if the majority were not silent, there would already be a government that truly represented the people. If the populist politician fails at the polls, it is not because they do not represent the majority, but because the majority has not yet dared to speak. In other words, populists are not necessarily against political institutions, as some accounts have suggested, but at least as long they are in opposition, they will always invoke an un-institutionalised people ‘out there’ – in opposition to the popular will as it has manifested itself in actual voting, or even opinion polls.
Populists, then, will tend to contrast the, so to speak, ‘morally correct’ outcome of a vote with the actual empirical outcome of an election, when the latter has not gone in their favour (a variation on the contrast between the general will and the will of all). Think of Viktor Orbán claiming after losing the 2002 Hungarian elections that ‘the nation cannot be in opposition’; of Andrés Manuel López Obrador arguing, after his failed bid for the Mexican presidency in 2006, that ‘the victory of the right is morally impossible’ (and declaring himself ‘the legitimate president of Mexico’). Think of self-declared ‘Tea party patriots’ claiming that the representative of the majority – Obama – is ‘governing against the majority’; or of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the face of rather strong empirical evidence that Turkish citizens were protesting against his policies in Gezi Park, nevertheless insisting that the protesters did not belong to the Turkish people. The logic of populism is not ‘we are the 99 per cent’; it is: ‘we are the 100 per cent’.
It should also have become clear, then, that populists, as principled anti-pluralists, cannot accept anything like a legitimate opposition. To declare oneself to be in opposition is to declare that one does not belong. As Erdogan put it, addressing his critics after being chosen by his party as presidential candidate in August 2014: ‘We are the People – who are you?’
Still, one might question whether this amounts to a truly distinctive characteristic of populism. After all, few political actors go around claiming ‘we are just a faction’; ‘we’re just representing special interests’. And few admit that their opponents might be as correct as they are – indeed, the logic of political competition and differentiation would make that impossible. It’s also not the case that populist politicians refuse to respect the rules of the democratic game: both Orbán in 2002 and López Obrador in 2006 mobilised great street protests – setting the people, visible and present in public spaces, against the corrupt and largely invisible elites – but in the end they did accept defeat. Their claims to legitimacy yielded to an official declaration of legality.
The real difference, then, is that populists consistently and continuously deny the very legitimacy of their opponents (as opposed to just saying that some of their policies are misguided) and that they are willing to risk a crisis of liberal democracy itself – essentially calling into question the trustworthiness of the procedures of representative democracy. They strain the boundaries of representative democracy and toy with transgressing regular procedures in the name of a non-institutionalised people.
Non-populist politicians do not ordinarily claim in rousing speeches that, in reality, they speak for nothing more than a faction or voting bloc. But they would concede that representation is temporary and fallible, that contrary opinions might be legitimate, and that society cannot be represented without remainder – let alone that they and only they permanently represent an authentic people quite apart from democratic procedures.
Populism and people power
I hope that the crucial differences between democracy and populism have become clear by now: one enables majorities to authorise representatives whose actions may or may not turn out to conform to what a majority of citizens expected; the other pretends that no action of a populist government can be questioned, because ‘the people’ have willed it so. The one assumes fallible, contestable judgments by changing majorities; the other imagines a homogeneous entity outside all institutions whose identity can be fully represented by an elite. The one presumes decisions after proper procedures have been followed not to be ‘moral’ in such a way that all opposition must be deemed immoral; the other postulates one properly moral decision even in circumstances of deep disagreement about morality (and policy). Finally – and most important – the one takes it that ‘the people’ can never appear in a non-institutionalised manner, and, in particular, that a majority (not even an ‘overwhelming majority’, a beloved term of Vladimir Putin) in parliament is not ‘the people’ and cannot speak in the name of the entire people.
And yet: might this exercise in comparison not have profoundly conservative implications? Does accepting this picture not mean that one must never go beyond existing procedures, that extra-parliamentary politics must automatically be deemed illegitimate, and that calls for changing the composition of ‘the people’ can simply be ignored? What should we tell those struggling in the name of ‘people power’ against authoritarian regimes in various parts of the world? Egyptians demonstrating against the Mubarak regime used expressions such as ‘One hand’, ‘One society’ and ‘One demand’. Should they be lectured at and instructed that – unfortunately – they have failed properly to understand democracy?
The analysis presented here does not in any way exclude claims about exclusions, so to speak: anyone can criticise existing procedures, fault them for their moral and legal blind spots, and propose criteria and means for further inclusion. What is problematic is not the criticism that present arrangements have failed, but that the critic and only the critic can counterfactually speak for ‘the people’. What is also problematic is the assumption (prevalent but not really justified) by many theorists of ‘radical democracy’ that only the populist core claim – ‘we and only we represent the people’ – can achieve anything truly worthwhile for the previously excluded, and that everything else will amount to mere administration or incorporation into existing political systems. It is almost trivial to point out that many constitutions have evolved because of struggles for inclusion. The not-so-trivial point is that those fighting for inclusion have rarely claimed ‘we and only we are the people’. On the contrary, they have usually claimed ‘we are also the people’ (with attendant claims of ‘we also represent the people’). Constitutions with democratic principles allow for an open-ended contestation of what those principles might mean in any given period; and representative government multiplies and challenges governmental or established parties’ claims to represent the people.
Constitutions and democratic processes can facilitate what one might call a chain of claim-making for inclusion. As Lefort put it: ‘Democracy inaugurates the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society in which the people will be said to be sovereign, of course, but whose identity will constantly be open to question, whose identity will remain forever latent.’ It is actually populists who break the chain of claim-making by asserting that ‘the people’ can now be conclusively identified, and that ‘the people’ is no longer latent. This is a kind of terminal claim. In that sense, populists de facto seek a kind of closure, quite unlike those who, by arguing for inclusion, should be committed to the idea of further inclusion – or, put differently, to a continuation of the chain of claim-making.
What, then, about the shouts heard on Tahrir Square, or – going back a quarter of a century – the emphatic chanting of ‘We are the people’ on the streets of East Germany in autumn 1989? This slogan is entirely legitimate in the face of a regime that claims exclusively to represent the people but in fact oppresses large sections of the populace. One could go further and argue that what prima facie seems to be an arch-populist slogan was in fact an anti-populist slogan: the regime pretended exclusively to represent the people and their well-considered long-term interest (or so a standard justification of the ‘leading role’ of state socialist parties went) – but in reality das Volk are something else, and want something else. In non-democracies ‘We are the people’ is a justified revolutionary claim, not a populist one. And in populist regimes that stretch the limits of representative democracy but retain some respect for procedure (and empirical reality), even a seemingly small contestation of the populist regime can have enormous repercussions. Think of the single ‘standing man’ on Taksim Square in the wake of the crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters (who was eventually joined by many standing men and women). A silent witness, a reminder of Atatürk’s values (he stood facing Atatürk’s statue) – but also a living, literally standing reproach against the government’s claim to represent all upright Turks without remainder.
Of course one could now turn this very argument against my earlier propositions. One could hold that regimes that present themselves as properly representative democracies really can be corrupt and closed, nothing more than a cartel of parties – and that an assertion of ‘we the people’ under such circumstances is not at all populist in the sense explained above.
Consider Austria. Claims of this sort were sometimes advanced by liberals who certainly did not have any sympathy for Jörg Haider’s Freedom party, but who nonetheless recognised that the postwar Austrian state had been colonised entirely by the two main parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. However, while these large, catch-all parties called themselves Volksparteien – ‘people’s parties’ – they never claimed exclusively to represent the people as a whole. Rather, they offered two competing conceptions of peoplehood, and dramatised the differences between them, but also allowed that these two conceptions might add up to the whole. In that sense, claims of ‘We are not represented by either’ were entirely legitimate – but such claims are different from the assertion of Haider (and his successors) that he and only he actually represented ‘the people as a whole’.
Actual representative democracies are certainly not flawless – but equally it does no good to pretend that they are authoritarian regimes in need of ‘we the people’ to assert themselves. In representative democracies we have empirical majorities based on existing criteria of inclusion (which automatically are criteria of exclusion) – but we do not have ‘the people’ as a reference point outside of political and legal institutions.
Populism should not be thought of as a helpful corrective for democracies which have somehow become too distant from citizens. At the same time, not all criticisms of existing elites should be labelled – or libelled – as populist. Populism is not just anti-elitist, it is also necessarily anti-pluralist. So leftwing parties should, on the one hand, resist the temptation to present themselves as populist (that they and only they represent the people – a Chavista claim). But, on the other, they should also insist that their policies are not ‘populist’ just because they might deviate from a neoliberal mainstream.
It is a failure of political judgment to think that simply because political actors appeal to ‘Main Street’ or defend the downtrodden they must be populist in the sense I’ve described in this essay. Bernie Sanders is not a populist but Donald Trump, the self-declared representative of the one and true America, is. Beppe Grillo is not a populist for pointing out the many problems of the Italian state and its ensconced elites, but he is when he claims that his Five Star Movement deserves no less than 100 per cent of the seats in parliament. Syriza, when it came to power at the beginning of this year, was not ‘populist’ because of its economic policies, but it did veer into populism when, before the EU referendum, some of its leaders started to talk darkly of Greece’s internal and external enemies and made it sound as if only the ‘No’ vote represented the authentic Greek people.
Bearing these distinctions in mind, and asking in each case whether a political figure is both anti-elitist and anti-pluralist would help, I believe, in giving us a clearer picture of the European (and American) political scene today.
Jan-Werner Müller teaches politics at Princeton University.
This article appears in edition 22.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.
2. This essay builds on my articles ‘The People Must be Extracted from Within the People: Reflections on Populism’, Constellations, 21: 483–493, and ‘Towards a Political Theory of Populism’, Notizie di Politeia, 107. ^back
3. See Canovan M (2005) The People, Polity. ^back
4. Canovan M (1999) ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies, 47: 2–16. ^back
5. See for instance Priester K (2012) Rechter und linker Populismus: Annäherung an ein Chamäleon, Campus. ^back
6. As I shall argue further below, populists are not against representation – hence I disagree with analyses that pit ‘populist democracy’ against ‘representative democracy’, as in the otherwise excellent article by Koen Abts and Stefan Rummens (2007) ‘Populism versus Democracy’, Political Studies, 55: 405–424. ^back
.7. Lefort C (1988) Democracy and Political Theory, trans Macey D, Polity. ^back
8. One of the results of the analysis presented so far – counterintuitive as it might seem – is that the one party in US history that explicitly called itself ‘populist’ was in fact not populist. To be sure, the Populists formulated their demands in political language that clearly set ‘the people’ against self-serving elites. Mary Elizabeth Lease famously stated: ‘Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.’ Populist discourse was suffused with non-too-subtle moral claims; there was talk of ‘the plutocrats, the aristocrats and all the other rats’, and some of the slogans (and poetry) are reminiscent of some of the central tropes of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the ‘ninety and nine in hovels bare, the one in a palace with riches rare’. Historians as well as political and social theorists of the 1950s and 1960s – Richard Hofstadter, Peter Viereck, Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset, to name but a few – would tend to paint the Populists as driven by anger and resentment (‘status resentment’ in particular), prone to conspiracy theories and, not least, to racism. Evidence is not hard to find: Georgia Populist leader Tom Watson once asked: ‘Did [Jefferson] dream that in 100 years or less his party would be prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly; that red-eyed Jewish millionaires would be chiefs of that Party, and that the liberty and prosperity of the country would be … constantly and corruptly sacrificed to Plutocratic greed in the name of Jeffersonian democracy?’ Yet in retrospect it seems clear that the liberal historians and political theorists of the cold war were talking more about McCarthyism and the rise of the radical conservative movement (including its outright racist parts such as the John Birch Society) than the actual Populists of the 1890s. They seemed sure that ‘American fascism has its roots in American populism’. Yet in actual fact, the Populists were a classic example of advocacy for the common people – without pretending to be the people as a whole. The Populists never were and rarely ever claimed to be the people (although they united men and women, and whites and blacks to a degree that arguably none of the other major parties did at the time). Instead, they ‘merely’ advocated for what in the famous Omaha platform was called the ‘plain people’. ^back
9. Arato A (2013) ‘Political Theology and Populism’, Social Research, 80. ^back
10. As Jill Lepore has pointed out, the term used to be a euphemism for the dead, until Nixon used it to refer to a supposed majority in support of the Vietnam war; see Lepore J (2010) The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, Princeton University Press: 4–5. ^back
11. Bruhn K (2012) ‘“To hell with your corrupt institutions!” AMLO and populism in Mexico’, in Mudde C and Kaltwasser CR (eds) Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for democracy? Cambridge University Press: 88–112. ^back
12. Meckler M and Martin JB (2012) Tea Party Patriots: The Second American Revolution, Henry Holt and Co: 14. ^back
13. There were also more creative demands, such as ‘The people want a president who does not dye his hair!’; see Achcar G (2013) The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, University of California Press: 1. ^back
14. I am thinking of the work of Ernesto Laclau. ^back
15. For the following, see also Frank J (2010) Constituent Moments: Enacting the people in Postrevolutionary America, Duke University Press. ^back
16. Garsten B (2009) ‘Representative government and popular sovereignty’, in Shapiro I, Stokes SC, Wood EJ and Kirshner AS (eds) Political Representation, Cambridge University Press: 91. ^back
17. Lefort 1988. ^back
18. The standing man was the performance artist Erdem Gündüz. ^back
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