If the Right is to have a future, it must recognise that our civilisation is precious and fragile

The June 10, 1984 file photo shows Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, second left, standing with, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, left, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, second right, and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at London's Buckingham Palace
The last time conservative leaders dominated the West: Queen Elizabeth in June 1984 with Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

When/if the Tories lose this election (I include the word “if” here in deference to the sound principle that no democratic election is a foregone conclusion), they will want a new leader.

I do not propose to start arguing here today about who that person should be. Current coverage has gleefully written a pre-epitaph for the Conservative Party, which reads “Died on the Fourth of July”. I suspect predictions of this death are exaggerated, but obviously its situation is dire.

I remember all too well editing this newspaper on the last comparable occasion, which was after New Labour swept to power in 1997. The sight of all those men struggling for the hollow Tory crown was dispiriting. We must expect it – though this time it will probably dominated by women – but there is no need to jump in early. To quote dear Bill Deedes, my first editor, who mixed his metaphors: “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

But it is interesting to ask a much broader question, to which, if it continues to mess up, the Conservative Party might not furnish an answer. Does the Right have a future?

Voting patterns in the Western world suggest that it does. This week’s European election results were good not only for the hard-Right, but for the centre-Right. The most important losers were the centrist President Emmanuel Macron in France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-Left Social Democrats in Germany. In the United States, a Trump victory is possible, arguably probable.

Britain is almost the only Western country where the Left is currently resurgent. Even here, that may not be the correct description, since Sir Keir Starmer, though much more a man of the Left than Tony Blair ever was, is obscuring his own views in order to win.

Indeed, the future of the Right cannot be addressed without asking the same question about the future of the Left. Are these designations now beside the point? I am glad to say that the think tank Policy Exchange will soon start major programmes of work on both these subjects.

As the authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher, I shall have a role. Next year marks the centenary of her birth and – more relevantly – the 50th anniversary of her becoming Conservative leader.

From that moment, she had more than four years to think through what she wanted a Conservative government to be before putting it into practice from 1979 to 1990. While nodding briefly to David Cameron’s “Big Society” work before he gained office in 2010, most would agree that Mrs Thatcher’s was the last full Conservative rethink. Half a century is long enough ago to draw dispassionate rather than partisan lessons for the next 50 years.

The detail of all that is for another day. But if one had to generalise about Western leadership – Left, Right or centre – since the end of the Cold War, it would be to say that it has not been very serious.

It has been based on the false assumption that our way of life has permanently triumphed. Almost without trying, we believed, we would go on getting richer and freer. Everyone else would want to be like us.

This led us to catastrophic generosity to enemies – for example, letting China into the World Trade Organisation – and cultural arrogance, such as devoting so much diplomacy to lecturing poorer countries about climate change and LGBT rights.

This complacency also made us – particularly in Britain, the United States and the wider Anglosphere – incurious about the historical sources of our strengths. It created a vacuum in which the next generation can be taught that our past is a simple, horrible story of slavery and colonial exploitation. We ceased to think about the sources of growth and concentrated on distributing its benefits like confetti.

Our carelessness about mass immigration, whose consequences are now hitting Western countries so hard, had a Left-wing ideological component. First and foremost, however, it was a lazy way to solve labour problems and avoid thinking about productivity. Tony Blair made this mistake from the start. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, as his chancellor, replicated it after Brexit, as almost no one who had voted Leave expected or wanted.

We have developed a way of playing down the signals of distress. Even after September 11, 2001, we were extremely reluctant to reimport an awareness of internal and external threat into our political discourse. Much more recently, after the atrocious Hamas massacres of Israelis on October 7, instead of seeing how anti-Semitism is being used to undermine our culture, we have blamed the victims.

Even after the financial crisis of 2008-10, we did not really address the way governments (drawing on taxpayers) had become a mechanism for saving banks, rather than banks being the best way of looking after people’s money.

Even after Covid – and this is a more specifically British problem – we have not worked through how back-to-front it was to control 65 million people’s behaviour to save the National Health Service, rather than to have an NHS fully ready to save people’s lives.

“Just in time”, the prevailing business doctrine of the age that is now ending, was not idiotic. It maximised efficiency and saved cost. But it was hubristic. It assumed our settled, uncontested superiority. Sometimes, one civilisation is superior to its rivals. Unfashionably, I would argue that Western civilisation is. But no civilisation, however glittering, can survive, if it takes its prosperity and security for granted, and neglects the close relationship between the two.

It is worth asking the main parties at this election the question raised in various forms in this column recently: “If, in the coming weeks or months, Russia spreads its war in Ukraine to a Nato country, or China attacks Taiwan, what could we in the West actually do?” I am not saying either assault is imminent, but both are possible. Does either Labour or the Conservative Party have an answer?

This week, a Reform candidate (my local one, as it happens) was revealed to have said that Britain would have been much better off doing a deal with Hitler and that Winston Churchill was an “abysmal” leader. Vladimir Putin, he also opined, has shown “maturity”.

One must not make too much of one loopy candidate from any party, but I was struck by the response of Reform’s national spokesman. He defended the candidate: “His historical perspective of what the UK could have done in the Thirties was shared by the vast majority of the British establishment including the BBC of its day, and is probably true ...no endorsement, just pointing out conveniently forgotten truths.”

That Reform remark is not proof of Nazi sympathy, but it does reflect the sort of conservatism drastically ill-suited to the world crisis – the sort which pretends that it is nothing to do with us. The errant Reform candidate also attacked “Britain’s warped mindset [which] values weird notions of international morality rather than looking after its own people.” Yet Western nations cannot look after their own people properly if they refuse to be vigilant about how they are threatened.

In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and (though I feel Mrs Thatcher turning in her grave as I say this) Helmut Kohl in Germany, were intensely serious about the right relationship between economic freedom, their national interests and their allied vigilance against external hostility.

All three of them conservatives, they were, peacefully, victorious. It is time to stop squandering that inheritance.