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24 October 2023

How the centre right was lost

Shattered by Brexit, the Tory party has been captured by populist disrupters. Can true conservatives win it back?

By William Waldegrave

“No enemies on the left!” was the disastrous slogan that helped the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, destroying the social democrats on the road to Stalin’s terror. “No enemies on the left!” contributed to Labour Party disasters in the 1930s and 1980s in England. Happily for the world, and for the moderate left, there emerged powerful antibodies: Orwell’s narrow escapes from, first, a fascist sniper’s bullet and then from Stalin’s assassins, gave to moderates of both left and right the ammunition of his great anti-totalitarian books, Animal Farm and 1984. Bevin – and, in the end, Bevan, Jenkins and Crossman, Kinnock and Blair – knew their enemies and won their battles. That such battles have to be fought again in every generation was demonstrated by Labour’s attack of amnesia, which allowed in Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Starmer, we are told and hope, has the genie back in the bottle (but it is, perhaps, still in there, rattling about).

But now the searchlight swings the other way. For moderate conservatives, with both a lower- and an upper-case “c”, the question is: has the Conservative Party abandoned its historic mission of recognising and resisting the mirror-image heresy of believing there are no enemies on the right? The Republican Party in the US seems to be on the way to joining a tribe whose European leaders include Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni. Will either defeat or against-the-odds victory impel British Conservatives in the same fatal direction?

This is a question of vital interest not just to the centre right but to the centre left too: the centre ground only has secure metaphorical geology if it rests on a solid, moderate bedrock at both ends of the spectrum.

Until relatively recently, the gravitational force of a central, moderate mass could be counted on to pull an election-losing party that had strayed to the extremes back to the centre and a chance of future victory. But it does not happen automatically, as the scars Neil Kinnock carries demonstrate. And many fear now that the old Conservative Party, shattered by Brexit, converted into a single-issue party on an issue that has gone, having few members and fewer outstanding leaders, might in opposition follow the Republicans.

[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]

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So those who seek to reinvigorate the moderate right are engaged on work that is, I believe, truly important for our democracy. The Case for the Centre Right contains much that is needed. All those who care for moderation in politics, from the centre left as well as the centre right, should applaud David Gauke for assembling an excellent collection of essays that sets out the issues starkly. A chapter by Andrew Cooper describes how the Tory party was captured by that single-issue gang; shows how demographically dangerous that is electorally; and quotes a fine and prescient piece from 2014 by Matthew Parris, who warned that building a programme on the basis of pleasing a focus group in Clacton-on-Sea (a constituency with a very high proportion of Leave voters and the highest proportion of white working-class residents) would neither rescue that town from its genuine troubles nor build a plausible long-term political base.

Rory Stewart and Dominic Grieve rail at the wholly unconservative destruction of institutions by the self-styled disruptors sponsored by Boris Johnson. Oh, for the rhetoric of old Quintin Hailsham to laugh out of court alleged Tories who attacked the law, parliamentary conventions, business, markets, experts or anyone else who stood in their way.

The wise Gavin Barwell writes one of the best chapters – on how to fix a bad Brexit deal. Others list policy options of sensible kinds – including a rousing chapter on his great theme of spreading power outside Whitehall from 90-year-old Michael Heseltine. His career reminds us that centrism or moderation does not preclude having campaigning fire in your belly, nor the courage to take difficult decisions.

On the new problems that face us, of climate, of machine intelligence combined with quantum and biological computing, of demography, of a new cold war, plenty of good policy will be needed – policy for which nostalgia will be a mostly useless guide to action. But we are not yet at the stage where lists of policy proposals are the paramount need. What comes first is the re-establishment of the power and the confidence of those with a temperate and civil habit of mind on the right, from which good policy will flow.

That is why the most important essay here is Daniel Finkelstein’s. He argues with necessary passion for a return to the old careful scepticism and empiricism that used to underwrite the British conservative tradition. It was not founded on books, though conservatives read Burke and Hume and Berlin and Popper if they needed authorities. But conservatives started with their instincts: they looked at totalitarians of left and right with equal disgust; they looked at popular sloganeering and overarching ideology with deep distrust. They knew that government is mostly about agonisingly difficult choices between competing goods, and that the avoidance of greater sometimes requires the acceptance of lesser evils. Everything of which they disapproved may be summed up in the tragicomic doctrine of “cakeism”.

[See also: Rory Stewart still doesn’t know who he is]

Others apart from Gauke’s team are at work on this vital task. Danny Kruger’s thoughtful book Covenant, for example, tries to revive the conservatism of community and deploys unfashionable words such as “gentleness” and even “love” – though there are obvious dangers on the right for national community to be taken too far. What was it we stood to applaud at the end of Mark Rylance’s phenomenal performance in Jez Butterworth’s great play, Jerusalem? Community and tradition in an imagined rural Arcadia, or something darker? Isaiah Berlin is perhaps a safer guide than Roger Scruton, when all is said and done. Those who want the Conservatives to add the word “national” to the party’s name might perhaps remember what happened to a similar conjunction of words involving socialism. Let us remember Orwell again: patriotism as attachment to place is fine; nationalism is always part of a drive for power at the expense of others.

So let’s give a cheer for Gauke and his co-authors. They are aware of these heresies of the right, are alert to the extent of the task facing those who want to resist them, and are getting to work on restoring the true British Conservative tradition. They know what has to be done, and they have begun the process of doing it. Good luck to them: I fear they will need it.

William Waldegrave is provost of Eton and author of “Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: How did we get here and what happens next?” (Mensch)

The Case For the Centre Right edited by David Gauke
Polity, 232pp, £15.99

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War