It would perhaps be an exaggeration to state that Western democracy is in crisis, but it is certainly in a state of flux. Brexit, Trump and the rise of the nationalist right across Europe have all undermined our long-term assumptions about the nature of our politics, shattering the post-war illusion that democratic nations are destined to become more and more interlinked through free trade, open borders and shared principles, and therefore political leaders must think carefully about the future. We cannot afford to carry on as if nothing has changed, despite the protestations of figures such as Tony Blair who remain wedded to the old order, in large part due to the vast amounts of power and wealth that it enabled them to accumulate, but neither can we succumb to the Trumpian madness of migrant-bashing and anti-intellectualism. A new mainstream needs to be created from the rubble of liberalism, a mainstream that is fiscally conservative, socially progressive and thoroughly in tune with the concerns of ordinary people.
In many respects, Western liberalism was a project that was doomed to fail; indeed, the real shock is not that is has collapsed as a hegemonic force, but that it managed to survive unchallenged for so long. In both its leftist and right-wing incarnations, the starting-point of modern liberalism was faith in a transnational political, economic and intellectual elite, and the assumption that what was good for that establishment would ultimately be in the interests of everybody. Nowhere were these assumptions more clearly on display than during Britain’s EU referendum last year, where the Remain campaign pulled out a raft of bankers, business leaders and economists to try to convince the ordinary man and woman that their concerns were unfounded, unnecessary and even shameful.
The truth is that working-class people do have legitimate concerns which need to be addressed, and which the political elite has ignored for far too long. Admitting this is not a sign of bigotry, small-mindedness, or a ‘Little Englander’ desire to turn the clock back to the 1950s. Neither is it an acceptance of anti-intellectualism; we need good intellectuals within the policymaking process now more than ever, people brimming with creative ideas who will refuse to be bound by the status quo. However, accepting and even celebrating the role of intellectuals within our politics is not the same as the snobbish elitism which was at the core of the old liberal order, an attitude which treated the academic class as some kind of infallible magisterium. Yes, Oxbridge-educated intellectuals from London may know more than most when it comes to macroeconomic theory, but that doesn’t mean they understand the unique problems faced by working-class communities.
In a strange way, liberal elitism and Trumpian populism are the mirror-image of each other; the former places a false trust in an intellectual establishment, whilst the latter makes the same mistake by exalting the mythical ‘will of the people’ uncorrupted by mainstream media or pointy-headed academics. In reality, both ordinary citizens and the highly educated provide equally important insights which are vital for the policymaking process, and we cannot continue to exclusively listen to one of these voices whilst ignoring the other. A coherent and positive framework for the future must be based on facts, evidence and intellectual credibility, but informed by the problems that ordinary people face on a daily basis.
Such a framework is provided by ‘progressive conservatism,’ and in Britain that is the ideology which has emerged triumphant from the Brexit vote. Although many pro-Europeans tried to depict the Leave side as racist and extreme, the truth is that the official Brexit campaign was fronted by credible and thoughtful figures, shunning the harsher populist rhetoric of Nigel Farage and UKIP. Indeed, one of the most prominent Leave campaigners was a softly-spoken, German-born Labour MP, the maverick backbencher Gisela Stuart, who could never be described as a bigoted Little Englander. Likewise, the vote to leave the EU brought the curtain down on the administration of David Cameron, a man who embodied the elitist liberal settlement in its right-wing form, and ushered in a new, very different Prime Minister.
In almost every respect, Theresa May represents the kind of progressive conservatism that is the best hope for this new and uncertain political era. She is deeply in tune with working-class voters in a way that no past Conservative leader has been, yet she is anything but populist. Whereas David Cameron desperately craved to be popular, modern and successful, Prime Minister May only seems to care about getting on with her job, shunning the spotlight and eschewing the glamorous trappings of political power. Ideologically, she stands firmly in the post-Thatcher Tory tradition of free market capitalism, and her plain-spoken manner means that she has been more willing than Cameron to discuss her philosophical principles; for proof of this, one only has to listen to the barnstorming speech she delivered to congressional Republicans during her trip to the United States last month. However, she is also unafraid to point out the areas where that same system is not working, and this makes her the perfect leader in Brexit Britain.
As Prime Minister May has demonstrated since taking office, progressive conservatism must affirm and uphold the free market economic system whilst also cracking down on those at the top who abuse their power, wealth and influence. It must stand up for globalisation and an open economy, but simultaneously recognise the damaging effects that free trade can have on the nation’s industrial heartlands. In other words, it must strive to make our economic framework function better for hard-working people at the bottom of society whilst simultaneously preserving a healthy, wealth-creating economy free from the burdens of high tax and regulation.
Although a strong economy is crucially important for a prosperous nation, the old liberal order mistakenly filtered its policymaking decisions through a purely economic set of calculations. This was evident during the Brexit debate, where the Remain campaign failed to recognise that issues such as culture and sovereignty were at least as important in the minds of voters as economic concerns, but it was also a serious flaw at the heart of the last government, with George Osborne pursuing an economic policy that prioritised balance sheets over people. A progressive conservative future must be people-oriented, thus offering a non-populist but anti-elitist alternative to the old liberal consensus.
Contrary to popular belief, the world is not sliding inevitably towards the dark forces of crude populism. Donald Trump’s victory in the United States is evidence that old assumptions are breaking up, but we should not make the mistake of believing that our future will be characterised by his absurd approach. Populism can only really succeed in opposition, and when a populist leader enters government he eventually becomes the very same failed establishment that he came to overthrow. Politicians such as Trump lack a coherent set of policies for making a difference in the lives of those voters who are rightly disappointed with the political status quo, and so they will inevitably disappoint; that is why we need leaders who combine an understanding of the people with a desire to get things done and formulate substantial and effective policy. As we begin to rebuild the Western political system in the age of Trump, Merkel and May, it is vital that the progressive conservatism espoused by the latter becomes the new common-sense.