Whither conservatism?

Whither conservatism? The Independence March in Warsaw (Poland) in 2019. Photo: Dawid Małecki (@djmalecki). Elcan Blog

Whither conservatism? The Independence March in Warsaw (Poland) in 2019. Photo: Dawid Małecki (@djmalecki)

The left is in retreat and the right is commanding politics. But what kind of right is it? Is it the broadly liberal conservatism that underpinned liberal democracy’s post-1945 success or an illiberal hard right claiming to speak for ‘the people.’? The past decade has seen a surge in a significant number of countries in the hard right, including Spain, at the expense of the centre right.

These questions are posed in the timely book, Conservatism (Princeton University Press), by Edmund Fawcett, coinciding as it does with the pivotal US presidential election. The book, which neatly dovetails with Fawcett’s Liberalism, published in 2014, is a comprehensive and erudite look at more than 200 years of conservative parties in the US, UK, Germany and France.

Fawcett, a former chief correspondent of The Economist in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, begins with two figures, Edmund Burke (1729-97), a staunch opponent of the French Revolution and regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservative liberalism, with its emphasis on conserving customs and traditional institutions, and Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), an exile from that revolution and the forerunner of right-wing authoritarians and fascists.

The first conservatives felt threatened by capitalism, an economic system that fuelled the Industrial Revolution and with it eroded the status quo as the working class began to organize more politically.

As a political movement, conservatives were born in opposition to liberal democracy (a child of the left). Their first opponents were liberals, a political label first coined at Cádiz during the drafting of the 1812 Constitution, Spain’s first and short-lived charter. Liberals were initially seen as the ‘party of movement’ (destructionists) and conservatives as the ‘party of resistance or standstill’ (obstructionists).

Gradually, conservatives accepted electoral democracy and came to dominate political life in the 20th century in the four countries studied in the book, particularly after 1945, in the aftermath of World War Two, when they accepted social reforms and welfarism.

In 60 years of the French Fifth Republic, the president was on the centre right in more than 39 of them. In Britain, the Conservatives governed alone or as the majority party in coalition governments between 1895 and 2020 for 81 of the 126 years. The Tories have been particularly successful at re-inventing themselves. In 31 US presidential elections (1896-2016), Republicans won 17. In Germany, the chancellor was a Christian Democrat in 51 of the 72 years since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949.

But in recent years a broadly liberal-minded centre right has been on the defensive against a confident and disruptive hard right. The mainstream right, says Fawcett, in the past decade ‘appeared indifferent to local and national needs and was notably vulnerable to economic crises’ as the crash of 2008 showed. That crash opened a space for the hard right, but its origins go further back to conservatism’s original struggles to reconcile itself with capitalism and democracy. It is ‘integral to conservatism and not an alien presence threatening conservatism from without.’  Fawcett defines the hard right as a ‘strange pairing of small-government, socially permissive, border-blind libertarians who favoured economic globalization and nativist conservatives preoccupied with cultural identity and national decline.’

The hard right took advantage of the opening. In the US the maverick Republican Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 with a minority of the popular vote but a large majority in the electoral college; Marine Le Pen of the National Front made it to the second round of the 2017 French presidential election and won 34% of the vote; in Germany the hard right AfD won 94 seats (12.6% of the vote) in the Bundestag in 2017, and in Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which led the Brexit movement, won 3.8 million votes in the 2015 election (12.6% of the vote, the third largest share) but only one seat in parliament because of the first-past-the-post system. UKIP won 1.4 million more votes than the Liberal Democrats which got 8 seats. Since then, the Tories have assumed a large part of UKIP’s nationalist populism under Boris Johnson.

Conservatives are faced with a choice. Do they side with the hard right and leave liberal democracy to the mercies of uncontrolled markets and national populism? Or do they look for allies with whom to rebuild a shaken centre?

These are particularly pertinent questions for Spain and were raised when the Popular Party (PP) had to decide on 22 October whether to join the hard-right VOX in the vote of no confidence brought by that party against the leftist coalition government led by the Socialists or abstain. Formed by disaffected PP members, VOX entered the national parliament in April 2019 and more than doubled its number of MPs to 52 out of a total of 350 in the November 2019 election (15.1% of the vote), compared to the PP’s 89. VOX supports the PP in regional governments in Madrid, Andalucía and Murcia.

The PP had the political class on tenterhooks as it left its voting decision until the very end of the two-day parliamentary debate when it joined with 15 of the 16 other parties against the censure motion. The PP’s leader Pablo Casado told Santiago Abascal, his counterpart in VOX, he was ‘part of the problem and you cannot be part of the solution that my party represents.’ Whether this marked a definitive turning point in the PP and a move back toward the centre or just a tactical decision remained to be seen.

The book ends with thumbnail sketches of prominent conservatives over the last 200 years including Boris Johnson. ‘Without settled aims or evident principles, Johnson is a leader of rare gifts, which include a gamesman’s skill at inner-party manoeuvre, power of words, bold judgement, and strong public rapport.’ He leads a party of ‘ill-matched hyper-liberal globalists and nation-first populists, from which liberal Tories had largely fled or been expunged.’

Fawcett knows what he is speaking about: Johnson is his nephew.

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