This hasn’t been a good year for conservatives around the world. For the first time since 1978, left-of-centre parties are in power in Canada, the U.S. and Britain all at the same time. In fact, every major Western industrial country except Germany is now governed by a left-of-centre party — and the German Christian Democrats don’t look long for this world.
It seems strange conservatives should be so sunk in the doldrums electorally, when their ideas are in the ascendant as never before. But then, maybe it isn’t so strange. Maybe in fact, the reason conservative parties are out of office is because the big conservative ideas of the 1970s — balance the budget, cut taxes, introduce more competition into public services — have become the conventional wisdom of the 1990s, espoused by Chretien Liberals, Clinton Democrats and Blair Labourites alike. It used to be that the only way to get Tory or Republican policies was to vote for Tory or Republican governments; now, if you’re mad at the Tories or Republicans, you can safely vote Liberal, Labour or Democrat without fear that your taxes will be hiked up to 90%.
This means, if parties of the right hope to win power back soon, they need to modernize their principles, to give voters fresh reasons to support them by distinguishing themselves from the pseudo-conservatives of the old-line left-wing parties. It’s a big job. Next weekend in Washington’s cavernous Mayflower Hotel, several hundred conservative intellectuals and politicians from around the world will sit down to have a crack at it.
The conference is the brainchild of John O’Sullivan, probably the only man in the rancorous conservative movement who is liked by everybody, in all factions. O’Sullivan is the editor of National Review, and was before that a longtime aide to Margaret Thatcher. Which is how it came about that Lady Thatcher will co-chair the conference, sharing her gavel with William Buckley, the man who more or less invented modern conservatism. Delegates are expected not only from Britain and the U.S., but from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
I’ve had a chance to glance at some of the preliminary materials for the conference, and I think the meeting does indeed point conservatism in a new direction. If the draft program is adopted, the old difference between left and right about economics is about to be joined by a new disagreement about politics.
Once, conservative advocacy of competitive enterprise and balanced budgets was pitted against the left-wing faith in state control and lavish spending. Now that the old left-wing dogmas have been shattered, former left-wingers like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Martin claim to endorse free enterprise and fiscal sanity as wholeheartedly as the right ever did. So the new argument pits conservative insistence that political power must be accountable to national electorates against the left-wing fascination for putting power where the people cannot control it – into the hands of judges, bureaucrats and international bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.
Twenty-five years ago, the right championed democratic capitalism against a left that wanted democratic socialism. Today, the right must still champion democratic capitalism; the difference is it’s now the ‘democratic’ rather than the ‘capitalist’ half of the formula that is under siege. The threat to democratic accountability varies, of course, from country to country. In Britain, it comes from a European bureaucracy uncontrolled by any elected body. In the U.S.,
the trouble originates in the eagerness of a liberal administration to devolve control over its armed forces and foreign policy to multinational organizations, especially the UN. In Canada, the attack on the ideal of self-government is being launched by our increasingly arrogant and unchecked courts.
At bottom, the debate between right and left remains what it has always been: freedom versus control, the diffusion of power to the people versus the centralization of power in the hands of a self-appointed caste. Socialism may be dead, but the appetites that created it linger on. It is, as it has always been, conservatism’s task to resist them.
Originally published in The Financial Post