STRATEGY, ELECTIONS, STATECRAFT: The not-so-Conservative Party in European perspective.

AuthorHayton, Richard

Few would dispute that the decade and a half since the financial crisis has been an intensely difficult, even depressing, period for proponents of progressive politics in Britain. This is not altogether surprising - after all, the lesson of most previous recessions is that it is the forces of the right, rather than the left, that have 'generally been much more adept at seizing the initiative and framing the narrative in ways which favour them'. (1) Since the crash, the right in Britain has been in the ascendency while the left has staggered backward. Even the most cursory flick through back issues of Renewal quickly reveals the multiple challenges that have beset the Labour Party and wider movement. Nonetheless, it has been far from plain sailing for the Conservative Party. Although the Conservatives have finished top of the pile at the last four general elections, the party has faced factional divisions, multiple leadership difficulties and an existential crisis over Brexit.

Some of these wounds have been self-inflicted, for example the recent Partygate scandal, which threatens to end Johnson's premiership but which could (and clearly should) have easily been avoided. Other difficulties run rather deeper, reflecting the economic and social undercurrents that the party has had to navigate, and indeed attempt to steer. One way of conceptualising these broad challenges is through the framework of the silent revolution and the silent counter-revolution. The term silent revolution was coined in the 1970s by Ronald Inglehart to capture the gradual process of intergenerational value change which he observed to be occurring across western societies as prosperity increased. (2) This shift, essentially in a socially liberal direction, was facilitated by growing economic security, which led to post-material concerns (for example environmental protection) achieving greater prominence. The silent counter-revolution, as Piero Ignazi termed it, was the reaction against this shift - a cultural backlash associated with the rise of the radical and extreme right. (3)

The crisis faced by the mainstream right across Europe can be usefully understood in these terms, as ably demonstrated by Tim Bale and Cristobal Kaltwasser in their recent book, Riding the Populist Wave. (4) As they discuss, parties of the mainstream right have found themselves caught between the silent revolution and the silent counter-revolution. These divergent pressures have made it increasingly difficult to develop profiles and policies that enable the mainstream right to attract a sufficiently broad spectrum of voters to win office. In short, leaning into the values of voters inclined towards the radical right risks alienating those of a more moderate, centre-right disposition, more sympathetic to the cultural turn of the silent revolution. Much of the mainstream right across Europe has lost ground in vote-share terms in recent decades, as support for radical right parties has solidified. A similar trend can be observed on the left, where a significant fall in support for social democrats can be observed (particularly since the financial crisis), and where support for green parties has risen. (5)

The United Kingdom, and the Conservative Party in particular, offers itself as an interesting case study within this context. In common with other centre-right parties across Europe, the Conservatives have had to grapple with the dilemma presented by the silent revolution and the reaction against it, and much of the recent history of the party can be explained in this respect. In short, David Cameron's attempt to modernise the party and promulgate 'liberal conservatism' was an attempt to catch up with the long-term shift in values that the silent revolution encapsulates. (6) Cameron and his fellow modernisers hoped that their blend of economic and social liberalism would win back the support of voters who are the Conservatives' natural constituency in socioeconomic terms but who had been put off by the 'nasty party' image and authoritarian tone on social and moral issues. The cause of equal marriage for same-sex couples, championed by Cameron personally, would consequently become both the totemic symbol and high-water mark of his modernisation agenda, which remained fundamentally limited in key respects. (7)

One important break on modernisation was the need to manage the challenge posed by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which threatened to outflank the Conservatives on the right, drawing support from voters sympathetic to the silent counter revolution. This contest with the radical right was one faced by parties across Europe, particularly those of the mainstream right. (8) Interestingly however, while managing this problem has been something that has preoccupied successive Conservative leaders - and was certainly a key factor in Cameron's fateful decision to pledge a referendum on membership of the EU - the Conservatives have arguably dealt with this threat rather more effectively than many of their European counterparts. In terms of vote share, the Conservatives have improved their position at each of the last six general elections, reaching a high of 43.6 per cent in 2019. This...

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