25 April 2024

Budapest, Hungary



The new conservatism is intensely patriotic, economically pragmatic, and deeply respectful of tradition.

As leader, I often said of my party in Australia, historically a blend of conservatism and liberalism: “we want lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom, as liberals; we support the family, small business and institutions that have stood the test of time, as conservatives; but above all, as patriots, we think that Australia is the best country in the world, and want to keep it that way”.

This conservative fusion of freedom, family and nation, this understanding that “politics is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of religion” is still contentious in the Anglosphere, but not here in Hungary. Hence the colony of English-speaking public intellectuals, that’s sprung up in Budapest, keen to devise a modern formula that can “unite the right” and end the civil war inside established centre-right parties between their conservative and their progressive wings.

This internal struggle, is not, as often claimed, between conservatives and liberals; it’s between conviction and opportunism. Because it’s not really liberalism that’s now at war with conservatism; it’s progressivism: manifested inside centre-right political parties via the notion that electoral success means moving to the left, in order to pick up centre-left votes, because right-wing voters have nowhere else to go.

The trouble with moving to the left in order to gain new voters, is that it normally infuriates old ones, who naturally feel betrayed by a party that no longer knows what it stands for; and who can opt out of politics altogether, or support minor party disrupters that can make a bad situation even worse.

At least in the English tradition, conservatism includes an honoured place for liberalism. Tennyson’s description: “a land of settled government, a land of just and old renown, where freedom broadens slowly down, from precedent precedent” nicely encapsulates the mostly happy marriage of conservatism with liberalism, at least in English-speaking countries. But English liberalism was an intensely pragmatic freedom, far removed from licence or even libertarianism, that could never be prejudicial to good order or to the country’s success.

In free countries that have steadily become richer, there’s been a slow yet seismic shift: working people – who are normally pragmatic, family focussed, wanting decent services, and more jobs with higher pay – have been voting more right; while well-to-do people – who are often ideological and globalist, because they have less to worry about in their own lives – have been voting more left.

This should actually encourage political conservatives, because it stands to reason that a conservative party, that’s broadly in tune with working people’s thinking, should be more electorally successful than an establishment party, from the simple fact that the relatively poor are normally more numerous than the relatively rich, even in countries as blessed as those of the West still are.

But if working people are voting more right: as in Australia in my 2013 election, America in Trump’s 2016 election, Britain in Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit election, and here in Hungary for the past decade, that’s because the main party of the right has become more economically pragmatic, more focussed on the social fabric, more targeted towards people’s living standards, and more concerned to uphold its own country’s interests over “global” ones.

And if richer people are voting more left, as in the Teal phenomenon in Australia in 2022, the Tory wipeout in London in 2019, and Biden’s sweep of all the big US cities in 2020, the main party of the left has changed too, to focus less on cost of living, and more on “first world problems” like climate and identity, making it vulnerable once more to losing the old “blue collar Tories” and the “Reagan Democrats”.

Voting statistics show that parties of the right have tended to become more working class, in the sense that their support comes from people who have to work hard for a living; while parties of the left have tended to become rentier class or welfare class parties, for people who get their money from the state, or from their investments.

This should not trouble conservatives, even though it creates quite a different political contest from the old one, where the parties of the right preached more freedom and lower taxes while the parties of the left preached more fairness and better services. The new contest doesn’t mean that conservatives can ignore economics, because there can be no decent society without a strong economy to sustain it, but sensible economics becomes less an end, and more a means: to a better health system, a more rigorous education system, a social security system that strengthens the family, and a strong national defence. This is potentially a larger constituency than one based on giving the market its head.

Difficulties only arise when the mindset of the party leadership does not adjust to reflect this new voting reality; and to appreciate how the party’s voting base has changed: when the party’s leadership remains drawn to the climate and identity fixations of the already well-to-do suburbs, while its voters have migrated to more aspirational ones.

Boris Johnson, for instance, was in tune with the Red Wall on Brexit, but not on emissions reduction – which working people see as an economic issue, with renewable energy driving up their power bills; but which richer people see as a moral issue, to be pursued at almost any cost in order to save the planet. On this Donald Trump is perfectly in tune with the “left-behind” Americans of the “flyover states”, which is why he so convincingly won the Republican primaries.

Immigration and climate have become litmus issues, precisely because most working people feel that the political establishment, often on both sides, has ripped them off.

Supporting high immigration with more-or-less open borders, because it creates larger markets and a pool of cheap labour for big business, or because it’s somehow owed to the third world, or because it creates the illusion of economic growth while GDP per person stagnates, is toxic to conservatives’ working class constituency; because it depresses wages, lifts housing costs, and clogs infrastructure; and can set up clashes between poorly integrated migrant communities’ values and mainstream ones.

So far, the only country in the world that’s successfully stopped a wave of illegal immigration by boat is Australia. But we have to get legal immigration under control too, and not use it as a substitute for training our own workers and having our own children.

And equally toxic is obsessing over emissions, and making false claims that renewable energy is cheap; while the field evidence is sky-rocketing power prices, industries moving offshore, landscapes blighted by expanses of solar panels and forests of wind turbines, with unelected climate tsars increasingly making rules about edicts over the food we can eat and the cars we can drive.

These days, if it can’t control immigration and if it succumbs to the climate cult, any votes that a conservative party might pick up on the left will be more than matched by the votes it will haemorrhage on the right. Trump gets that; in the end Johnson didn’t, and if Rishi Sunak understands it, he hasn’t yet acted on it, which is why the British government is now in electoral trouble.

As party leader, I always stressed that our job was to be a clear alternative to the other side, not a weak echo.

Given the mess that green-left governments are making – with crumbling services, declining productivity, stagnant wages, growing street crime, disruptive and intimidatory protests that are becoming routine, propaganda masquerading as education, emasculated police and armed forces, and an uncertain response to dictators-on-the-march – conservative parties should be stronger than ever; provided they have decent leaders with the courage, the conviction, and the vigour to articulate strong positions in opposition, and to pursue them relentlessly in government.

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings that forged my nation, so in closing I salute all the military personnel who have kept Australia strong and free.