If a so-called populist party is drawing votes from the mainstream, then the mainstream party that deals seriously with its upstart rival’s issue will eventually win voters even if it has to argue with them. It’s a lesson John Howard never forgot — a lesson lately ignored and forgotten
This is an edited version of the 2017 John Howard Lecture, delivered on August 22 in Melbourne by the author for the Menzies Research Centre, to an audience that included the Hon. John Howard.
There is a quiet civil war among historians as to whether Robert Menzies or John Howard is the greater prime minister. John Howard has more or less committed himself to the view—in his fine two-part documentary on Menzies produced by the Menzies Research Centre—that Menzies was Australia’s greatest leader. And that might seem to settle things. But I was present last week in Sydney at an IPA event when John Roskam, introducing Mr Howard, firmly disagreed and nominated him for the title. There was loud applause for this judgment which was joined, if not led, by John Stone who was, I think, the first credentialled observer to hand this palm to Australia’s premier battler, in the March 2008 issue of Quadrant.
I have to say that I like this Menzies–Howard contest. It can’t really go wrong, can it? It’s something like the opposite of Henry Kissinger’s verdict on the Iran–Iraq War: it’s a pity they can’t both win. Of course, it’s not my place, as a foreigner who discovered Australia about forty years too late, to presume to offer a verdict. But I would like to suggest that something to bear in mind when judging political greatness is the question: What opportunities for greatness did history offer that leader? What were the challenges, the opportunities, the risks? What happens if the Man cometh but the Hour doesn’t? President Clinton regretted that he hadn’t been faced by a really serious challenge like the Second World War. He felt it would really have stretched him.
John Howard did have a rare opportunity for a conservative statesman, which was that his opponents in the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating understood the need for economic reform as he did. Both Labor and Coalition governments then implemented what was in effect a rolling program of reform. That was important because the bipartisan foundation of Australia’s reform program made it more likely to endure and in fact gave it more than three decades of implementation. But there is more to be said—a little pre-history—on this. The beginnings of that reform were laid down in the Campbell Report that Mr Howard had commissioned as Treasurer in the Fraser government. That report influenced the nation, the realists in the Labor Party—and, I dare say, it may have influenced the Liberal Party too. Chance favours the prepared mind—in this case the national mind—and the national mind was prepared by the Campbell Report. And it was John Howard who appointed the Campbell Commission.
That little pre-history underscores the vital importance of serious intellectual investment in ideas and policies in and out of government. If the ideas of the Right are not explored and advanced, those of the Left will triumph effortlessly. That is why the role of the Menzies Research Centre, as a kind of intellectual scout of Liberalism and conservatism foraging ahead of the body of MPs and activists, is so vital to the future success of Coalition governments.
And that brings me to my final comparison. If one of the attributes of political skill is to convert the Opposition to one’s point of view, then the obvious comparison for John Howard is with Margaret Thatcher. I certainly see the likeness, and so did she. Both converted their opposition labour parties to economic realism to the benefit of the country. Unfortunately, it’s starting to look as if both conversions were temporary and both UK and Australian labour parties are today whoring after doctrines that don’t even have the benefit of being strange but are all too familiar as the oft-trodden road to perdition.
All is flux
That is merely one development, however, in the politics of the advanced democracies of the West, which are almost all in an extraordinary degree of movement, confusion, even chaos. As the Greek philosopher said: All is flux.
Consider merely a few random examples of dramatic political change across the globe.
There is the decline of mainstream parties of the Left. French socialists went from being the governing party to getting 7 per cent of the total vote in the recent elections. Poland’s post-communist socialists have all but disappeared in the last three elections, to be replaced by competition between an urban liberal party and a rural conservative one. There are now three Spanish parties competing for the votes that only recently went to the Socialists. And though Jeremy Corbyn staged a surprise recovery for Labour in the UK, the party has lost its reliable Scottish redoubt that gave it upwards of fifty seats at Westminster.
The mainstream Right is a little better off, but not enjoying the dominance it might have expected from the decline of the Left. The French Right, the latest incarnation of a Gaullist-accented Centre-Right, expected to be the major party in parliament this year. It is now an opposition of honourable size to Emmanuel Macron’s new “centrist” majority. The Right is also out of power in Italy, Greece, Sweden, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere, but its overall condition is mixed: it is either in power or a realistic contender for power but uncertain, fumbling, doubting its own ideas but nervous of new ones, and often plagued by new rivals that are winning over its own base with policies that the mainstream parties shunned as old-fashioned some time ago. Often its internal debate is whether to co-opt these rivals or condemn them.
This flux reflects the underlying demographic reality that the class composition of the mainstream parties has been changing for some time. Almost everywhere one finds that the mainstream Left is losing its traditional base in the blue-collar working class as it designs its policies to attract the middle-class urban professionals with progressive views, especially those working in the public sector and in the “third” sector of the media, NGOs and the academy. The Australian Labor Party in particular has been distracted by the contortions of trying to woo and destroy the Greens simultaneously. Mr Howard was the first major Western politician to act upon the insight that the blue-collar voters could now be won, in an election in which he was cheered by miners and loggers.
Recent elections in the United States and Britain have shown that the Republicans and the Tories now win substantially more votes from the lesser-educated and fewer from the highly-educated. And as we shall see later, this crossover trend seems to be consistent with a new division in electorates across Europe—that identified by the English social democrat David Goodhart in his recent book The Road to Somewhere as being between the “Somewheres” who are firmly attached to their home, district, nation and identity, and the “Anywheres” who have the skills to live and work anywhere and a correspondingly weaker attachment to home and nation.
There are some worrying aspects of these trends for conservatives and non-progressive liberals. But we should recall Lord Northcliffe’s reply to a deputation of capitalists who asked for his papers’ support in a strike: “Gentlemen, the pennies of the working class are quite as good as yours—and there are a damn sight more of them.” The same applies to votes—not as much as in Northcliffe’s day but still substantially in net terms.
And, finally, there is the spectre de jour, the rise in “populism”, or what the media and the political classes call populism—namely, the emergence of new parties, some Left, some Right, some a blend of the two, that challenge the mainstream parties, that campaign on issues that the existing parties have neglected, and that become a serious and perhaps permanent part of the political system.
A recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, published by America’s National Endowment for Democracy, provided a handy compendium of Europe’s populist parties. Takis S. Pappas, a Greek political theorist living in Hungary, listed twenty-two different parties he cautiously calls “challengers to liberal democracy”. Seven have held power in coalition and another four alone. I was surprised by those high numbers, and that may be because Professor Pappas includes parties—such as the socialist Pasok, which governed Greece for twenty-two years, UKIP, Italy’s main opposition party, and the present governing parties of Hungary and Poland—as “populists” when some of them look to me more like conservative parties, sometimes headed by charismatic leaders. These parties are undoubtedly taking votes from the mainstream parties. The question that we should be asking about them is this: Have the populists taken these votes for the foreseeable future, thus becoming permanent contenders for power in our existing political system? Or are they merely temporary custodians of these votes that will return to the mainstream parties when their voters have completed their own transitions to different political identities with different sources of political support?
That is not, of course, the way that political establishments, existing parties, or the media, or indeed Professor Pappas want us to think about populism. As the professor sees it, these parties are not participants in democracy but challengers to it. He fears that once in power they will turn against democracy and override its constraints if they become an obstacle to the achievement of their visions. He tacitly assumes that mainstream parties can be trusted not to betray democracy in this way—the European Union’s well-known “democracy deficit” almost never strikes respectable opinion as such an infringement. And he is echoed on all these points by most other political commentators who instruct us as follows: the main choice before us today is between populism and liberal democracy. Once examined sceptically, however, that hardly seems like a choice at all. It sounds more like a slogan to conscript the voters into shunning populists and continuing to vote for what are called the “legacy parties” without thinking too much about it.
Populism, liberalism and democracy
Yet thought is required here. As we shall see, populism and liberal democracy, though common terms in the higher journalism, are slippery ones. Consider the textbook accounts of populism. Among other things, it supposedly describes a movement that is personalist, rooted in a leader-principle, hostile to the “regime of the parties”, and based on blending Left and Right in a vague new synthesis. If that is the case, then the most successful populist leader in Europe today is Emmanuel Macron, President of France. He denounced the existing parties as corrupt and incompetent (not without some evidence). He founded a new party based around himself—EM standing for both En Marche and Emmanuel Macron. He carefully selected parliamentary candidates and cabinet members on the basis of their loyalty to him and of their being untainted by the past. He advanced a set of policies that blended “pro-business” economic reforms with extreme social liberalism in identity politics—combining Left and Right politics in the French context. And finally, since his election, he has sought to present himself as a national leader above politics, at one point summoning all the legislators to Versailles where he addressed them for about ninety minutes. (He got bad reviews from them and, more recently, from the voters.) Altogether Macron’s performance has been, if anything, an exaggeration of what populism traditionally means.
Yet Macron is never described as populist. Quite the contrary: the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, hailed his election as the beginning of the end of populism, and a New York Times analysis on Macron’s recent reverses pointed to his defeat of populism as one rare success. That is because Brussels and establishment opinion generally approve of his broad ideological tendencies, which embrace such familiar policies as multiculturalism, open borders, a banking union to underpin the euro, and a kind of militant born-again Europeanism. They regard populism as a threat to these policies and so they ignore the populist aspects of the Macron victory. As generally used, therefore, populism is not a neutral dispassionate description but a “boo” word employed to discredit those called populist or at least to indicate disapproval of them. This definition of populism seeks to end debate before it begins rather than to advance or clarify it.
Liberal democracy too is a protean concept that today needs a considerable amount of clarifying. In the relatively recent past—the days of FDR and Churchill, JFK and Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher—liberal democracy meant free competitive elections in an atmosphere of free speech, free assembly and a free press. How could an election be free without free speech to allow full discussion of the issues? We fought the Cold War under this sign. To be sure, there were some additional liberal restraints on majority rule even then but they were modest and few in number.
In recent years, however, liberalism has come to mean the proliferation of liberal institutions—the courts, supra-national bodies, charters of rights, independent agencies, UN treaty monitoring bodies—that increasingly restrain and correct parliaments, congresses and elected officials. This shift of power was questionable when these bodies merely nullified or delayed laws and regulations. But more recently they have taken to instructing democratically accountable bodies to make particular reforms and even to impose them on the entire polity through creative constitutional and treaty interpretation. Their decisions have concerned a wide range of official powers from welfare rules through gay marriage to regulations on migration and deportation (of, among others, convicted terrorists). Liberal democracy under this dispensation becomes the undemocratic imposition of liberal policies—which, incidentally, is the core of truth in Viktor Orban’s somewhat misleading advocacy of “illiberal democracy”.
This transfer of power has happened in part because progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties have happily gone along with it. They did so by the simple expedients either of not discussing these issues—in the common phrase, by keeping them out of politics—or in the case of measures they favoured, by leaving the courts or regulatory agencies to carry them out and then treating their passage as a fait accompli. Their justification in these latter cases was that since Parliament or Congress had “failed” to pass some urgent reform, it was the duty of the courts to step in and do so. In fact legislatures had not “failed” but refused to pass these measures. The courts, in stepping in to do so, were therefore arrogating legislative powers to themselves and hoping to get away with it, as they usually did, by rhetorical sleight of hand.
Immigration control is one example of policies excluded by silence in many countries; European integration is an example, especially in Britain, of a policy that has been pursued in silence or behind a veil. This shift of power is almost a constitutional convention by now. The longer it continues unnoticed, the more it will determine laws and regulations, the more that electoral or parliamentary majorities will cease to be the decisive decision-makers, and the more they will become one among several stakeholders around the table. Majoritarian democracy in these conditions mutates into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.
Let me illustrate this further—and by a novel route. As a journalist I have always envied social scientists because whereas the rest of us are only as good as our arguments, they enjoy the benefit of opinions that have been scientifically validated. So I am borrowing one of their techniques and expressing this stage of my argument in the form of an impressive social science diagram.
Liberalism versus democracy?
What does the diagram tell us? It’s a spectrum of constitutional powers in which the central point is liberal majoritarian democracy as it would have been understood by FDR, Churchill, JFK, Reagan, and so on. At one end of the spectrum you have post-democracy; at the other end, populism. As liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance, the system moves towards post-democracy. As they decrease in number—or even as moves in the opposite direction towards direct democracy occur—the system moves towards populism. But every action stimulates a reaction. So as more power has shifted to liberal institutions in recent years, and as democratic majorities have become weaker as a result, the more populism has emerged to complain that the will of the voters is being ignored, and to demand it be respected, and the restraints on it removed.
That is what the recent surges of populism represent—and theorists have come to understand the fact. It was a Dutch political scientist of liberal views, Cas Mudde, who pointed out some years ago that “populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicisation.”
But there is an equal and opposite truth to this. If majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, then populism and populist issues will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. The UK referendum on Brexit achieved exactly that. Once the voters had made their decision, and once the government had accepted and promised to implement it, Brexit became an orthodox part of the political debate, with the government proposing measures to implement it, the Opposition suggesting amendments to those measures, the courts hearing cases to ensure that Brexit was pursued within the rules of the political game, and so on.
It’s also significant that UKIP has seen its support drain away since one mainstream party—and arguably both—adopted its signature issue and began carrying it into practical effect as the small and relatively powerless UKIP simply cannot do. This is important. As you may recall from a few minutes ago, I asked if populist parties were here for good—a permanent entry into the competition of parties—or if they were likely to fade away as other parties took up their issues. Either may happen, of course. But the UKIP case suggests that populist parties may be way-stations for discontented voters who may not know it but who are on their way to adopt new political loyalties and to join new political parties, as for example the blue-collar workers moving Right.
Once we take these (fairly major) developments into account, it becomes possible to craft a definition of populism that is not simply a way of abusing a political party or jeering at its arguments without meeting them honestly and seriously. Professor Mudde has given us one such definition above: populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Another was revealed unintentionally by Professor Pappas when he said: “Populist parties embrace democracy but not liberalism. Liberalism without democracy is not a combination found in real-life polities today.” It is his second sentence that discloses the definition we need. For “liberalism without democracy” is an apt description of the system of government towards which the West has been moving since 1989, and populism is the resistance to it. And however we juggle things, the main choice facing the voters seems likely to be between some sort of democratic populism and some form of liberal or, in less deceptive language, some form of progressive elitism.
That is not formally the choice in many countries at present. But it is a choice towards which post-industrial voters and countries seem to be tending, as we saw earlier when looking at the fates of Left and Right around the world. Perhaps because of the extraordinary Macron phenomenon, French intellectuals have been examining the significance and likely results of this and other trends, and they are coming up with some persuasive, if challenging, interpretations. In particular Pierre Manent, director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, in an article translated for the new American magazine American Affairs, argues that populism is likely to be absorbed into a new party system but in a negative and even destructive way.
He sees this new system emerging ultimately from the conversion of both major traditional parties of Left and Right (in France especially but elsewhere too) to the “European idea” from the 1970s onwards. In becoming “European” and “modern”, the Left abandoned its original constituency of class—notably the working class; in making the same transition, the Right abandoned its constituency of nation. Those of their respective voters who continued to feel loyal to these particularisms and the loyalties arising from them became an embarrassment to the new model parties and an obstacle to the policies that the European idea demanded.
These policies were a set of rules for harmonising the EU’s economic arrangements, its political commitments, and even its national-cum-democratic character. They were determined by small and often secret committees of bureaucrats in Brussels and, once determined, were not really subject to amendment or repeal by “national” parties responding to the democratic objections of electorates.
If all this sounds a little abstract, the brutal treatment of Greece by the EU troika, overriding its democratic choices by fiat, will make the point: the future of Europe is determined in a political stratosphere and handed down to nations and classes which are required to endorse it as it comes. Those who object, clinging to class or nation, have therefore to be seen and slandered by their own traditional parties as various kinds of “deplorables”—“extremists”, “populists”, “unrespectables”, as bad as “terrorists”.
Some of these deplorables break away and found new parties representing their old loyalties; others cross the political spectrum to join parties that now seem more sympathetic to them; and when these defections occur, the leaderships of the mainstream, now the Centre, began to see their common interests more clearly.
Manent’s essay is a rich and complex one. If these trends continue unabated, Manent thinks they will lead to a competition between an unrespectable national-populism and an arrogant cosmopolitan centrism—or, in his words, between populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the Centre.
We already see the bare bones of this in the European parliament, where the mainstream parties of Left and Right now form a coalition against the “extremes” (that is, all the other parties). They do so in defence of European integration, globalisation, supra-nationalism, overlapping jurisdictions, more or less open borders, extreme individualism, and cosmopolitan values—and against xenophobia, national sovereignty, respect for traditional culture, any communitarian sense of belonging, and democratic patriotism.
It is not hard to see in this list of issues an emerging competition of class interests corresponding to Goodhart’s two broad new groups of Anywheres and Somewheres. Macron’s victory in France, though achieved through populist methods, was a victory for this emerging centrist consensus in which Manent sees great dangers. Let me cite two dangers in particular.
First, the new political system that Manent foresees would replace an earlier system of Left versus Right in which the battle was over how to share the economic spoils. That system would be replaced by one in which the battle is over such questions as immigration control, gay marriage and the civil rights of religion, multiculturalism and the dilution of citizenship, the transfer of sovereignty to authorities outside the nation, and the loss of any sense of democratic ownership of political decisions. Battles over how to share wealth and income streams are much easier to settle than disputes over morality, ethnicity, citizenship and allegiance which, as we see in the US, can be toxic.
Second, in the old Left versus Right world, both sides essentially accepted the legitimacy of the other. They did so not by saying Vive la difference, but as Manent points out, by acknowledging that the other side would win elections occasionally and when they did, they had the right to govern the country for a specified period.
He observes—I think rightly—that the centrist establishment consensus in Europe does not really accept the right of the “extremes” to come to power. When they do, it thinks it’s legitimate to use supra-national legal and political powers to constrain and even oust them. See the cases of Hungary, Poland and Austria and the imposition of refugee quotas on reluctant member-states. See also some of the reasoning behind the self-dramatising “Resistance” to Donald Trump.
What Manent’s new party system offers, therefore, is a much more partisan and bitter battle over questions that are more difficult to solve and more resistant to compromise than the world in which we grew up. And contrary to bien pensant progressive opinion, populist demagogy is much less to blame for the bitterness and intractability of the political battleground than is “the fanaticism of the centre”.
Nevertheless it’s important to realise, as Manent does, that these new political loyalties will not simply replace the older ones wholesale as if a new page in history has been turned. In some cases, where the national political tradition is a revolutionary one, such a complete transformation of the parties might occur. In the main, however, this new political division will infiltrate the existing parties gradually and change their characters slowly, leaving them considerably but not completely changed.
Populism and the Australian parties
The Right versus Left battle between Capital and Labour was the dominant theme in the politics and in the political parties of all European countries for almost two centuries, but how it played out differed dramatically in Germany, France and Britain, not to mention Russia. The same will be true of the struggle between national populists and progressive centrists. And here these changes will take place through the refracting medium of Australian political parties.
Like other political parties in the Anglosphere, Australia’s parties tend to be flexible, responsive to public opinion, and skilled at adapting political ideas to national conditions. They adapt or reinvent themselves, stick around, and remake new or “foreign” ideas in Australian form.
That’s why—unlike the recent changes in France—the Coalition and Labor are highly unlikely to be replaced by two parties representing a progressive elite versus national populists in pure form. If that were to happen, Labor would be the first party and the Coalition the second because that is where most of their respective voters live. But the mainstream Australian parties will want to keep centrists and populists within their own ranks. That won’t be too difficult, let alone impossible; there are Left and Right populists and Left and Right progressives in Australia. Each party, realising this, will mix a cocktail of different policies to appeal to both constituencies in the light of its own traditions.
What will those policy mixes be? I can only hazard a few rough guesses on how each of the parties will shape its policies on what look like the key issues of globalisation and moral reform. I realise I am opening myself to mockery.
My guess is that the two parties will divide globalisation between them. Liberals will continue to advance economic globalisation (and market economics in general—on which Mr Shorten has already declared a populist war) and Labor will champion the globalisation of culture and institutions. Liberals will be for free trade, Labor for open immigration. Labor will be readier to sign up to global economic regulations such as Kyoto, while the Coalition will see regulation as a national responsibility shared with others through bilateral free-trade agreements. Labor will support supra-national institutions rooted in “pooled sovereignty” and global governance; Liberals will defend an internationalism rooted in co-operation between sovereign nation-states. Labor will be for a multicultural Australia that fosters multiple ethnic identities, the Liberals for policies that stress a unifying Australian one. Labor’s foreign policy will rest on the UN, Liberal foreign policy on the US alliance and, perhaps increasingly, on other Anglosphere relationships. The resulting battles will be real and important but in the main not life-or-death quarrels.
There is likely to be a far sharper division between the two mainstream parties, however, on moral-cum-cultural reforms on everything from same-sex marriage to immigration control to Aboriginal history and rights to Captain Cook’s “discovery” of Australia. Almost all of these issues arouse strong passions, divide both parties in ways similar to the Remain–Leave divisions in the UK, and resist compromise. Their resolution, moreover, often creates a further set of problems which means they’re not settled when they’re settled.
Though both parties have divisions on these issues, the signs are that Labor has decided to side with the “progressive” consensus on most of them, and where it still resists doing so (as on “stopping the boats”) it is being pushed strongly in that direction by its new progressive middle-class base in NGOs, the radical churches, the Greens, and the academic-cum-media complex.
The debate over same-sex marriage is the best current example, but it’s likely to be followed by major disputes on such issues as immigration, national cohesion, language, Australian history, the nature of citizenship, the character of democracy, and even the nature of Australia itself, that reflect the “Anywheres” side of the new political spectrum and accordingly repel Labor’s earlier class constituencies.
Liberalism, conviction and compromise
What does all this mean for the Liberal Party? Let me answer that with a British story. A newly-elected Labour MP was being shown around the House of Commons by an old Westminster hand. He was shown the Speaker’s chair, the press gallery, Annie’s bar, the smoking room, and at last the facing green leather benches in the Chamber.
“This is where we sit,” said the Labour veteran, pointing to the Opposition benches.
“And is that where our enemies sit?” asked the newcomer, pointing to the other side of the House.
“No, lad,” replied the older man. “That’s where our opponents sit. Our enemies sit on our side of the House.”
For some unaccountable reason the phrase “Black Hand dinner” floats into my mind. Many of the most important battles in politics take place within political parties rather than between them. These are the battles that determine what goes into a party’s manifesto, what broad economic strategy a party adopts, how to compensate those who lose those battles internally, how to reconcile the party in parliament with its supporters in the country over internally contentious issues, and so on.
Burke famously described a political party as a body of men formed to argue for some great purpose. That can be true—and is true—for small parties in systems of proportional representation such as the Greens in Europe and Australia. But large parties like the Tories and the Liberal Party are large coalitions of several interests—interests not merely economic but also philosophical as, for instance, social conservatives—and these groups have overlapping rather than identical interests as well as some reasons for disagreeing with other factions.
Over time political parties—rather like armies—become skilled at defusing internal rows and fostering co-operation between all their members. But they don’t always succeed. Party management is always a hard task for even the most skilled politicians. And if they are to maintain party unity for most of the time, they must be able to rely on an irreducible minimum of agreement between the different party factions and the large social interests supporting them. Party members, especially MPs, have to feel that they are on the same side of most vital issues—and jointly and firmly opposed to other parties.
If that is true for party management in stable political eras, it is doubly true for times of upheaval when parties are undergoing great changes and wondering about their real character and purposes. Like, for instance, now.
In this week’s Spectator its political correspondent, Isabel Hardman, reports on the emergence in the UK parliament of a group of MPs who feel uncomfortable within the parties for which they were elected and are vaguely hopeful of a party alignment that will bring them together in a new centrist party.
Just today the President of the United States has tweeted an appeal to Republican supporters to vote for the GOP primary challenger to Senator Jeff Flake, who opposes the White House on immigration and other key issues. That’s not unprecedented, but it ends a long period of Republican self-discipline in which the White House, Congress and Republican National Committee machines almost always supported existing office-holders. Moreover, Trump’s tweet reflects the growing divide—a veritable Grand Canyon of ideology—between himself and the Republican Congress over trade, migration and industrial policy.
In Australia the Turnbull government has suffered a series of internal rows and political reverses stemming from the fact that Malcolm Turnbull is a socially progressive leader of a divided but largely socially conservative party.
My own view on this is drawn from Loughnane’s Law, promulgated by Brian Loughnane, formerly the Liberals’ federal organiser: Liberals tend to win when the leader of the Liberal Party is also the leader of the conservative movement. Be that as it may, however, if Labor is committed to one side of the argument on social-cum-cultural issues, as I argued above, then the Liberals must make a virtue of their divisions in order to capture the largest possible number of voters.
Take same-sex marriage, for instance. If Paul Kelly was right in a recent column, as I believe, its passage will not end the controversy but merely extend it to a range of other controversies over whether the equality right of gays trumps or is trumped by the civil rights of religious people and institutions. Unless some provision for protecting the rights of religious people is built into the marriage legislation, therefore, the Liberals will face a potentially endless series of disputes with one of their strongest constituencies.
Labor is likely to resist such safeguards, however, and if it loses the plebiscite, is likely to argue that “populist” democracy is unsuited to a range of “sensitive” issues on which voters are ignorant or bigoted. And that is not a comfortable case to make in a country with such a tradition of vigorous democratic debate as Australia enjoys.
Conviction politics—in this case progressive conviction politics—cannot be pursued to its logical extreme—in this case the subordination of religious rights to equality rights—by either party without serious loss. For Labor in this case it means alienating its traditional voters; for Liberals it would mean major and continuing internal disputes, the likely loss of elections, and the departure of social conservatives to found new populist parties. In the long run that purity—that principled refusal to compromise—would weaken all existing factions within Australian Liberalism. And it would postpone the absorption of populism into mainstream politics when the interests of Liberalism are that it should be integrated—and, if possible, integrated mainly within the Right.
The example of Brexit
That brings me to one final point—and, happily, not a pessimistic one. Contrary to most media commentary, the Brexit referendum is almost a parable of the necessary and valuable uses of populism in politics. Opposition to British membership of the European Union never ceased to be a significant strand of political opinion. It remained at the level of about one-third of respondents, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, for the entire period since the 1975 referendum. But since the leaderships of both parties, together with most cultural institutions, strongly supported the EU, it was rarely at the centre of political debate.
The Tory party in particular was always far more Eurosceptic than its leaders. “Keeping Europe out of politics” only became unmanageable when Nigel Farage and UKIP fought and won elections on the issue. That compelled David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership.
When the referendum was held, it revealed two things: first, that once party discipline was weakened, most Tories were Leavers, and second, that once a genuine public discussion was held under rules of media neutrality, Eurosceptic opinion proved larger than expected and even grew to become a majority. In other words “populism” in the form of UKIP helped to liberate a genuine and rooted democratic sentiment that might otherwise have been suppressed.
Once the result was announced, moreover, the reaction of the Tory government in promising to implement Brexit meant that this pre-eminent “populist” cause was absorbed into the conventional party system. It became clear that the great majority of Tories were relieved that the party had embraced the cause of British sovereign independence.
It is now hard to imagine the Tories becoming a pro-EU party again, whatever the outcome of Brexit. It is gradually becoming clear also that most Labour MPs are natural Remainers—a fact hitherto obscured by the awkward fact that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his immediate circle, are among the minority of Labour Leavers.
As it is gradually working itself out, however, Brexit will be increasingly debated across the floor of the House and, in elections, between the voters as a Left versus Right issue more than as a populist versus centrist one. Indeed, popular support for UKIP has drained away to mainstream parties since the referendum, and Nigel Farage himself has left politics, at least temporarily, for the media. But its cause continues to win.
The lesson is that if a populist party is drawing votes from the mainstream, then the mainstream party that deals seriously with its issue will eventually win its voters even if it has to argue with them. It’s a lesson John Howard never forgot and that explains why he is competing with Menzies for the title of Australia’s greatest prime minister.
John O’Sullivan is Quadrant’s international editor.