Populism reveals conservatism is in crisis - this is what must be done
Say what you like about it, conservatism has staying power. A philosophy whose central purpose, as the name suggests, is to conserve things ought surely to have been remaindered at least a century ago – so fast has life changed. One reason why that has not happened is because conservatism is not a full-blown ideology. It does not offer an answer to all the problems of the universe. It is a philosophy of limits. In a paradox of Chestertonian proportions, conservatism is so general that its practitioners can concentrate on specifics.
We all want at different times and places to conserve different things. A conservative in the West is more likely to be worried about incursions of the state into private life than about cultural issues – though it is, of course, legitimate to be bothered about both. A conservative in a country that saw nationhood mocked and religion persecuted is going, very probably, to have a different set of priorities.
The second reason for its longevity is that conservatism fits human nature like a glove, and human nature, despite ever more frenzied attempts to prove the opposite, does not change. As soon as they are organised in society, human beings usually want very much the same thing – known rules (“a rule of law”), personal security, settled family life, the opportunity to use talents and profit from them, a sense of inherited continuity and community, and finally a touch of the divine, a spark of something mysterious, an element of romance in their institutions. This is evidence of the ubiquity of conservative sensibilities. The first writer to acknowledge the importance of such things was that great eighteenth century Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke, and not for nothing is he acknowledged as the “father of conservatism”.
Conservatives must win over populists. It will require a different rhetoric - and in many cases a different type of politician.
Conservatism, as the role of Burke reminds us, is in its origins a manifestation of the Anglo-Saxon political tradition. Unlike authoritarian right wing movements originating on the continent of Europe, the Anglo-Saxon – the term is appropriate because it was first English, then British and then also American – brand of conservatism was fully compatible with parliamentary government, the rule of law, private property, free speech and freedom of thought. It is, indeed, the embodiment of a certain kind of classical liberalism.
Despite so much common ground, conservatives have always had tense relations with those liberals who wished to monopolise and radicalise the liberal tradition, most obviously on the matter of rights which liberals constantly wish to expand at the expense of duties. Liberals also have a big problem with identity. The liberal typically believes that we are whatever we want to be. The conservative knows that we are what nature and society and (if you believe in it) Providence have made us, and that we should accept it, rejoice in it and use it.
The other struggle that conservatives have waged is, of course, with socialists who seek to equate justice with equality of outcomes and want to pursue that objective through the working of an omnipotent state. Socialism is, historically speaking, an offshoot of liberalism. Its achievements, however, have proved more ephemeral. Its power to inspire is in inverse proportion to acquaintance with it. No electorate ever voted Communist twice in free elections.
After a period in which conservatism in politics had lost its way and was largely to be discovered lurking in abstruse cultural controversies, the 1980s saw it gloriously triumphant. Together conservatism and liberalism triumphed over communism in the Cold War. The two most convinced and effective anti-communist leaders were both conservatives and classical liberals – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They preached a conservative brand of freedom abroad and practised it at home, reviving their economies and defeating that “Evil Empire”.
A larger problem emerged from the Cold war, however, one which affected the West more than the East. This was that, with the Soviet system vanquished, the fault-lines in the ideological anti-communist alliance between conservatives and liberals first emerged as cracks, and then as a series of unbridgeable chasms. Looked at another way, liberalism showed its incoherence as soon as it was no longer anchored to the realities that the Cold War and conservative leadership had imposed.
The first writer to acknowledge the importance of such things was that great eighteenth century Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke, and not for nothing he is acknowledged as the “father of conservatism”.
While conservatives held firmly onto the old liberal principles of limited government, free enterprise, private property, and unrestricted competition, and felt at ease with both individualism and nationalism, many liberals headed leftwards. Liberalism nowadays, as a result, is far closer to socialism. The globalist liberal-left today is fiercely secularist (as opposed to just secular), committed to a revolutionary view of human nature, including of human sexuality, intolerant of dissent in even private fora, in favour of high taxes and regulation, committed to a climate change agenda which is not just incompatible with capitalism but incompatible with modern living, and, above all, hostile to the concept of national sovereignty and national democracy.
Conservative politicians were slow to respond. They initially tried to prove how pragmatically liberal they were. They sought to advance not impede the trend to supranational solutions. They thought that they could borrow slogans from the left about equality and progress without yielding the ground to their opponents’ policies. They broke promises about keeping down taxes, put them up, and duly lost elections. On issue after issue they abandoned their base and in the end the base abandoned them.
One result was the development of what is disparagingly called populism. The main challenge that conservatives face today is to understand the roots of populist politics and claim back its supporters to the conservative cause. This is precisely what Boris Johnson and the British Conservative Party sought to do over Brexit – itself the embodiment of national populism, and despised as such by the elite.
Populism is not a distasteful phenomenon with which conservatives have to cope – holding their noses and waving their wallets. It offers a once-in-a-generation possibility of strengthening the conservative base. This is because it is, in essence, and despite conservative disdain, a rebellion against the Left and against globalist liberal elitism. The failure of socialists to care about, or even acknowledge, the social and economic disruption caused by mass immigration shattered working class faith in the traditional Left, whose poll ratings plummeted. At the same time, the willingness of the global elite to ride roughshod over national democracy and the often conflicting needs of different nation states has convinced millions who never had any particular interest in politics that the present system is weighed against them.
The crucial question for conservatives now is how this engagement with populism should be undertaken in order to give conservatives the initiative once again in the world. Five priorities suggest themselves.
Firstly, conservatives must win over populists. This is a question of tone and often of class. It will require a different rhetoric - and in many cases a different type of politician.
Secondly, conservatives must educate populists about economics. That is fundamental to good government. Attacks on free trade, calls for government subsidies, the recycled error that government can pick industrial winners – pandering to these temptations will lead to economic failure, particularly in the event of a new recession. If the case for capitalism is lost, socialism always emerges as the alternative.
Thirdly, conservatives must agree respectfully to disagree. There have always been some who are more interested in liberty and economics and others more interested in religion and values. Neither can ultimately do without the other. Disintegrating societies cannot sustain strong economies. Failing economies do not generate social stability. But the interests and the practical needs of conservatives in different countries will also differ.
Populism is not a distasteful phenomenon with which conservatives have to cope – holding their noses and waving their wallets. It offers a once-in-a-generation possibility of strengthening the conservative base. This is because it is, in essence, and despite conservative disdain, a rebellion against the Left and against globalist liberal elitism.
Fourthly, conservatives must try to reclaim philosophical liberalism from today’s self-described liberals, who so abuse its principles. Liberalism and conservatism grew out of attitudes and institutions that have a common historic home. Conservatives are taking a risk if they abandon the whole of that tradition and prefer to place their faith in popular democracy. The absolute legitimacy of majoritarianism can never be accepted by anyone who believes in property, in rights and in absolute moral values, as conservatives must.
Lastly, one of the central beliefs of nineteenth century liberals was the primacy of the nation state. Nationalism, particularly but not exclusively in countries where nationhood was scorned by communism, is now conservative. Nationhood is nowadays the most important receptacle and public expression of other kinds of identity – individuals, families, neighbourhoods, even tribes all are increasingly national. The struggle between nations and the anti-national globalists is bound to be messy. There will always be some nationalists who are mad or bad, and many who are bores. There will also be struggles between nationalists. Nationalists from one country will be quite rude to one another in different languages. There is nothing new in that. But what the cause of national identity, national sovereignty and national democracy offers conservatives now is a way to make conservatism a globally dominant movement for the first time since the 1980s. Whether that opportunity will be grasped or not will determine political outcomes in the years ahead.