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  1. International Politics
15 February 2023

The strange death of the centre right

In Western democracies conventional conservativism is foundering. How did this once-dominant political force become so diminished?

By Jeremy Cliffe

Published in 1935, The Strange Death of Liberal England narrated the decline of the Liberal Party, from its 19th- and early 20th-century zenith to its interwar irrelevance. The book’s British-American author, George Dangerfield, did so not primarily through election statistics but by charting the submission of a once-dominant domain of English life to deep and lasting social shifts. Factors such as the suffragette movement, trade unions and the rise of class politics, he argued, had coincided with the decline of a certain social milieu: that of the reform-minded, bourgeois Victorian Englishman who “believed in freedom, free trade, progress” and “bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation”.

Dangerfield’s approach commends itself to the great story of political decline in our own times. Much ink has been spilled on the woes of centre-left parties, of “Pasokification” (the term deriving from the collapse of Greece’s Pasok party amid the country’s crisis in the 2010s). Yet those obituaries now look premature, as Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, Australia’s Anthony Albanese, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and others can all attest. At this rate they will be joined next year by Keir Starmer, potentially leaving no major Western country led by a traditionally mainstream-right party. Even Pasok itself has made a modest comeback. Today, it is the centre right that looks to be in most trouble – quite possibly more damaging and lasting trouble than that facing the centre left.

[See also: Why Europeans should not get too used to Joe Biden, the last of the Atlanticists]

Yet that reality has not received the attention it deserves. As the political scientists Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser wrote in their 2021 book Riding the Populist Wave, “Scholars have in recent years devoted so much attention to the decline of social democracy and the rise of the populist radical right that they have paid less attention than they should have done to the mainstream right.”

Survey the political landscape of the early 2010s. David Cameron was British prime minister, Nicolas Sarkozy was France’s president, Angela Merkel was German chancellor and Donald Tusk was Poland’s prime minister. All were essentially personifications of their country’s conventional conservative tradition, be it Toryism, Gaullism or Christian democracy. Similar figures dominated Scandinavia (such as Fredrik Reinfeldt in Sweden or Lars Løkke Rasmussen in Denmark) and Iberia (Spain’s Mariano Rajoy). Viktor Orbán, a seemingly orthodox conservative, had just retaken Hungary’s premiership. Across the Atlantic, a Democrat held the White House. But Barack Obama’s challenger in the 2012 election was Mitt Romney, an impeccably mainstream Republican and former governor of liberal Massachusetts. To the north, Stephen Harper, a self-described Burkean conservative, dominated Canadian politics.

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The picture today is drastically different. In every one of those countries the moderate conservative tendency represented by those leaders has been sidelined in one way or another. It has either been displaced by more hard-line elements within the same party, or by another party farther to the right; or it has started cooperating with the hard-line right; or has been partly or wholly marginalised within the political system. In one notable case (Orbán) it has self-radicalised. In several countries more than one of these things has occurred. And as with the demise of English liberalism charted by Dangerfield, these examples are about more than swings of the electoral pendulum. Rather, they speak of deep sociological and socio-economic changes; of the decline of a certain domain of life in much of the West that once provided moderate conservatism with its base; and perhaps, yes, of its strange death.

[See also: Viktor Orbán’s American apologists]

The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán at a rally for his Fidesz party. Photo by Laszlo Balogh / Getty Images

Four main forces appear to be at work in the Western centre right’s decline: takeover, fragmentation, shrinkage and rightwards drift. The takeovers, by once-marginal elements, are most evident in countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, where parties tend to undergo internal transformations rather than splinter. In Britain the Brexiteers, once on the Tory fringes, have largely triumphed over its One Nation wing (albeit in a process that had already started under Cameron, particularly in the case of his dogmatic economic policies). In the US, Trumpite and Trump-esque elements dominate the Republican Party and two-thirds of its registered voters believe Biden was not legitimately elected president in 2020. On 11 January the New York Times published a dialogue between Bret Stephens and David Brooks in which the two centrist Republican columnists, perhaps the 2023 equivalent of Dangerfield’s Liberal English gentlemen, lamented their new-found political homelessness. “Trump brought the three horsemen of the apocalypse – immorality, dishonesty and bigotry,” bewailed Brooks: “The party, complicit in all that, is dead to me.”

In proportional voting systems where smaller parties can more easily gain a foothold, fragmentation has been more common. In Denmark, for example, the former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in 2021 broke with his Venstre party over its rightwards drift and formed a new centrist party, the Moderates, which subsequently almost halved Venstre’s vote. In Sweden the centre-right Moderate party haemorrhaged so much support to the far-right Sweden Democrats that it was overtaken by them at last year’s election and had to do a deal with them in order to govern.

In some countries the centre right has lastingly shrunk under pressure from the hard right on one side and the centre left on the other. In Brazil the centre right always used to make the run-off round of presidential elections, but the rise of Jair Bolsonaro to its right has marginalised it (Simone Tebet, its candidate in last year’s election, took just 4 per cent of the vote in the first round and subsequently backed the left-of-centre Lula). In Italy even Silvio’s Berlusconi’s populist-lite Forza Italia, to the extent that it was ever “centre right”, is being eaten up by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy – which now leads the country’s government for the first time – and may not outlast him.

Perhaps the most widespread trend is rightwards drift: conservative parties as a whole gradually becoming more hard-line and leaving behind their past, more moderate politics. That is part of the story in many places including America, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Britain – where it finds expression in Tory policies such as sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and authoritarian curbs on the right to protest. The most extreme case is Hungary’s Orbán, a once mainstream conservative who has become a byword for authoritarian backsliding.

Less extreme but nonetheless striking cases of this drift are Spain and Germany. In both, a centre-right party previously led by a ploddingly moderate consensus-broker (Mariano Rajoy, Angela Merkel) lost power and appointed a more pugilistic replacement (Pablo Casado, Friedrich Merz) under whom it lurched to the right. Spain’s Partido Popular now campaigns under slogans like “Freedom or communism”, routinely accuses Sánchez’s centre-left government of “treason” and has done deals with the far-right Vox party. Meanwhile, Merz is giving Germany’s Christian Democrats a provocative new edge unthinkable under Merkel; referring to the influx of Ukrainian refugees as “welfare tourism” and, following violence in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, blaming migrant families for spoiling their sons (whom he described using the racially loaded term “little pashas”).

In at least one case, all four forces are present at once: that of France’s Republicans, heirs to the country’s once mighty Gaullist tradition. They have experienced fragmentation, with liberal Gaullists such as Bruno Le Maire (now economy minister) defecting to join Emmanuel Macron in the centre. That has left them open to takeover and radicalisation. In December they elected Éric Ciotti, head of the hard-line À Droite! (To the Right!) faction, as their new leader. This followed a humiliating defeat for Valérie Pécresse, one of the party’s remaining moderates, when she ran as its candidate in last April’s presidential election. Squeezed by Macron to her immediate left and Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour to her right, she took just 5 per cent in the first round. If “Pasokification” summed up the centre left’s woes in the 2010s, “Pécressification” might do the same for a conventional conservatism struggling in the 2020s.

Not all centre-rightists are getting Pécressified. There are exceptions to every rule, and in this case perhaps the best example is Mark Rutte, the right-of-centre liberal who has, remarkably, survived as Dutch prime minister since 2010. In Poland, the moderate-right Civic Platform could conceivably win this autumn’s election – albeit as part of an opposition bloc also including liberals and greens. Relatively conventional conservatives are doing fairly well in Finland, Latvia, Greece and New Zealand. But they defy the wider trend.

[See also: As globalisation fragments, politics is again reigning supreme over economics]

It is worth reflecting on the historical significance of this shift. The moderate centre right has been the West’s most powerful and successful ideological tendency over the past seven decades. One Nation Toryism in Britain marked the Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Heath and Major premierships – and, to a debatable extent, elements of the Thatcher one. Eisenhower Republicanism in 1950s America laid the political and socio-economic foundations for US supremacy in the later 20th century and remained a potent political force there until the mid-2010s. And, as the historian Jan-Werner Müller puts it: “In the core countries of continental western Europe – Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and France – it was actually Christian democracy which proved central to constructing the postwar domestic order, and the welfare and modern administrative state in particular.” Christian democrats such as France’s Robert Schuman, Germany’s first federal chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi founded the postwar European project.

Other cases complicate the picture somewhat. The establishments of post-dictatorship Spain and Portugal leaned towards social democracy (both remain strongholds of the centre left today). And, naturally, communist central and eastern Europe missed out on the heyday of moderate conservatism in the immediate postwar decades. But still, centre-right figures played a significant role in 1990s, 2000s and 2010s Iberia (José María Aznar in Spain and José Manuel Barroso in Portugal) and post-communist Europe (Jerzy Buzek in Poland, Mart Laar in Estonia or indeed Merkel, as a former East German).

Notwithstanding differences between these traditions, certain common preferences have long defined the Western moderate right: a social market economy over either pure capitalism or socialism; loss-averse gradualism over radicalism; paternalism over individualism; social harmony over conflict; and, enthusiastically or otherwise, the US over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Most such parties were rooted primarily in the clerical and managerial classes of postwar industrial economies, but sometimes parts of the skilled working class too. Theirs was a social base as distinctive as that of Dangerfield’s Liberal England: the prosperous suburbs and the countryside, the military and the church, pin-stripe suits and lederhosen, the golf club and the Little League, the “talk of sports and makes of cars/In various bogus Tudor bars”, as the poet John Betjeman haughtily wrote in 1937 of Maidenhead, in England’s Tory heartlands. They were rooted in a world of stability, deference, institutions and order – a world that wanted “Keine Experimente!” (“No experiments!”), to quote Adenauer’s iconic slogan.

How is it, then, that takeover, fragmentation, shrinkage and rightwards drift have compressed and sidelined these cautious, small-c conservative instincts? That we have in recent years seen a British Tory prime minister proclaim “fuck business”, a Republican US president foment the storming of the Capitol in Washington, the heirs of Pierre Poujade and Benito Mussolini push aside those of De Gaulle and De Gasperi?

Cover illustration by Edmon de Haro

[See also: Why is the right losing everywhere?]

Where for Dangerfield factors such as suffrage for women and the rise of working-class politics drove change, today various equivalent forces are at play. First is the drastic increase in the share of the population with tertiary education, which is closely associated with more liberal and individualistic social attitudes. Second, and relatedly, is secularisation and the decline of conventional organised religion (see Madoc Cairns’ essay on this subject on page 30). Third is the growing diversity of most Western societies after several generations of large-scale immigration – and the gradual but uneven normalisation of that diversity. And fourth is the so-called silent revolution and the rise of non-material, cultural political issues such as racial, sexual and gender identity.

All four of these shifts have been many decades in the making. “Demographic change is really slow but when it comes it’s really relentless,” notes Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester and co-author of Brexitland. “There was a huge confessional [religious] dimension to the centre right until recently, but it is just not the centre of gravity it once was. That is the product of 30 to 40 years of gradual decline, but only in the past ten to 20 years has it stopped being a bankable vote for moderate conservatism.” Parties, he adds, can be slow to adapt. That Britain today has its first Asian Conservative prime minister is the product of decades of social changes. Most of the Tories’ counterparts elsewhere in the West are a long way – perhaps decades – behind. Some, like swathes of today’s US Republican Party or its namesake in France, are going the opposite way: embracing a new role not as big-tent healers of social divides but as the political wing of white resentment at society’s growing diversity.

Even in the most proportional electoral systems, it is impossible to win power by harnessing the support of one narrow, specific segment of society. Rather, parties have to create platforms that establish common ground between several or many of them. The traditional centre right of the postwar decades could do so by “bundling” moderate social conservatism (moderate by the standards of its day, at least) with the pro-business economic conservatism favoured by higher earners. But today those two elements are coming apart: richer folk are more likely to have gone to university and be socially liberal, while social conservatism is more associated with poorer groups. That puts centre-right politics in zugzwang: forced to move, but with no good options. It can emphasise its social conservatism and lose pro-business graduates to the centre, or play it down, shore up its support among those voters and lose social conservatives to the radical right.

Of course, aspects of these tensions plague the centre left too. But Ford argues that the overall shifts make the task of “bundling” slightly easier for social democratic parties. The years since the Great Recession have not been economically kind to the young (at the sharp end of austerity and priced out of housing by boomers), and the young also tend to be more highly educated, secular and liberal. So even if the centre left has difficulties with the older parts of its base, bundling economic and social progressivism still unites younger voters. And while older voters die off, it seems that, unlike the rightward trends of previous generations, millennials are not inheriting their conservatism. As the Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch has shown, in the English-speaking world, at least, they are retaining their progressivism as they age. As he writes: “If millennials’ liberal inclinations are merely a result of this age effect, then at age 35 they too should be around five points less conservative than the national average… In fact, they’re more like 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the US are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history.”

[See also: Tory moderates fear a takeover by the religious right]

To be sure, only rarely do political parties or tendencies die entirely. Even the old Liberal Party lived on beyond its “strange death”, enjoying a modest resurgence in the 1970s before forming part of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Often their remnants also become components of what succeeds them, like medieval cathedrals built with the stone of Roman ruins. In Britain Labour absorbed what had been the Liberal project of the welfare state (William Beveridge was, after all, a Liberal).

The same is true and will be true of Pécressification. In some places the centre right will live on in diminished forms. More commonly, it will flow into new variants of right-of-centre politics. The plethora of formerly gentle conservative parties adopting a harsher and more divisive style, or at least cooperating with parties defined by such a style, suggests that the medium-term future of the right lies in hybrids of centre-right and hard-right politics.

One such example is evident in Canada. A year ago Erin O’Toole resigned as leader of the country’s Conservative Party. He had attempted to root the party in the conventional centre and had been wrong-footed by the wave of demonstrations by truckers angry at Covid-19 restrictions and the associated rise in the hard-right People’s Party. His successor, Pierre Poilievre, embraced the truckers and moved the party sharply to the right by bashing wokery and environmental legislation. Yet he has also pledged: “Our party will put forward a pro-immigration platform in the next election and we will fight for immigrants.” This is canny politics in a country where a fast-growing share of the population has migrant roots. Under Poilievre the Conservatives have overtaken Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the polls – making him an unusual but perhaps compelling case study for rightists in other rapidly diversifying societies.

Meloni is another hybrid case. Italy’s new prime minister has the platform one would expect from a party descended from neo-fascists: “pro-family” natalist policies, hostility to immigration, illiberal approaches to law and order, and populist welfare policies combined with fiscal orthodoxy. Yet she has also learned from Matteo Salvini of the far-right League, who soared in the polls in 2019 before voters decided he was unserious and unreliable. So Meloni has sought to pioneer what Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations calls “a new sort of European conservatism”: politically rigid in substance but restrained and orthodox in style and method. This does not make Meloni any more moderate or less dangerous. But it does give her greater political durability and influence. Recent weeks have demonstrated that as various bigwigs from the European People’s Party, the umbrella group of the EU centre right, have met with her to discuss an alliance with the European Conservatives and Reformists, the more hard-line European grouping of which she is president – an alliance that in the long term could become a merger.

Other such hybrid entities will doubtless follow. In France some sort of realignment on the hard right between Ciotti’s Republicans and Le Pen’s National Rally may now be only a matter of time. In Spain, the Partido Popular is increasingly dominated by the inflammatory personality of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region, who presents herself as a fusion of Thatcher and Meloni. The party may go into coalition with Vox after elections later this year. America’s Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and a potential Republican presidential candidate, also exhibits Meloni-esque tactics by combining Trump’s policies with a more sober, less anarchic demeanour.

[See also: Rescuing conservatism]

The success of this approach remains to be seen. But the monolithic, moderate right appears to be a thing of the past, with bits of it living on as factions of more right-wing parties, or re-emerging on the liberal centre, or staying put on the centre right but with less weight and influence – as kingmakers, at best.

Those in the liberal centre or on the left reading this may think “good riddance”. And, indeed, there are plenty of decent reasons not to mourn the political careers of Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy, Romney and the like. But at the same time, as Bale and Rovira Kaltwasser write, parties that can represent right-of-centre voters without deliberately sowing division and discord play “a crucial role both in public policy and in the maintenance (and maybe even the survival) of democracy”. In a functional democracy, leftists and liberals are highly likely to lose power at one time or another. The pendulum will always swing back eventually. At the current rate, in much of the West, when it does so it will pass through a vacuum where the moderate right once stood – and onwards, rightwards, to less palatable alternatives beyond.

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David Cameron’s “Big Society” is still very much with us

The Fateful Chancellor: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere