First published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 November 2018

This is the age of disruption, in politics as much as in business, and political parties must respond or fail. Both in France and in Italy, the long-established big parties, of the left and of the right, have largely been swept away. In Germany, the main parties, of the right too but especially of the left, are much diminished. In the United States, Donald Trump smashed the Republican establishment to grab the nomination, and then smashed the Democrat establishment to grab the presidency; after the Democrat establishment had itself been rocked by Bernie Sanders. In Britain, the governing conservatives are convulsed over Brexit, while an out-and-out Marxist has taken over the Labour Party, and quite conceivably could become prime minister. Even here in Australia, more than a quarter of the electorate is refusing to support the two main parties that, in one guise or another, have always held office.

Back in the Reagan-Thatcher era, it was easy enough to know what characterised the centre-right of politics, at least in the English-speaking world: lower taxes, smaller government and winning the Cold War. In the face of suffocating officialdom and punitive tax rates, it seemed that the conservative side of politics had become free marketeers. Only now, we conservatives can’t decide whether it’s more important that trade is free or that it’s fair.

Then, there was near unanimity on the need to oppose communism; and few things unite people like a common enemy. Today, even an increasingly cold peace with China and with Russia has yet to reproduce that glue. Fading memories of “real existing socialism” plus the excesses of big business, the perceived limitations of markets, and declining trust in institutions have sapped enthusiasm for limited government. In these more trying times, what might the centre-right collectively stand for?

We have a choice

Enter Stephen Harper, the former conservative prime minister of Canada, to give us his judgment on what’s really happening, and where things should go from here. There have been thousands of think-pieces and dozens of academic books seeking to understand the rise of populism but this is the first from a senior political leader. That’s why it’s a must-read.

Harper notes that:

“A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. They are not doing well in the world that we conservatives created after the Cold War. And they are not doing well, in part, because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated … The world of globalism is not working for many of our own people … We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying … Conservatism is successful over time because conservatism works. We have to make it work for the mass of our citizens once again.”

According to Harper, the right response to populism is not to denounce it but to engage with it. He certainly hasn’t given up his preference for smaller, stronger government; for lower, fairer taxes; and for more freedom for people who are having a go. He still advocates for the family, small businesses and the institutions that have served us well. But his stress is on strengthening a social fabric that’s under pressure; in part, because of the strains of globalisation. Like all conservatives, Harper is at heart a pragmatist. He wants to solve problems through the application of common-sense remedies based on values that have stood the test of time.

Harper focuses on trade and immigration, the subjects where voters are most at odds with their established political representatives. Although freer trade undoubtedly produces more total wealth, it’s little comfort to an unemployed car worker that his Chinese-made flat screen TV is now cheaper. So far, the economic rise of China has indeed been good for the world, but it’s been much better for China than for the countries whose manufacturers have been undercut and whose technical secrets have been stolen. Likewise, the many benefits of immigration are less clear to the long-time residents who now feel like strangers in their own neighbourhoods, or to the former workers whose jobs have been taken by newcomers ready to work for less.

Harper doesn’t lay down a new political programme to replace Reaganism and Thatcherism. Yet based on this book, these seem to be his broad prescriptions. He’s for: tax cuts, provided they don’t damage the budget; freer trade, provided it doesn’t undermine your own country’s competitive strengths; immigration, provided it doesn’t undercut wages or change a country’s character; and spending restraint, provided it doesn’t remove people’s legitimate expectations of support.

Economic correctness

Conversely, he’s against: big government, because it saps initiative; uncontrolled borders, because it surrenders national sovereignty; and free market dogmatism, because it overlooks the human factor and devalues character. If the market, for instance, were failing to deliver an essential service, in Harper’s view, government would have to step in.

For Harper, “whose side you are on” is at the heart of it. Rootless, cosmopolitan intellectuals parading their moral superiority, or masters of high finance dressing up self-interest as economic correctness, are not for him. His people, the people he thinks the centre-right must promote and protect, are: members of the armed forces and the emergency services; small business operators mortgaging their homes to invest, employ and serve the community; and parents making sacrifices for their children. He salutes everyone and anyone who’s creating something. It’s really a moral vision that he’s articulating. Centre-right politics should foster the civic virtues: duty, service, thrift, responsibility and, above all, love of country.

This is an edited extract of a book review will appear in the December edition of Quadrant.