In economics there are two diametrically opposed ways of viewing politicians. For the most part we assume the benevolent social planner who acts to maximize social welfare. But, when it comes to specifically analysing political decision making we typically assume that politicians are just like everyone else - out to maximize their own payoff. If a politician's objectives coincide with those of society then we have no problem. But, there are, of course, lots of reasons to suppose that political and societal objectives do not coincide.
A particularly important issue is that of electoral survival. Clearly, a politician needs to get elected in order to make a living. That means it is in a politicians interest to do things that go down well with the electorate. At first sight you might think that this aligns the incentives of the politician with those of society because the politician needs to do good things to get elected. There is, however, a problem of asymmetric information. In short, voters may not know what is good for them. This is not to say that voters a dumb. It is merely to reflect that voters have busy lives and cannot be expected to be informed about everything. That is why we have experts to advise and politicians to make informed decisions.
So, what happens if a gap emerges between what voters want and what is good for them? We can hope for the benevolent social planner who does what is best. More realistically, however, we might have to accept that politicians are going to do what is popular. This, unfortunately, seems to explain why the United Kingdom is slipping ever further into disaster/farce territory.
The big issue in the UK is that of immigration. Just about every report or bit of research on the topic has shown that immigration is good for the UK. Immigrants create jobs, pay taxes, provide vital skills; international students work hard for a better future etc. etc. The popular perception, however, is that immigration is bad. Indeed, immigration seemingly has to take the blame for just about all of society's ills. We have, therefore, a worrying gap between reality and popular perception. In such circumstances, we might hope for politicians who do what is right and defend immigration. Unfortunately, though, the UK seems to be veering even more towards popularity politics. The Conservative Party Conference last week, for instance, appeared to have a strong anti-immigration vibe.
In her conference speech, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, attacked the liberal elite who don't get Brexit. Surely, however, this is to miss the point. That 52 percent of voters wanted to leave the EU is a signal that something is wrong. But what? Given that immigration is good for this country then we surely we need to find the actual problem? The actual problem, I would suggest, has more to do with underfunding of public services and a basic miss-match between what people want and what they can realistically expect (given that money does not grow on trees). 'Tackling the immigration problem' is just going to make things worse. In particular, you do not tackle inequality with policies that will ultimately make the poor poorer.
A more nuanced view of things is, however, very hard to sell to the electorate. Moreover, Theresa May's popularity seems sky high at the moment and so who can blame her for playing popularity politics. From an economic perspective she is doing exactly what we would expect her to - maximizing her own payoff. More important is how she can use this popularity. The comparison with Margaret Thatcher is particularly interesting. Margaret Thatcher was quite clever in mixing popular politics (reclaiming the Falklands) with unpopular but sensible policies (taking on the unions). This allowed her to square the circle of winning elections and good policy. Let's hope for something similar again.