I’m an old conference hand going back to the Tories’ annual get-together of 1958. My headmaster, an Irish Christian Brother of firm nationalist sympathies, almost certainly felt that attendance was an occasion of sin. But he relented to the extent of allowing me to skip Saturday morning sports for the prime ministerial rally. Harold Macmillan got as far as ‘My Lords, ladies, and gentlemen…’ when a trumpet blast sounded and the first of several hecklers shouted ‘The League of Empire Loyalists sound retreat.’ Mayhem ensued for about 15 minutes, after which Macmillan resumed imperturbably: ‘Blackpool is so bracing.’
Since then I have had high standards for both oratory and spontaneity on such occasions. They were more than met at the Guildhall last Wednesday, when I was invited to chair two sessions of the conference on Liberty, at which a slew of think tanks from home and abroad celebrated 40 years of the Centre for Policy Studies. Speakers included Niall Ferguson, Charles Moore, Charles Powell, Richard Epstein, Daniel Hannan, and Radek Sikorski. With only one hour for five speakers, however, and after a late start, I watched queasily as Esperanza Aguirre, the president of Spain’s Popular Party and her country’s own Iron Lady, sat calmly underlining a well-constructed talk some 26 pages long. ¡Que Papilon! Yet it was unthinkable that I should cut short the only woman speaker because others had overrun. I sent vague smiles and gestures in her direction that were intended to convey that less is more. She seemed not to notice them. (Perhaps, I worried, they had an insulting or obscene significance in Spain.) Then she strode to the lectern and, cutting her speech as she spoke, delivered a crisp eight-minute critique of how the Sixty-Eighters had demoralised the West through transforming education into indoctrination. It was great stuff.
As so often, the most significant note struck was an unintended one. Australia’s elder statesman, John Howard, was plainly the most popular speaker present and also the politician closest to Margaret Thatcher in policy and personality, with the same combination of principle and pragmatism. When Toby Young asked him and Jason Kenney, Canada’s former immigration minister, what they thought of ‘the Anglosphere’, both replied that it was a highly useful web of social, economic and military arrangements gradually becoming institutionally more important except for those Anglosphere countries held back by ‘constraints’. Constraints? Well, yes, the UK can’t negotiate trade deals with other Anglosphere countries, and it can’t control its immigration policy to give them preference either. A thoughtful silence ensued.
My next conference was the annual Estoril Political Forum on the Portuguese coast, just west of Lisbon. The Forum is unusual in continental Europe in giving equal time on European issues to Eurosceptics, Europhiliacs, and Atlanticists — and therefore holding passionate and consequential debates. In recent years, the troubles of the euro have put the Europhiliacs on the defensive. This year they seem more confident, thinking that the euro has passed its fever point, and treating the European election results as a reason for, well, ‘more Europe’.
Democracy advocates and critics (often the same people) have been more cautious, seeing setbacks for democracy worldwide since the heady year of 1989, as well as solid advances for Portuguese democracy since the overthrow of its dictatorship in 1974. The rise of ‘extremist’ and/or ‘populist’ parties in Europe was the main target of anxiety. But the iconoclastic Ivan Krastev, of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, pointed to something else: the rapid continuing spread of riots and demonstrations in countries as various as Turkey and Brazil, irrespective of their democratic status. Elections seemed to be losing their central status in democratic theory to demos. Why? Maybe more and more elections were deciding less and less? It’s only a theory, of course. Meanwhile: waiter, more Europe.