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Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
It’s no secret that Conservative poll ratings are abysmal. Even if we were to gain all of the support currently going to Reform UK, we’d still be heading for defeat. The fact is that in Britain the right is losing – and losing badly.
But according to the New Statesman, the problem isn’t just limited to this country. As it says on the front cover: “the right is losing everywhere”. Inside the magazine, the argument is developed in an article by Jeremy Cliffe.
Is it true, though? Is Rishi Sunak really swimming against the tide of events? If so, then perhaps he should just give up and bow to the inevitable.
But never judge a book, or a magazine, by its cover. On closer examination, what Cliffe is actually arguing is that it is the centre right, as opposed the populist right, that’s declining. This is a crucial distinction.
Up until now, populism has been seen as a much bigger problem for the centre left. In many countries the old social-democratic coalition of the unionised working class and the liberal intelligentsia has come undone. Some voters have defected to protest parties of the right, others to anti-capitalist and environmental movements.
As a result, what used to be major political parties have become minor ones.
There’s an ungainly name for this phenomenon: Pasokification. This refers to PASOK – the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement – which used to be the natural party of government in Greece. Today, it is a marginal presence, subsumed into a centre-left alliance which isn’t even the main party of opposition.
Cliffe believes that something similar is now happening to the centre right. He argues that in country after country, moderate conservative parties are either haemorrhaging votes to the populist right or turning populist themselves. Either way, moderate conservatism is experiencing a “strange death”.
It’s true that in countries like Australia, Spain, and Germany, the main parties of the centre-right find themselves out of power. However, this is just the back-and-forth of the electoral pendulum, not Pasokification.
If one looks at all the advanced industrial democracies of North America, Europe, and the Pacific, then in the great majority of countries moderate conservatives either lead the government or the opposition.
However, there are some exceptions – most notably Italy, France, and Denmark – where the centre right really has been Pasokified.
It happened first in Italy. The once dominant Christian Democrats were destroyed by the Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s.
In theory, the Italian centre right was reoccupied by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. In retrospect, however, his rise pre-figured the populist wave of subsequent decades; today, Forza Italia is a junior coalition partner in Giorgia Meloni’s government.
In France, the Gaullists – currently calling themselves Republicans – have also been reduced to minor party status. The political force that founded the Fifth Republic, and supplied most of its Presidents, won just five per cent of the votes at the last election.
Denmark is more complicated: an already splintered party system has splintered further. It’s hard to see any of the fragments that make up the centre right winning a general election anytime soon.
And yet each of these is a special case; they do not substantiate Cliffe’s thesis that the centre right is in general decline.
In fact, the closer you look at his argument the more it relies on the idea that moderate conservatism is destroying itself by drifting off to the right. But again, the evidence is less than convincing.
For instance, Cliffe cites support for Brexit as an example of extremism. But what’s so un-conservative about choosing national sovereignty? And while we’re at it, what’s so moderate about building a European super-state?
Cliffe also looks at some of the edgier things that centre right leaders have said lately. However, you can find equally provocative statements going back decades. There’s nothing especially new here. Indeed, lefties have been calling conservatives fascists since the Year Dot – and isn’t any truer now than it was then.
In fact, by any objective standard, it is considerably less true. The occasional comment about immigrants doesn’t change the fact that conservative governments have presided over historically high levels of immigration.
As for the culture wars, who started those? If conservatives newly find themselves insisting that men can’t become women, then that’s because the issue hasn’t come up before.
Of course, I can hardly defend conservatism against charges of extremism without admitting to the existence of Donald Trump; one can only hope and pray that the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan finds its way back to sanity.
There’s also the matter of Viktor Orbán, who hasn’t so much crushed the Hungarian opposition as watched it crumble to dust around him.
That said, these are exceptions that prove the rule. To claim otherwise is to make a false generalisation.
If the centre right really is succumbing to extremism, then we ought to see a bigger impact. But for all the upheavals of the 21st Century, the thing that really stands out about the western world is its stability. We remain democratic in our governance, capitalist in our economics, and atlanticist in our alliances.
These are centre-right values, embedded by centre-right governments and defended by centre-right parties. To quote a centre-right leader of recent vintage: “nothing has changed”.
Perhaps the best proof of the vitality of the centre right is that even when it fails, other parties move in to re-create it.
In France, Emmanuel Macron is to all intents and purposes a centre-right president; with Marine Le Pen to the right of him and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the Left, he’s certainly as close as it gets.
In Italy, and despite her party’s troubling heritage, Giorgia Meloni has governed thus far as a conservative, not a populist. She has proven herself to be a better friend to Ukraine than Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini or, it has to said, Olaf Scholz.
Meanwhile in Denmark, the ruling social democrats – who dumped their leftist allies for a centrist coalition – have pioneered an immigration policy that is stricter than anything we’ve seen so far in the UK.
The readers of the New Statesman might wish it otherwise, but the truth is that moderate conservatism retains its appeal. If some voters have turned to protest parties it isn’t because they’ve acquired an appetite for extremism.
Rather the fault lies with moderate politicians when they fail to act as a moderating influence on disruptive forces like uncontrolled immigration, unrestricted globalisation, and social breakdown. In the EU we can add the economic distortions caused by the single currency; in the UK, the generational injustice of the housing crisis.
When conservatives fail to conserve, they deservedly pay a price in votes. However, that doesn’t change the underlying reality: that the facts of life are conservative. Sooner or later, politics always catches up.