If the British Conservative party is feeling stunned, having calamitously misread the public mood in a general election, then it is in good company. Across Europe, right-wing parties are struggling to find messages that resonate. It’s not that voters have turned away from conservative ideas: polls show a huge number interested in individual liberty, lower taxes and the nation state. The problem is that conservative parties have given up on those ideas — and, as a result, voters are giving up on them.
Take Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister of my native Sweden between 2006 and 2014. He started off well, reforming welfare and cutting taxes. But then it all went downhill. He lost his taste for economic freedom and, with it, his edge. He started to adopt his opponent’s policies, and was defeated after a campaign that mixed a tax-and-spend message with clichés about (you’ve heard this before) ‘strong and stable’ leadership. His party is still reeling, not far from political oblivion.
Italy’s centre right has yet to rid itself of Silvio Berlusconi, and Forza Italia is seen as the natural party of bunga bunga rather than of government. Finnish conservatives are now on their third leader in three years, and their showing in parliament is the weakest for four decades. Their sister party in Denmark, famous for its piously wet conservatism, has been shrinking in political relevance for quarter of a century and won just 3 per cent of the vote in the last election.
Conservatives in Austria have been in coalition with the Social Democrats for so long now that they have also forgotten their purpose — sending many despairing conservative voters to support the nationalistic Freedom party. And French conservatives are, like their socialist rivals, being crushed by a political machine invented just a year ago by Emmanuel Macron. He’s more of a centrist than a conservative, but he does seem to have an agenda: relaxing France’s notoriously stringent labour laws and reforming its hideously complicated pension system.
Once, it was the conservatives who promised change. Nicolas Sarkozy won a landslide because he vowed to reform the sclerotic French economy, as Thatcher had reformed Britain’s. In his 2016 book, La France pour la vie, Sarkozy appeared to have understood why he was booted out and admonished himself for having left the 35-hour working week untouched, and for giving up on necessary tax and benefits cuts. He blew the election not because of his faux grandiosity but because he failed to be sufficiently ambitious in his reforms.
Across the Atlantic, the Republicans seem to be bucking the trend — this week they defeated the Democrats in a hotly contested congressional race in Atlanta, Georgia — but the complicated dynamic between Republicanism and Trumpism is another right-wing story. What we do know is that when British Conservatives served up a reheated version of the Labour 2015 manifesto this year, their popularity fell away.
Centre-right parties win when they’re the parties of growth and aspiration —rather than by defending a failed status quo, or trying to hug their enemies. They need to meet voters where they want to be, not where they are. If conservatives want to score, they should — to use a phrase of the great Canadian ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s — ‘skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been’.
When conservative parties end up doing the wrong kind of conserving, they usually get bruised. People who want more taxes and spending will turn left. And those with conservative leanings, usually suspicious of big government, have little patience with politicians pretending to be something else.
Adam Smith famously observed that there is a ‘great deal of ruin in a nation’ — that you should never underestimate the self-harming potential of bad governments. The same is true for political parties. It may take a lot of defeats for conservatives to work out that providing a pale imitation of the other guy’s manifesto is not a route to electoral success. The remedy is the same as it has always been: when all else fails, try conservatism.