The Right in retreat: You're not alone. Conservatism is everywhere in decline

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The Independent Online
Querulous Tories gathering in Blackpool today, take comfort. You are not alone in your woe. As an ideological formation, as a body of values, as a party political force with a lien on the future, conservatism is in worldwide crisis.

On the Continent, where governments of the left hold sway from Lisbon to Helsinki, the conservative banner is shakily held aloft only by Jose Mara Aznar in Spain and - wait for it - by Helmut Kohl in Germany. Meanwhile, the once- attractive (to conservative authoritarians) tiger economies of the Far East are in trouble.

Last week in Washington despised Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich starred at a great jamboree under the rubric "Why conservatism is failing". Not enough backbone opined Lady Thatcher; not enough Biblical Christianity, said the fundamentalists (their reading of Leviticus preferring the condemnation of homosexuality to that of usury). The upshot was disagreement all round over how much freedom, how much government and, inevitably, how much sex. (Those who say William Hague's bedroom arrangements at Blackpool are a non-issue could not be further from the truth: the bedroom is where much modern conservative thinking mostly takes place.)

It is not just the United States. Worldwide conservatism confronts two huge historical problems One is that socialism is dead, killed by the triumph, practical and intellectual, of capitalism. If, as Ian Gilmour argues, conservatism has always been essentially contrarian - a way of stopping things you did not like happening - then the demise of anti-capitalism poses a perhaps insurmountable challenge.

To say conservatism's historical fox has been shot is precisely to capture its latter-day problem - one of the few issues the Tories can muster around is the defence of a barbarous countryside pursuit.

The other problem is big if not new. It is (despite Frederick Hayek's valiant efforts to join them) that conservatism and capitalism are in large measure mutually incompatible, even antagonistic. Until propagandists such as Milton Friedman convinced the world otherwise, conservatism never really claimed to know much about or even care much about the operations of the capitalist economy. Capitalism is inherently dynamic, destructive, anti-conservative. How to square the circle? The terrain of much of modern politics is the "social" yet it is here that Thatcherite conservatism exposed its limits. That now notorious aphorism about there being "no such thing as society" at a stroke robbed the Tories of plausibility when it came to worrying about social facts, such as crime, which clearly are more than individual wickedness. Margaret Thatcher was able to bulldoze through the intellectual inconsistencies by sheer force of personality and the tendency for her noisy claque in Britain's extensive right-wing press to play the three wise monkeys where she was concerned. But with weaker leadership the seams have come apart.

How can you cry doom and destruction about working mothers, the changing domestic division of labour (perennial bugbears of the Tory think- tanks) without simultaneously deploring the free-market economic progress which is part cause and part consequence of such changes? How can you claim to be an individualist in economics while wanting to suppress individual choice (for example about drugs or sexuality)? Roger Scruton tells the Tories it is time "to ease describing social changes as though they were inevitable and steel ourselves to condemn them", but he does not remind them how few votes Savonarola got.

From America comes the despairing cry that conservatism's winning issues ought to be morality and nationalism. The first boils down into a hope for some spontaneous religious revival, but not, pray God, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism or wishy-washy New Ageism. Nationalism might fill the bill as a kind of ersatz religion, say the Americans, as if in complete ignorance of European history during the past century, let alone their own economic postulates for liberal economics.

None of that kills off conservatism as a practical political proposition, or the attachment to conservatism of those foreign media moguls so powerful in Britain. As long as there are people who have and those who have not, a Conservative Party will have a chance. Even in a post-socialist age, people with money still care about extra pennies on income tax.

But conservatism needs to be about more than selfishness - how else in a touchy-feely age is it going to appeal to younger people, as the authors of today's Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, Blue Skies Ahead, recognise. (Their problem is that the ideal party they describe, welcoming to blacks, gays and women, looks disconcertingly like the Blairite Labour Party.)

Besides, the old nostrums just don't seem to work any more. Cutting government back does nothing reliable for economic growth or social stability. Even property owners - especially property owners - recognise that a programme for getting young people into work is likely to do as much for crime and social peace as increased spending on additional police officers. Like Nixon in China, parties of the left are likely to prove much better at rebalancing welfare than parties which cannot see that reforming conservatism is an impossible oxymoron.