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A Populist Right Rises in the UK

Just as Britain has a parliamentary system rather than separate executive and legislative branches at the national level, most localities in the UK are governed by “councils” that oversee everything from emergency services to schools. Yesterday elections were held for a large number of these local authorities—in places where the Conservative Party performed very well in 2009, presaging David Cameron’s (qualified) success in the following year’s parliamentary election.

The big story this year, however, is the rise of a “fourth party” atop the wreck of the coalition between Cameron’s Conservatives and Britain’s center-left third party, the Liberal Democrats. UKIP, the UK Independence Party, stands for restricting immigration, getting out of the EU, and opposing nanny-statism. (Some of Britain’s new alcohol regulations are the cultural equivalent of Mayor Bloomberg’s war on Big Gulps.) These are populist or nationalist former Tories and independents, though UKIP says it draws from all established parties. And while UKIP gets pilloried as a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” (in David Cameron’s words), as Tim Stanley points out, yesterday’s results show “Ukip have helped to smash the BNP … by providing a non-racist Right-wing alternative.”

Given the Tory party’s drift to the left under David Cameron, many on the right hope that pressure from UKIP and its voters will force the Conservatives to live up to their name again. The fear among Tories, however, is that UKIP will do to them what the center-left Lib Dems (in their various incarnations) did to Labour in the ’80s, siphoning away enough votes from the ideological base to permit the other major party to win—without the minor party picking up enough seats in Parliament to be a viable coalition partner. The likeliest outcome of UKIP-Tory fratricide is Labour victory. Think of, say, the Tea Party or the religious right breaking off from the GOP. The rump Republican Party would still be torn between going right to reclaim its lost base or trying to cobble together a centrist majority or plurality in general elections. Certainly there are Republicans who feel that shorn of the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin, the party could win a few seats it’s lost in recent years.

Cameron has not been an adept electoral politician—he’s antagonized his right without gaining much ground from the center—but he’s not the Tories’ main problem. Since the coup that deposed Margaret Thatcher in 1990, the Tories have been torn between embracing her successes (in redefining the party and British government) and fleeing from her failures (she’s a polarizing figure who saddled the Tories a reputation for heartlessness). The party has spent the last 20 years careening left, then right, then left again and failing to win a parliamentary majority in every election since 1992. (Cameron, of course, occupies 10 Downing Street only thanks to the Lib Dems.)

The basic problem confronting the major parties of the right both in the UK and U.S. is how to be right-wing enough to keep the base while being centrist enough to win a general election. The GOP is failing in exactly the way the Tories are, notching only a single popular vote win (2004) in presidential elections since 1992. Just as the Tories went through a succession of failed leaders during more than a decade out of power (1997-2010), the GOP today is in the unaccustomed position of having no clear presidential front runner, after nominating two unsuccessful candidates in a row for the first time since 1948. (Nixon in 1960 and Bush I in 1992 both set the Republican Party up for consecutive presidential losses, but each also served as president at some point. McCain and Romney seem unlikely to follow Nixon’s path back to power, which leaves the GOP more leaderless today than at any time since the Truman era.)

What’s worse, this ideological crackup on the right has been a long time coming. Both Thatcher and Reagan put paid to more centrist and statist breeds of conservative (Nixon-Rockefeller moderates in the U.S., Macmillan and Heath “wets” in the UK). Cameron is rather like George W. Bush in “compassionate conservative” mode: he tried to rebrand his party but wound up turning it into dog food. Bush’s big-spending efforts in this direction antagonized the right to the point that it has become far more demanding on the Republican Party since he left office, but at the same time his inept policies alienated the center and allowed the Democratic Party to claim that space. Cameron similarly finds himself losing ground in the center and on the right at the same time. It’s quite a feat.

The dream of the populist right is to win a total victory on its own, without having to compromise with Republican or Tory moderates. But that scenario seems implausible given what the U.S. and UK are actually like today. In the UK there’s the outside chance that UKIP could do well enough at the next parliamentary elections in 2015 to form a governing coalition with the Tories. But Labour’s strength in the north of England and Scotland is daunting, and if Cameron accepts UKIP supporters, he will lose a small but not negligible remnant of Tory wets and Europhiles. (The leader of that wing of the Tories, Ken Clarke, has made his feelings about UKIP quite clear— “clowns.”) Meanwhile, the Lib Dems who have long split the British left have been severely discredited by their coalition with Cameron, raising the risk that Labour plus former Lib Dems and Tory moderates would add up to a majority.

Old-style center-right types can’t win or hold together their own parties anymore in the U.S. or UK. Because they’ve been in charge for so long, that seems like a singular failing on their part—but in fact the same criticism applies to the populist right, which also can’t build a party or coalition large enough to win national elections. It’s a deadlock, one that allows the post-socialist left a relatively clear path to power. This is why the “lost tribes” of U.S. and UK politics matter—to break the deadlock on the right, someone has to find a formula to combine elements that don’t easily fit together. And once they’re combined, they have to look like something that a 21st-century electorate might actually vote for.

(UKIP leader Nigel Farage talks to the Telegraph.)

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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