Embracing the Populist Dragon

My first visit to a summit of the International Democratic Union—the international organisation of Centre-Right political parties—took place in Washington DC in 1985 shortly after the liberation of Grenada by the United States and its East Caribbean allies. On that occasion Grenada’s New National Party was admitted to the IDU and its newly elected Prime Minister, Dr Herbert Blaize, was given the keynote speech at the IDU’s Gala Dinner.

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I remember Mr Blaize, a serious evangelical Christian, leading the gathering of prime ministers and opposition leaders, pollsters and hard-headed election strategists, media mavens and ambitious preppies, in a spirited rendering of the hymn, “Bind Us Together, Lord”. Tentatively and nervously at first, then growing in confidence, finally casting aside all self-consciousness, they gave full-throated voice to song in the liveliest demonstration of Centre-Right unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1814.

Those were the days.

Mr Blaize’s hymn must have inspired something because parties of the Centre-Right then provided the governments of countries in most of the world over the next forty years. IDU governments can claim such achievements as the victory for freedom over Soviet communism in the Cold War and the long economic boom that brought billions of people—not millions, billions—of people out of deep poverty and into the world’s middle class.

Those are achievements of which IDU members can be decently proud. And they are. On the IDU’s first morning Mr Akufo Addo, Ghana’s twice-elected President, could boast that his country had seen the peaceful transfer of power in a series of democratic elections even while its governments—especially its IDU governments—were conducting policies that protected human rights, including property rights, encouraged growth and prosperity by economic freedom and fiscal prudence, and respected the liberal rules of the democratic game. No longer is the Third World always socialist, nor indeed always third.

There was much to celebrate for the IDU in Washington in early December—in particular the spread of democracy and the rise of conservative parties in the new democracies. But those at the IDU’s latest summit also recognised that times are getting harder electorally for conservatives, classical liberals, and their allies across the world. They confront challenges not only from their traditional rivals on the social democratic Left but also from the new revolutionaries of wokeness—Marxists, feminists, gender-theory zealots, advocates of reverse racism, “decolonisation” iconoclasts, intersectional theorists and other groupuscules from the revolutionary undergrowth. The wokerati have seized power in our major institutions while we were looking the other way, and therefore pose a bigger threat to free and prosperous societies than the Marxist-Leninists ever did.

At the same time the ranks of the broad Right are more divided than they were in 1985. Problems first arose after the Cold War when Centre-Right parties lost touch with the reality that they have to represent the opinions of voters in the centre and on the right. They can’t cater to the first and neglect the second—or vice versa—and expect to win and hold power. In many countries since the end of the Cold War some conservative parties have thought that we were in a completely new political world. That was an imagined world where globalisation, the eradication of national borders, the rise of global and regional institutions claiming their own sovereign powers, the spread of international law demanding supremacy over national laws, the growing power of NGOs and single-issue pressure groups—very often promoting quite different policies from those favoured by the voters—and other similar developments were the only political game in town.

In adapting to that world as they saw it, some IDU parties—notably, those in Europe—sometimes forgot that many of their own voters did not see the world that way. These voters continued to think of politics in national or even local terms, and they sensed that power was slipping away to institutions such as the courts or international agencies and from democratically accountable governments and therefore away from themselves.

Centre-Right voters were bound to notice that transfer of power eventually because they were not getting the policies for which they had voted. When they complained, their parties too often told them that there was nothing they could do because those decisions were now made at the UN, or in Brussels, or by the Supreme Court, or even some quite small bureaucratic agency that Congress had given the power to translate legal language into practical regulations. Not unreasonably, those voters drifted away to insurgent conservative parties which used traditional conservative language and promised a return to commonsense democracy.

The parties in turn reacted in different ways:

♦ Some pulled up the drawbridge, denounced their new rivals as “populists”, and fought to keep most conservative voters in their column—and the populists out of government.

♦ Some formed coalitions (sometimes before elections, sometimes afterwards) with insurgent conservatives, won elections that way, and held power.

♦ And others formed alliances with parties on the Centre-Left in ways that further diluted their own philosophies and weakened their electoral base—and sometimes the electoral base of their new leftist partners too.

Which of those strategies has proved most successful? It’s arguable, of course, but:

♦ worked well for a long time, at some cost to democratic theory since it often kept the largest party out of government, but it has been losing lately in Sweden, Italy, and perhaps the Netherlands. How? In such cases the voters eventually forced the populists into government and punished mainstream Centre-Right parties with declining popular support.

♦ worked well too, and still does. For instance, Fidesz—after an early liberal start—became a Centre-Right party that in the new century added populist voters to its total simply by emphasising the conservative themes on family and nation that others dropped.

♦ has produced a vicious circle whereby Centre-Right and Centre-Left partners both move left since the former has disavowed its right wing but the latter has not shunned its own extreme so that the entire spectrum of opinion shifts continually to the left. All this leads to the semi-permanent politics of Grand Right-Left Coalitions in which the Left increasingly dominates, the weakening of mainstream conservatives, and the rise of parties that represent conservative views straightforwardly and plausibly. Hence the common German phrase “the social democratisation of Christian Democrats”; the rise of the National Front in France; the electoral implosions of the CDU and Gaullists in Germany and France; and the “moral panic” in Germany over the flight of alienated conservatives to the AFD.

Faced with these choices, Germany in particular has to answer a deceptively simple question: is it willing to widen the Overton Window of respectable opinion to include the same kind of patriotic and religious conservatism that every other country allows? Or does it prefer instead to protect German democracy by outlawing a political party that expresses such opinions? That’s hardly a question for most people, but left-wing Germans are surprised to find that foreigners don’t see the second choice as the obvious democratic one.

For mainstream conservatives, including those at the IDU, the question is far less agonising. It comes down to a choice between (b) and (c): Do they co-operate in some way or other with the insurgent conservatives to win power and implement conservative policies? Or do they share power with their old enemies on the Left to pursue a political agenda that is mainly left-wing and to endorse the Left’s slanders against other conservatives.

When parties on the Right are divided and enter elections competing bitterly with each other, both of them are likely to be defeated by enemies who are far more dangerous to our societies than at any time since the 1930s and 1940s. If you want a textbook example of the dangers here, consider Spain today where a radical Left government, allied with constitutional criminals, has kept from power two conservative parties representing the popular will because they have spent too much time denouncing each other.

In short we must unite the Right if we are to have the best chance of winning power and governing better than the Left. The first step to doing this is Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Speak no ill of another Republican. That’s a hard enough discipline when we’re dealing with other conservatives in the same party, though Reagan managed it. Can we live up to it when we’re arguing with conservatives in other parties? The honest answer to that is No!—for the very good reason that you are likely to find yourself fighting them in elections. But you can and should prioritise attacks: concentrate your fire not on your rivals on the Right but on your enemies on the Left. Among other benefits, that would make the post-election negotiations on a shaping a conservative coalition and a governing agenda that much easier.

As it happens there was an expert on such manoeuvres at the IDU summit. Its chairman is Stephen Harper, three-time Canadian Conservative Prime Minister, who himself divided the Right—between the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party—and then brokered a deal between them to produce the Conservative Party of Canada. That party went on under his leadership to win three elections.

How did he pull off such a difficult trick? I think the answer he would give is that he listened to the voters and watched where their votes were already drifting—that is, away from the Progressive Tories and towards more “populist” reformers. He then shaped a new conservative party in their image that blended conservative values with populist energies. Mainstream conservatives at the IDU might want to ask his advice.

4 thoughts on “Embracing the Populist Dragon

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    If Australia is the third diamond point, then what has to be done apart from a clean of the Conservative nest?
    I am currently watching Mr Alan Bates and the Post Office, a tragic tale of regulatory failure, a tale quite similar to my experiences of Australian exploration and (with a few exceptions, mining) of uranium, regulated into oblivion.
    Improvement of Conservative hopes has to confront a bureaucracy out of control, with little public recognition of the problem. You can add, depending on beliefs, regulatory capture of the COVID response, climate change, transgenderism, regulatory disobedience after The Voice, over-needed immigration and more.
    There is a formidable task ahead. Why do we hear so little about it?
    Geoff S

  • john mac says:

    Spot on , Geoff , the capture of institutions and vast bureaucracies, unelected yet really the hands on the levers of power is what confronts the West. Appears almost insurmountable to me and exhibit A would be our local councils. Just like Brexit, the resounding victory of the “No ” campaign means nothing to them and the fellow travellers. It’s as if it never happened ! So now we get Woolies etc giving the middle finger to It’s customers, and aforementioned councils ignoring Australia day while ratepayers fund their pet projects . Meanwhile the education system is churning out SJWs to perpetuate the malaise by “fixing ” a world that was never broken. It may take a century for the West to recalibrate, short of a biblical intervention.

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