ADDRESS TO THE RECOVERING CONSERVATISM CONFERENCE
HOSTED BY THE DANUBE INSTITUTE
REFORM CLUB, LONDON
What’s gone wrong with centre-right politics: is it our leaders, or our beliefs; or has the world changed? It’s a bit of each, as I will try to show, but there’s no reason it can’t be fixed.
Consider the Reagan, Thatcher, and Howard governments. They each had a point, a programme, and a purpose. There was a fundamental point that each was trying to achieve, a clear programme to bring it about, and a moral purpose to what they were trying to do.
The Reagan administration’s objective was to erase the humiliations of the Carter years, by restoring the economy, by rebuilding the military, and by staring down the old Soviet Union, because America was a “shining city on a hill”, the “last best hope of mankind”.
The Thatcher government’s objective was to overcome decades of decline, to stop subsidising businesses going broke, to turn renters into owners, and to lift the dead hand of the union movement, because the country that had given the world its common language, the mother of parliaments, the Industrial Revolution, and the emancipation of minorities had become the sick man of Europe.
The Howard government’s objective was to end its predecessor’s culture wars, to reform the tax system to reward earning over spending, to end the something-for-nothing mindset via work for the dole, and to privatise inefficient government businesses, so that it could truly be said that anyone with the right to live in Australia had won the lottery of life.
Contrast the Anglosphere’s more recent centre-right governments. All of them have had their successes and strengths but in all three countries, it’s been hard to sustain the centre-right’s traditional claim to be “better economic managers”, given the political turmoil, or to discern the centre-right’s traditional commitment to sound finances and personal and economic freedom, amidst the lockdowns and the spending sprees. In Australia, and even more so in Britain, the centre-right’s usual scepticism about utopian schemes degenerated into ruinously expensive, and technically dubious measures to achieve net zero emissions.
But there’s a further difficulty here. For Reagan and Thatcher, the big task was to defeat the Marxism embodied in the old Soviet Union. For today’s centre-right leaders, the big task is to counter the cultural Marxism, that permeates vast swathes of our institutions, and makes good government more difficult than ever; in some ways a more dangerous foe, because it’s internal.
When Reagan famously said that “government was not the solution, government was the problem”, many people believed him, after several decades of higher spending, more bureaucracy and crushing rates of tax. But what if “post-material” voters’ concerns are less insufficient family income, than a supposedly imminent climate catastrophe; and less to protect the democratic way of life than to atone for inter-generational racism and colonialism? To such voters, more government is indeed the solution, rather than the problem.
How do political parties flourish then, whose programme has been to advance freedom, to protect institutions and to strengthen the country, when more and more of their one-time voters think that economic growth hurts the the environment, and that the country is fundamentally shamed by the dispossession of its original inhabitants?
Having it so good for so long, hasn’t made us spiritually content; just sent us down the burrows of trying to solve ever more “first world problems”. While the Marxist left failed to persuade voters that unfairness meant that the state had to control the economy in order to promote equality, it’s never abandoned its goal to subvert liberal-capitalism; just changed tactics, trying to subvert the culture, via a long march through the institutions.
The neo-Marxist left has turned out to be much better at persuading people that the planet needs to be saved, than that the economy needs to be nationalised. So it’s now, not socialism, but environmentalism, that requires vast government controls, over how our electricity is produced, and how we warm our houses; and soon how we feed ourselves, and how we move around, in order to combat climate change.
Likewise, the left has been good at exploiting our humane instincts to undermine our cultural practices, so that ending discrimination no longer just means treating everyone the same, it means taking coercive measures against white privilege and male privilege. It’s no longer enough to treat minorities with respect; there have to be “pride” weeks, and the pretence that biological men are really women, if that’s what they say they are. And the societies that were the first to abolish slavery, and to empower minorities, and to become essentially colour blind, are now thought to be those that are the most guilty of racism and oppression. Naturally, the further people are from having to deal with real disadvantage, and real injustice, the stronger are these misconceptions.
So along with patient reiteration of the economic facts of life, that lower taxes and less regulation is the key to economic growth and greater prosperity, there’s now this further key challenge for the centre right: to counter the climate and identity obsessions that are weakening our economies and sapping our societies, and which our strategic competitors – like communist China, imperialist Russia, and Islamist Iran – might occasionally pay lip service to, but don’t share. Indeed, their cyber-propaganda units cynically whip them up, knowing that it makes the West more polarised, fragmented and divided.
There’s no conspiracy here, just generations of students, fed a pervasive diet of leftist propaganda, that because Anglosphere societies were once somewhat exploitative and prejudiced, they’re basically illegitimate, even though they’ve also pioneered human freedom and social justice. At least in the Anglosphere, higher education once correlated with voting “right”. Now it’s the opposite. Richer voters have been shifting left; while poorer voters have gone in the other direction; hence the Republicans’ success in the “fly-over” states, and the Tories’ success in the “red wall”; and, the Australian Liberal Party’s sudden loss of its up-market, so called “teal” seats to pseudo-greens.
Australia’s most successful living leader, John Howard, often characterised the centre-right in our country as “economically liberal and socially conservative”. But in this new era, it’s said, we should stop being economically liberal, in order to win poorer seats; and stop being socially conservative, in order to hold richer seats. Even though repeated experience teaches that governments can’t create wealth, although they can redistribute it; and there’s a point at which redistributing wealth, away from the individuals and the businesses that have generated it, just starts to make everyone poorer. And even though repeated experience is that evolution is far better than revolution, at bringing about lasting, beneficial change.
In Australia, nominally Liberal-National governments and oppositions – defying the Howard dictum – have lately tried to be “economically conservative” and “socially liberal”, only to end up aping the centre left, usually disastrously, because why would voters go for the fake left rather than the real one? Instead of shifting to the left, where they can’t credibly compete, on the grounds that it’s needed to win elections, centre right leaders need to understand the roots of this leftward drift, often fostered by their own unwillingness to call it out.
As someone who brought our party out of opposition in record time, I know something about creating a contest and winning a political argument, by turning climate change from a moral issue about saving the planet to an economic one about soaring power prices; and by insisting that the most humane action was to end the deadly people smuggling trade.
Because that’s what political parties need to succeed: a purpose to sustain them and a credible programme to advance it. For a centre right party, it’s not enough to be slightly less spendthrift, slightly less overbearing, and slightly less politically correct than our opponents; because it’s impossible to win where there’s hardly any fight. No one knew this better than Margaret Thatcher who declared, “I am not a consensus politician; I’m a conviction politician” because she knew that it was conviction and courage that created leaders’ political character.
For the centre right, a way to win would be refusing to close down any fossil-fuelled power stations, until there’s a reliable alternative, and getting to net zero (if we must) without putting the lights out, and killing heavy industry, via emissions-free, proven, reliable nuclear power. It would be reducing the regulatory burden on business, especially small business, because that’s the best way to boost productivity, wages, and people’s ability to pay their bills. It would be giving young people more chance to own a home of their own, via tax advantaged savings schemes, because there’s a moral quality to owning something, rather than just occupying it. It would be giving parents more control of their children’s education, in schools that have better teachers and more academically rigorous teaching, savouring the great books as much as critique-ing them.
But it’s one thing to win government, it’s another to hold it, and to make something of it. Thanks to the left’s long march through the institutions, despite winning elections and having mandates, centre-right governments must expect sabotage at every turn. The established media will be hostile; the bureaucracy will be sullen; the legislature will be obstructive; and the unions will be bolshie; so the internals will be difficult too, hence the importance of strong leadership, that sees politics as a calling, rather than a career or a vanity project, to draw like-minded people into our parties and our governments.
A party that hopes to win an election must be a “broad church”, but not to the point of being endlessly elastic about its beliefs. Labor-lite Liberals, for instance, those who want the Liberal Party to be Labor-without-the-unions, might even be better off in another party, working to make that better, rather than the Liberals worse. There are lots of people who have every right to be in public life but no entitlement to identify as centre-right; yet paradoxically, at least in Australia, the only people who conservative parties ever seem to expel are the conservatives!
When the migrants who flood into Western countries are much more positive about them than their own leaders, and when the cultural heritage that created the West is neglected and even derided by those who should be its guardians, it’s easy to be glum; and to fear that our civilisation might have entered the decadence prefiguring its collapse.
Yet we’ve been here before and always come back. As Margaret Thatcher once observed, the facts are conservative. Come the next serious recession, people will re-discover the importance of wealth creation. Faced with military aggression, they’ll realise that our society is not quite so unjust after all. When the lights start to go out, they’ll realise that having reliable power is more important than cutting emissions. And when the law suits proliferate, they’ll realise that telling young people they’re trapped in the wrong body, wasn’t such a smart idea.
My sense is that peak insanity on climate and identity might already have passed. I have no doubt that our best days are yet to come, if we can but fight the good fight, stay the course, and keep the faith.