Saving Conservatism: The center must hold

Tobias Ellwood is a British MP. He is a former officer in the British Army, Foreign Office Middle East minister and defense minister. He also served as chair of the Defense Select Committee in the House of Commons.

In today’s fragmented world, if there’s one thing a future leader might learn from the staying power of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former United States President Donald Trump, it’s that authoritarianism pays.

And if that’s one step too far, then why not try populism? Retain power by splitting society, demonizing your competition, harnessing emotional rhetoric, and selling policies through simple soundbites crafted for headlines rather than good governance.

However, as the specter of populism now stretches across the West, it’s diminishing our collective ability to check the advance of authoritarianism. And it’s knocking on the door of Britain’s Conservative Party too. But it must not succumb. 

The United Kingdom has long been a global example of political stability, forging a path of freedom, democracy and rule of law.  And from the Conservatives’ point of view, this is because for most of its history, the party was driven by a single vision when in office: Trust the people to preserve order, reform sensibly, keep an eye on social harmony, bridge divisions to unite the country and promote Britain’s values worldwide.

As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, this “one-nation Conservatism” was about appealing and representing beyond one’s base. It was about unity at home and influence abroad. And key to electoral success was winning the centerground, the middle of the electorate bell curve where floating voters lived.

But now, in the United States, parts of Europe and the U.K., this electoral bell curve has been flipped upside down. And the centerground has shrunk as both national and social media have become echo chambers of political extremes.

This isn’t Conservatism — and it’s dangerous. 

One-nation Conservatism prized unity, of party and country. Without a united party there was no power. But a move toward populism has ended that unity, and without it, there’s no influence abroad.

This is important because one-nation Conservatism also prized the unity of like-minded nations, forging them into alliances to defend the core principles of democracy, freedom and rule of law beyond their shores.

But a divided polity weakens the state, and an alliance of divided peoples and inward-looking leaders isn’t as effective in confronting global threats. Both are symptoms of what is called “West-lessness.”

Moreover, last decade’s global democratic backsliding has coincided with a worrying erosion of democratic standards within democratic countries, which once stood tall as examples of the wise exercise of power. And if this trend continues, the global order these nations helped craft will be on course to splinter, with ever more states tussling between democracy and authoritarianism veering toward the latter.

This is tragic.

Furthermore, while it’s traditionally been Britain that warns of gathering storms and rallies international support to put out fires out and promote stability, it’s now time to put our hands up. Britain’s performance in handling Brexit hasn’t been its finest hour, and it’s been a distraction from the U.K.’s ability to shape the geopolitical environment.

Just a quick look at the recent run of the country’s latest five prime ministers suggests something’s gone seriously wrong with the Conservatives’ long record of providing Burkean political stability. And this is because the party briefly vacated the centerground of U.K. politics to chase the extremes.

Look back on the party’s history. The leaders who put the nation’s interests first and governed from the center did so with distinction: Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and, yes, Margaret Thatcher too. 

When they went populist, it didn’t work. Who remembers the first Tory populist Andrew Bonar Law, who went full protectionist, upending 60 years of economic policy and threatening civil war over Ireland? By the time he became the shortest-serving 20th century prime minister, the Tories hadn’t won an election for 20 years, Ireland was independent and free trade remained.

Populism wasn’t worth it then, and it isn’t worth it now.

Broadly speaking, Tory leaders fall into two camps: The populists, noisily holding the fort — that is until the reins of power are handed over to a premier from the second camp, comprised of the big beasts who step up, seek unity and shunt our great nation forward, preserving the wider democratic order. 

Currently, there’s little question that leadership, competence and stability have returned to Number 10 following the party’s dalliance with populism, but unity is still lacking. And without unity, the Tories won’t succeed. Unity evokes competence; disunity begets ill-discipline; and ill-discipline begets electoral defeat.

The prime minister’s Campaign Chief Isaac Levido presented this same message to Tory backbenchers just last week: The Boris Johnson/Liz Truss turmoil saw a full quarter of the voting population shift — not to Labour but to the “don’t know” camp. 

So, the Tories’ mission now is to win them back. And with the party in calmer political waters, demonstrating fiscal responsibility and improving its statecraft, the upcoming election could still be competitive.

But what’s happening instead? No fewer than five populist tribes have tried to hijack the prime minister’s migration legislation. And now, former Cabinet Minister Simon Clarke has called for the head of his own party leader.

What’s driving this reckless behavior? Sadly, it derives from former Conservative leader William Hague’s 1998 decision to allow party members to choose their own leader. This is what, progressively but fundamentally, altered the prism of beliefs through which any budding future leader projected themselves.

To please Tory grassroots, Remainers became Brexiters, One-Nationers became populists, and populism replaced pragmatism. It became simpler to just adopt the views of the crowd rather than apply the warning that an MP “owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Populism is a good starter but a bad finisher. It’s a quick fix that previous one-nation leaders saw for what it was: The opposite of good governance and good Conservatism. And it ends badly because populism has no logical limit.

This s no way to run a party, a country or the West — and all three are facing existential dates with destiny over the coming years. 

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians “Campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” illustrating the stark difference between political promises aired on the campaign trail and what’s actually achieved in office — a void taken to new heights in recent leadership elections.

It’s time to break this cycle. Until the power of selecting the leader is returned to the parliamentary party, this slide toward right-wing populism will gift the centerground to Labour (as we saw under former Prime Minister Tony Blair), and maroon the Tories at the extreme.

At best, this puts the Conservatives out of office for a couple of election cycles, as the party grapples to regroup. At worst, it’ll see the party split into light and dark blue, with the latter probably merging with the right-wing populist Reform UK.

Let us stay a broad church instead. Let us stay one nation, stay electable. Let us reform our leadership selection process and ditch unconservative populism.