For the Right, 2022 was a year to forget. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is out of power. In the States, the Republicans hold just one element of national government, and only marginally; their main influence comes from a legacy grip on the Supreme Court. In Britain, the Tories are in office but look deflated, running down the clock until an election defeat. For conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, then, there are just 12 months to put to bed any internal crises and find a convincing, popular platform before the major election campaigns of 2024 kick off.
Like the Tories, the GOP go into 2023 electorally bruised. Their embrace of populism has not proved popular enough to sustain victory, but instead left them sullied by association with men who largely co-opted them for vehicles of their own ambition. Neither party seems capable of sating their supporters’ desires on key issues, such as immigration, but have adopted rhetoric that scares off their more centrist supporters. Equally, they are finding their support in diminishing demographics — older, whiter, and less well-educated than the rest of the population.
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Both parties also find themselves with an unclear message. Over the past decade, the Tories have struggled to find a defining narrative beyond wanting to win. They have tried austerity, Brexit, levelling up, tax cuts and austerity again, yet have still ended up with an economy devoid of growth and stagnating wages. They have waged a half-interested culture war but largely become socially progressive. Even on immigration, their professed conservatism has resolved into higher rates. They have chased focus groups and polls until they have come out of the rabbit hole believing in nothing.
The Republican Party has the same problem, but in an even more chaotic form. The neocon Christianity of the Bush years gave rise to the Tea Party which eventually spiralled into the Right-wing populism Trump harnessed. Now moving even more quickly, the American Right largely seems to be made up of an assortment of “own the libs at all costs” reactionaries. Still struggling to digest the impact of the TV-star president, ratings and attention are their driving force. There is little narrative to what they discuss, little thought — just knee-jerk responses to whatever the Democrats propose. Everything else seems more co-opted than born of conviction.
In 2023, the parties will have to find a way past this, a way to consolidate before the next electoral test. Instinctively, it feels it could be harder for the Tories. They are in government, dealing with the daily challenges that it throws up. With the economy in crisis, public services falling apart, and a war in Europe continuing, these will not be insignificant. After a dozen years in power, they are exhausted, emotionally, and intellectually, with many of their MPs already checked out. Those who remain are too focused on surviving to think of thriving. Party unity is shot, while internal bickering is rampant.
If the party is to succeed, perhaps even survive, beyond the next 18 months, the work has to begin now. The Conservatives need to find a compelling case for their own existence, beyond relying on the votes of older retirees. They need to find big answers to the practical issues the under-50s face, as well as a way to argue for conservative principles without sounding like an old man wailing at a cloud.
None of these issues is beyond the scope of conservatism. The only reason it should fall into decline is a lack of ardour and applied thinking. After all, young people should be more economically Right-wing than ever. Far more want a slice of prosperity than to tear it down. They bridle at stagnant wages and rising prices, but have embraced “side hustles”, investing and entrepreneurialism. In this sense, they are conservatives, even if they don’t know it. The Tories would do well to explain why.
On the climate, the Right can be the party of technological development and conservation, as opposed to the grim self-denial of the progressive degrowthers. A vision of nuclear power stations, replanted forests and efficient urban density is far more appealing than eating bugs and living in pods. It can bring with it an expansive view of the family, one that sees gay marriage as a win for tradition rather than a kick against it.
Meanwhile, faced with the rising tide of divisive identity politics, both the GOP and the Conservatives could articulate a positive view of integrated communities, seizing on some of the conservative instincts of minority groups. They could acknowledge concerns about immigration with policies that are discerning while still encouraging economic growth, and have at their heart integration rather than separation. The Right gets caught out when it sees its values on economics and culture as antagonistic, rather than seeing both entwined in a sense of national stewardship. This is where the foundations of continuity and renewal can be laid.
In essence, both the American and British Right are hamstrung by the different iterations of the same problem: the Tories and GOP are devoid of ideas, empty of vision, but adept at election campaigning. This has made them susceptible to demagogues such as Trump and Johnson, both of whom were only loosely conservative in their hearts. It has also left them exposed as electoral trends have shifted. Indeed, both parties now find themselves languishing among emerging electoral groups. Not only are the educated and ethnic minorities less likely to support them, but these are also a growing portion of the electorate. This means that a concentration in whiter, older, suburban and rural fringe votes is becoming more pronounced for both parties and becoming a less sure-fire route to success.
And yet, British and American conservatives are used to regeneration. They have enjoyed success across different eras and political landscapes, adapting as they go. The lack of ideological dogmatism on the Right lends itself to effective pivots, while a belief in the value of the individual often allows them to listen to voters better than ideologues. In the Fifties, both parties bounced back from defeats by embracing a tempered version of their opponent’s economic reforms, rather than rejecting them outright, while both Thatcher and Reagan managed to sell their vision for prosperity to the ordinary voters and elites alike.
But past performance is no guarantee of future success. Where the parties have fallen into the doldrums and been beset by scandals, they have found a reanimating purpose. After the debacle of Nixon, the Republicans found Reagan. In the decline of the Seventies, the Tories found Thatcher. They corrected their fall not by repeating the same things more loudly, but by innovating on a platform they believed in and could sell to voters.
2023 will be the year where the Right decides if it can do this once more: by finding a narrative that engages with the modern world and appeals to a modern electorate; by finding ideas beyond those led by polling and focus groups; and by shedding the chaos and dishonesty of some of its recent incarnations. Without an injection of ideas, conservatism will flail and founder. The Right has sustained itself on “whatever gets us elected”, but has now driven itself into a corner built on voting blocs where the maths no longer works.
Conservatism revolves around duty, service, community, and prosperity. Its advocates succeeded in the past by finding 19th and 20th-century ways to apply them to 19th and 20th-century problems. Macmillan and Thatcher did not spend their premierships talking about Empire Preference, nor did Eisenhower and Reagan simply ape the politics of the Gilded Age — they saw new challenges and attempted new ideas. If their successors are to avoid ceding the field to the Left, they must do the same.
The election year of 2024 could push Tories and Republicans out of power until the end of the decade. Their failure to generate a convincing case for survival could do the same. So, 2023 will be marked with a key test — whether either party can shed the shouty charlatans and hollow men and find some answers which connect with people. If not, it will be another year of wailing while the tectonic plates shift against them.