Sholto Byrnes unpicks a global trend against conservatives
Across the globe, centre-right parties are under threat
As Britain’s Theresa May puts a brave face on the annual Conservative party conference, despite being so weakened that members of her cabinet brazenly refuse to say she’ll still be leading them come the next general election, there is one thing that could provide a morsel of consolation: the fact that she and her party are far from alone. Across a host of countries, parties of the right are in trouble.
In Canada the opposition Conservatives have made so little impact after the resignation of their former leader and prime minister, Stephen Harper, that one analyst asked if their past years in office represented “less a story of a successful movement than that of a single talented man”. In France, the Republicains were humiliated in the presidential election (to be fair, so were the Socialists – but still). Britain’s Conservatives fear the election of a genuine socialist, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, were polls to be held in the near future.
Even when they are in power, conservative parties totter, like the People’s Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, or Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – returned to power, as I noted last week, with their lowest share of the vote since 1949. In America, Republicans hold the White House, both houses of congress, and 35 of the 50 state governor’s mansions; but not only does the party seem on the verge of outright civil war, it appears barely able to agree on a legislative agenda either.
If there is an overall narrative that explains this uncertainty on the centre-right, it might be this: that for the best part of the last 30 or so years, many parties that call themselves or their philosophy conservative have done so increasingly in name only, while hewing ever closer to a free market fundamentalism that owes much more to classical liberalism than to true conservatism.
For conservatism, revering tradition and history, and having a keen sense of attachment to what is already there, is inherently gradualist. You have to have a very good reason to change or disrupt. There was nothing “conservative” about Margaret Thatcher’s privatising everything she could get her hands on in the 1980s, for instance. Those were the actions of a radical, and deplored as akin to selling off family heirlooms by a previous Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan. “First of all the Georgian silver goes”, he said, “and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.”
What is intriguing about Macmillan’s comments is that he – the very epitome of the patrician, One Nation Conservative – was comparing nationalised industries to prized possessions. While the conservative may in general prefer society and the economy to be guided by private, rather than public, hands, Macmillan’s reaction was a perfectly conservative one in the sense that these industries had been owned and run by the state for decades, and he saw no need for such drastic change.
The policies of austerity followed by centre-right governments were also, I would argue, inherently non-conservative in their disregard for the damage they did to communities, which conservatives prize over what the 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke called “the dust and powder of individuality”. For as the British philosopher Roger Scruton put it more recently: “A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded in gaining it for themselves.”
Austerity had precisely the opposite effect, as have the free market-driven policies of US Republicans. Moving ever further away from traditional conservatism, Republican politicians created a kind of false consciousness among many of their voters. The focus on wealth and tax cuts that would benefit the rich encouraged millions to dream that they too could make it, while the reality was that their platforms would do little for the working and middle classes, and would probably in fact take entitlements away.
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The last year or so appears to have been the moment that voters woke up to the fact that many so-called conservative parties had become, instead, free market fundamentalists. It may be argued that Theresa May’s last manifesto was a reversal of that trend, explicitly stating the virtues of constraints on markets; but that was totally overshadowed by a very non-conservative policy that most people viewed as being told that if you got ill in old age the government would take away most of your house.
Conversely the real conservatives in Britain’s last election, it could be argued, were a Labour leadership that wanted to return to tried and tested policies that had worked well for decades – but which had been overturned by disruptive market liberals - such as a free university education for all who won admission.
Moreover, in their emphasis on solidarity and inclusion, on something shared, there is something essentially conservative about the followings of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and in both the left and right wing fringe parties that have sprung up in Europe. All reject the fierce individualism that has led to atomised societies and a lack of a universally discernible commonwealth to which all gladly give their loyalty, in return for freedoms from want and ignorance, as well as the freedom to make money.
It may be said that voters have been abandoning centre left parties too. But given that they were captured by the same belief in the markets, that is no surprise. "We're all in this together," was the cry of Britain's David Cameron. It is only when parties of the centre right (and the centre left) say this and are believed that the voters will return, and the populists will be consigned once again to the margins. Until then, the voters aren't buying - as is their right in the free market for political ideas.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia