Meeting a populist for lunch at a restaurant called Elite sounds like the first line of a joke. If so, then the punchline arrives with exquisite timing, walking into the Helsinki establishment bang on midday clad in suit, slightly loosened tie, braces and a Millwall scarf.
“No one likes us, we don’t care,” goes the decades-old chant at the gritty south-east London football club, and you can imagine my guest Timo Soini joining in. It is the early days of coronavirus in Finland, with just 40 confirmed cases as I land in a March downpour in Helsinki. “We are men: we still shake hands,” he says. I had mentally prepared for no handshakes on the trip but find myself joining in wholeheartedly.
Soini has written the book on populism, literally. For some, it may be a pejorative term used to discredit nationalist parties, but Soini sees it as a badge of honour. His recent 124-page book, simply titled Populism, traces the rise of the movement, encompassing Brexit, Donald Trump and the governments of Poland and Hungary.
Soini’s own record as a populist is chequered. He co-founded the True Finns — now known as the Finns — in 1995 as an anti-establishment party and gradually built up its support, thanks to his earthy language and common touch. In national elections in 2011, he won more personal votes than any other candidate, and four years later the True Finns entered a coalition government with the ebullient Soini as foreign minister. But soon the True Finns became the prime exhibit for the idea that responsibility tames populists — their support plummeted and, after an arch-enemy of Soini’s succeeded him as chairman in 2017, the party split.
As the jovial, rotund figure slots into the banquette opposite me, I wonder what kind of populist politician I’m going to have lunch with — the charismatic tub-thumper of yore, or one cowed by four tough years in government into retirement?
We are meeting on one of the last days before coronavirus dominates all conversation. I nervously point out that on landing at Helsinki airport an hour earlier, I had received an email to all FT correspondents telling us that only “business-critical travel” would be allowed in the coming months. Days after our meeting, Finland went into lockdown. Six weeks later in early May, it had 230 deaths from coronavirus — more than 10 times fewer than Sweden, which has nearly double the population but has adopted a no-lockdown strategy.
Soini tells me he is off to London the next day to see his beloved Millwall play Derby County, a side that now includes the ex-Manchester United star Wayne Rooney. “I want to see us put Rooney on his arse,” Soini laughs. I talk about Danny Baker, the British DJ and Millwall supporter, who was sacked for tweeting a racist joke about Meghan Markle — innocently, Baker claims.
It is all that is needed to get Soini worked up. “This will rain down on the elite. Power is in language. I know something about that. I speak differently to other Finnish politicians. I always said things with a laugh,” he tells me. He bemoans the atmosphere on some university campuses in the US, UK and elsewhere, where speakers have been no-platformed for offending transgender activists. “Police are investigating hate speech, not real crime,” he says, accepting the menu from our waitress.
Soini argues that when it comes to identity politics, the “old and established parties” cannot compete with populists such as himself or his friend Nigel Farage. “What will it do to that man?” he says, pointing to a passer-by on the street outside. “He will become more radical. We are allowing the suicide of western liberal democracy. A liberal is a man who leaves the room when the fight begins.”
Eteläinen Hesperiankatu 22, 00100 Helsinki
Blini with sour cream, red onion, lavaret roe and vendace roe x 2 €52
Tauno Palo-style sirloin steak with creamed onions and pan-fried potatoes €29
Fried pork and onion in pan gravy à la Elite €19
Sparkling water x 5 €20
Soini is just getting warmed up, but the waitress has returned to take our order. I am eyeing the set two- or three-course menu, but Soini has other ideas. “Do you like blinis?” I do, I reply, somewhat confused, as I had not seen them on the menu. The waitress scurries off to confer with the kitchen as to whether it is possible to make them.
The restaurant, slightly to the north of central Helsinki, is popular with theatre and arts people, Soini says, but serves a good range of Finnish classics. The waitress returns with good news — the chef is happy to make blinis, and would Soini like them with lavaret or vendace roe? He asks for both, and we each opt for traditional meat dishes as main courses, and sparkling water to drink.
“We must eat in order to preach,” he declares.
It turns out that he means this literally. When Soini was a teenager, he says he could envisage only two careers — politician or priest. His teenage heroes were Veikko Vennamo, head of the Finnish Rural party, one of the first postwar populist parties in Europe, and Pope John Paul II. Strange heroes for a teenager, I point out — to much laughter.
His Roman Catholic faith “has been enormously important — it’s the only thing I haven’t rebelled against. It’s easy for me to share the views of the church. I’m a conservative in social things, and I’m radical in other things. If you want to be dynamic in work and business, you have to be conservative in the family,” he adds.
Soini was born in 1962 to a father who had been a factory worker before becoming a consultant, and a mother who looked after local children “at our home, other homes”. His mother came from what he calls “a farmhouse, peasant family, with eight cows and seven children”. He calls it the “base of my populist, agrarian revolt”, as the True Finns grew out of the wreckage of the Rural Party in the 1990s.
Ever since the late 1960s, Soini has lived in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo — home to companies such as Nokia and Kone — spending more than 45 years in his childhood flat before moving 200m away seven years ago. “No one is a prophet of his own land, but this suburb got me started,” he says.
He insists his interest in the priesthood was serious, and his faith led to what he describes as his worst political moment. In 2018, while foreign minister, he attended an anti-abortion vigil during an official trip to Canada. The opposition called a no-confidence vote — a regular occurrence in Finland — but it became “very, very nasty”.
Our blinis arrive, and I’m taken aback. I was expecting small ones like those often served in the UK as canapés. Instead, cast-iron frying pans appear, filled with substantial butter-basted blinis, with the two types of roe, sour cream and red onion on the side. Soini spreads his jacket, revealing his braces, and tucks in with gusto. I am immediately struggling to keep up.
I ask him about his book — why did he choose the title Populism when so many of his supporters are uncomfortable with the term? Shovelling some red onion on top of the roe, he replies: “My perception was that I would be labelled populist so it’s not wise to deny it.”
He wrote his university thesis on populism back in 1988 and shortly afterwards became deputy chairman of the Rural Party. “If they are saying I am populist, I can define what kind of populist I am. I’m a populist, you’re an elitist. What is it to be populist? To be popular,” he laughs. “It was also to be irritating to the elite,” he adds.
After our lunch, he is heading off to talk to a group of Finnish businessmen about populism — all for good money, he adds, with a glint in his eye. But he also spoke to 145 men in a Lutheran church days before on the same topic for free.
He may have left the frontline of politics, but it is clear he hankers for a return. He rails against the Social Democrat-led coalition currently in power in Helsinki: “I’m still a peasant-minded man. This government think they are more intelligent than the ordinary rank and file. Drivers, plumbers, builders — they run the country, not the mumbo jumbo of universities investigating feminism.”
At this stage, Soini has already polished off his entire blini with all the accoutrements. I, meanwhile, have managed only a quarter and am wondering how much I need to eat to appear polite.
Now seems the right time to ask the delicate questions about his career. Doesn’t his time in government show that the best way for the establishment to disarm populists is to give them responsibility? “It was tough,” he says simply, seemingly lost for words for the first time.
The True Finns were the second-largest party in the 2015 elections, despite losing some support from four years earlier, and Soini felt almost obliged to enter a coalition with two centre-right parties. Those two parties in turn accepted the True Finns largely because they liked Soini, not his party. Almost immediately, the government had to approve the third Greek bailout, deal with the European-wide migration crisis that led to a rise in the number of asylum seekers coming to Finland and handle an economy mired in a decade-long depression.
Soini seems to try to avoid the question by talking admiringly about the nationalist government in Poland and disparagingly about French President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the gilets jaunes protests. I admit defeat on the blini, having somehow managed half, but not on the topic. Weren’t the True Finns tamed in government?
“We were in a coalition. A coalition is very challenging. We were getting all the criticism but none of the credit for what we delivered. It’s always the risk: if you go into government, you lose support,” he says.
He hints at a deeper reason: by the time he stepped down, he had been party leader for two decades. “It was a North Korean system to be leader for so long. I didn’t have a single moment for myself in 20 years,” he adds.
His legacy is a complicated one. He resigned as the party’s leader in 2017, after its support in the opinion polls went below 10 per cent. After Jussi Halla-aho, an anti-immigration hardliner who had been convicted of hate speech, became the new leader, Soini and all the other True Finns ministers dramatically left the party to continue in government. In 2019, Soini’s new party, Blue Reform, sank without trace — he himself decided not to stand as an MP — but Halla-aho led the Finns (as the True Finns were now called) to second place. He has since taken them even higher, clearly leading the opinion polls at the time this interview takes place.
All this sits heavily with Soini, who cannot hide his dislike for Halla-aho and what he regards as his extreme pronouncements on race. “I don’t appreciate Halla-aho but I won’t mock the party,” he says. It is clear the break-up of the party took a toll: “Everyone is hitting you very hard when you are a populist leader. You really notice that you are in a boxing ring all your life.”
Our main courses arrive. Soini has chosen a steak named after a famous Finnish actor, while I have opted for pork belly. It is lighter than I feared and delicious.
Soini tries to argue that the Finns’ recent success in the opinion polls shows “I made my mark”. He endorses their move to focus on fighting back against climate-change policies as well as immigration. The Finns score strongly in the countryside, where scepticism about electric cars, wind turbines and veganism plays well, especially when efforts to promote them can be pinned on urban elites such as the Green party, currently a member of the coalition government.
“Most people are pretty conservative in terms of lifestyle. They want to have their housing, they want to go on holiday, have a barbecue, have a sauna, enjoy family life. If somebody is telling them: you shouldn’t drive a car, you shouldn’t fly, you shouldn’t eat meat, people say ‘Bugger off!’ ” Soini says.
We have both made light work of our main courses but decide against dessert. I wonder how Soini views populism outside Finland: is it on the rise or fall? He says that while populism “is always a national thing”, individual movements can inspire each other. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump did that, and he believes re-election for Trump would reinvigorate populists in Europe too.
He insists Brexit will be a success — “in the long run”. So I ask him whether he regrets not being able to emulate his friend Farage and deliver “Fixit”. His answer surprises me. He doesn’t think this would be a good idea, due to security and Finland’s large neighbour to the east, Russia.
“If Finland had been a member of Nato, it could have been an issue. But we couldn’t be out of both Nato and the EU at the same time,” he says.
What should the elite do to counter populists? “Be more down to earth, don’t bully people, listen,” he replies.
Our schedules are pressing: Soini has to make his speech and I am heading to parliament. But there is still time for a self-deprecating comment about his expansive stomach: “It’s very nice to look at but it’s expensive to get. I’m big and ugly, like a Moomin.” Soini puts on his Millwall scarf and we head out into the rain and a rapidly changing world.
I call Soini a few weeks later — the Millwall match was postponed, but he managed to see The Mousetrap in London with his wife (“the price of love”). He is surprisingly positive about the centre-left government’s response to coronavirus, giving it “eight out of 10” and reserving particular praise for the young Social Democrat prime minister Sanna Marin, who “has been very good at communicating”.
The Social Democrats have overtaken the Finns in opinion polls, and populist parties across Europe are suffering. Soini, however, still thinks populism could come out on top over time. “When all the publicity is focused on the government, then they are benefiting from it. But the big battle to come, which might take years, is globalism against populism. Globalism is God for godless people,” he says.
He thinks the populists’ moment will arrive after the coronavirus pandemic, when the large increase in government debt from the crisis will need to be reduced. “When there is a time that you have to pay it all back, that is when the backlash will come. I won’t say it’s a knockout for populism currently. They will go down temporarily and then come back, like a jack-in-the-box.”
Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent
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