A definition of the term “centre-right” is necessarily broad and approximate because political terms have varying meanings in different countries. Parties of the centre-right generally support liberal democracy, capitalism, the market economy, private property rights and the existence of the welfare state in some form. They oppose socialism and extreme secularism. Such a definition includes political parties that base their ideology and policies upon Conservatism and economic liberalism.
There is a set of clear policies linking all the successful centre-right parties in Europe, North America, Canada and Australia during the last decade. The political climate in a particular country affects the success of the parties competing in an election, but it cannot be coincidence that all the centre-right achievement in the aforementioned countries has a common core of ideas. It seems, therefore, that there is a strong case for continued adherence to these simple principles as they have succeeded in different political climates, in countries with a diversity of cultures and temperaments.
Furthermore, in the current advanced, western political arena there is a tendency for mainstream political parties to shuffle towards the centre ground. This can be disadvantageous for a number of reasons. First, politics becomes a short-sighted game of point-scoring and all-long term vision gets elbowed to one side by short-term, vote-winning interests. Second, this gradual rearrangement, whereby all mainstream parties end up lumped together on the centre ground, leads to a steady sterilisation of politics.
The views of many people will be ignored if a conservative political party attempts to radically revamp itself into a liberal mould in order to win votes. The ideological fabric of the party could be compromised, and when the political climate changes, a return to traditional party values would be difficult. In present-day Britain, there is a movement away from conventional centre-right policies, despite the fact that many issues would best be solved through a Conservative approach. Immigration, tax rates, excessive Governmental regulation, the neutralisation of British tradition and the mistreatment of British troops by the Government – all these are problems irritating the public.
The political success of many centre-right parties in the last decade could inspire a revaluation by the Conservatives, who are trying to plant their flag firmly on centre ground. They should ask themselves whether a return to standard conservative principles would be so unthinkable after all.
On the 17th May 1995, Jacques Chirac came to power in France, elected on the back of a commitment to healing France’s ‘social rift’ (la fracture sociale). His policies were very clear: Euro-scepticism, lower tax rates, deregulation and the removal of price controls, socially responsible economic policies, encouraging privatisation and strong punishment for crime and for terrorism. It is very difficult to argue against a conservative stance that endorses lowering crime, stripping less money from the tax-payer, attempting to stimulate the economy and social responsibility, irrespective of class or political persuasion. Chirac came to power at a time when labour strikes were rife, yet his centre-right policies appealed to the majority of the electorate, including the disgruntled workers. What is more, reducing crime, behaving in a socially responsible manner and stimulating the economy are all measures in tune with a conservative definition of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Chirac came to power before the Theory of The New Politics became trendy and because of this we can assume that his policies reflected his beliefs and were not designed to win over voters in the short term. Perhaps this is why he remained in power until May 2007 when he was succeeded by another centre-right politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, a candidate for the Union for a Popular Movement. The French, even after twelve years, were not fed up with centre-right policies. Sarkozy’s manifesto was reminiscent of Chirac’s. It included lower tax combined with a simplified taxation system and the promise to deal with immigration in a new way. This was addressed by quotas focussed on admitting immigrants with the skills required by the French economy.
Sarkozy has also expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, while advocating (in his book La République, les religions, l’espérance) trying to reduce the gap between religion and the state. He also believes that children should not be brought up solely on secular and republican values. Despite coming to power in a different political climate from Chirac, Sarkozy’s centre-right stance proved popular, demonstrating the enduring qualities of simple conservative ideas, particularly in an atmosphere where concerns about immigration were threatening social cohesion.
Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, had similar policies to the two Frenchmen. Berlusconi laid out his goals in the Contratto con gli Italiani. This declared his determination to improve several aspects of Italian life and of the economy by lowering and simplifying taxes, increasing employment, building up new public works, increasing retirement support, strangling crime and limiting immigration. The Italian is also a firm traditionalist. In his early days, through the Forza Italia party, he expressed support for freedom, the individual, family, enterprise, Italian tradition, Christian tradition and love for weaker people. These values obviously proved popular. Berlusconi’s last term of government lasted from 2001 until 2006. Although in Italy the Socialists are currently in power, a poll held on 26th February 2007, places House of Freedom, the centre-right opposition party, at 51%, three points ahead of the party in power.
The recent Polish elections saw turnout increase by 15%, to more than 55%, as Poles, young and old, headed to the ballot box. Most voted for Poland’s centre-right party Civic Platform, led by Donald Tusk. With 73.7% of ballots counted, Civic Platform was already on its way to a landslide victory with 41.2% of the vote.
The party’s ideology is simple and quintessentially conservative. It includes flat tax (15% for personal income tax [PIT], corporate income tax [CIT] and VAT) and policies that are comparable to some of MargaretThatcher’s ideas. These include the privatization of the remaining public sectors of the Polish economy and of health care, as well as the introduction of the labour law reform to reduce the power of trade unions. Civic Platform is moving towards decentralization through allocating a larger portion of the annual budget to local governments and through the direct elections of mayors and regional governors. Donald Tusk’s education reforms include equal rights for private and public universities and the expansion of economic teaching in secondary schools. In addition, there will be the introduction of the first-past-the-post electoral system instead of proportional representation. Furthermore in terms of relinquishing state control, independence over monetary policy will be given to the National Bank of Poland.
The Civic Platform manifesto is similar to the policies of Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Chirac. Although fine-tuned to cater for Polish needs, Civic Platform’s aims are all concerned with economic growth, lower tax and a simplified tax system, greater individual freedom through education and increased emphasis on local government.
The centre-right parties that have been successful in America, Canada and Australia seem to whistle a tune very similar to that of their European counterparts. John Howard, despite his recent defeat, is the second longest serving Australian Prime Minister. He is a blunt man, renowned as a strong social conservative who is sceptical of the promotion of multiculturalism at the expense of a shared national identity. The forthright Howard, who promoted the rejection of Aboriginal land rights and is against ethnic diversity, has made some famous conservative remarks concerning ethnic pluralism and immigration:
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
“To me, multiculturalism suggests that we can’t make up our minds who we are or what we believe in.”
“I don’t think it is wrong, racist, immoral or anything, for a country to say ‘we will decide what the cultural identity and the cultural destiny of this country will be, and nobody else’.”
Due to the £10 billion ‘budget black hole’ left by the previous Labour government, Howard’s administration focused on prudent economic management and introduced a ‘work for the dole‘ system that required able-bodied social security recipients to seek work. What was perhaps Howard’s most popular move came after he refused to allow the Norwegian freightliner MV Tampa carrying a hoard of stray immigrants to dock. Howard proceeded to instigate strict border control laws; these laws were very popular with the Australian electorate.
He placed particular emphasis on matters concerning immigration and his pragmatic, conservative approach to governing was widely valued. It is worth noting that Howard’s political demise, in some people’s opinion, is largely a personal issue. It does not reflect the importance of conservative values in the Australian public’s opinion.
In his A Proud and Sovereign Canada speech, Stephen Harper presents Canada as a country where people, ‘work hard, raise families and live in freedom’. These are old-fashioned values of common decency. Any Government that promotes this way of living is on the right track. Harper also asserts that his Government is ‘resolved to uphold this heritage by protecting our sovereignty at home and living by our values abroad’. This is an encouraging stance towards tradition and national pride, two inherently conservative principles. Harper’s administration has five straightforward priorities: Sovereignty, Economy, Federation, Security and Environment. These areas of governmental concern are attractive and simple, and the majority of an electorate would be content with Harper’s uncomplicated, conservative standards. This was the case in 2006 when Harper overturned the Liberal Prime Minister, Paul Martin.
When Harper became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada he shifted his ideology closer to that of a Blue Tory and despite the party dropping its opposition to abortion and bilingualism, a standard centre-right approach was adopted. The party began a concerted drive against same-sex marriage. Harper was criticized by a group of law professors for arguing that the government could override the provincial court rulings on same-sex marriage without using the “notwithstanding clause“, a provision of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian premier has also argued for an elected Senate, a tougher stance on crime, closer relations with the United States and, in general, lower taxes.
Decreasing tax is a prominent and recurring theme in centre-right manifestos. People want to keep as much as possible of the money they have worked hard to earn. If levels of income tax become too high, as Britain saw to its cost in the 1970s, the services and retail sectors are hit, since the consumer is forced to be frugal.
Other taxes can also be counterproductive, for example, the British Government has just set a flat Capital Gains Tax rate of 18%. This rise will stifle the growth of the small business sector and will do little, if anything, to reestablish our economy as an appropriate arena to create and grow a company. A centre-right government acknowledges the hampering consequences of high taxation and tries to allow the individual to do as he pleases with his money, whether that be educate his children, go on holidays, drive a fast car or simply stash it in a box under the floor boards.
Aside from tax issues, one of Harper’s most conservative moves was his visit, in May 2007, to the Canadian troops on the frontline in Afghanistan. This gesture is described as a serious change in the relationship between the Government and the military. It is a gesture with a traditional, conservative edge that offers support to the brave men who have been sent to fight by their Government. Harper’s sentiments are akin to those of George Bush who, on 22nd November 2007, the day of Thanksgiving, phoned US troops, stationed overseas, to thank them for their service to the United States of America. An equally heartening gesture that shows patriotism and respect for the armed forces does still exist; something which is barely the case in much of Britain currently.
There is a fundamental difference between visiting troops at war out of respect and visiting them for reasons relating to spin. Since British troops have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan they have been visited by both Brown and Blair. People backing these two men would argue that this demonstrates their support for the armed forces. On the surface they would be right. The centre-right would point out that the best methods for showing true support for a soldier, other than going to visit him on the frontline, are to look after him when he returns, injured or not, and to look after the family of that soldier whilst he is fighting. This can be done in terms of education and housing. Finally, by ensuring that he is fully equipped before he goes into battle. The comments from our armed forces imply that this is not the case in Britain, no matter how often Brown pops over to the Middle East.
George Bush, a Republican, is yet another centre-right politician who has been successful in the last decade and, unsurprisingly, his policies correspond to those of his European equivalents, his Canadian neighbour and his friend down under. Bush is staunchly religious. During a televised Republican presidential debate in December 1999, he was asked, ‘what political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?’ Bush’s unique response was, ‘Christ, because he changed my heart’. Bush’s appeal to religious values and thus family and moral values, aided him in his career.
He is often described as a gun-wielding, self-proclaimed Texan ‘War President’ and his right-wing policies chime in with this persona. This is especially true in terms of his Foreign Policy. He has authorised US military intervention in Haiti and Liberia to protect US interests. Bush’s administration has pushed for free-market policies, limited regulation and a juicy tax cut of $1.35 trillion. The Republicans believe that private spending is more efficient than government spending. This last sentiment is particularly refreshing as it is a method for giving choice to the individual; a suggestion at which Gordon Brown would scoff, as if such freedom was morally dangerous.
Additionally, Bush reformed Social Security, renewed the USA Patriot Act (giving the Government greater scope for preventing terrorism) and introduced the No Child Left Behind Act. The latter aimed to measure and close the gap between rich and poor student performance. Finally, Bush has urged Congress to provide additional funding for border security, and committed to deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to the United States-Mexico border.
His government withdrew US support for the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that it would cost the US economy tens of billions of dollars a year, and was based on the uncertain science of climate change. Of course global warming, if the scientists who promote it as a dangerous reality are right, is a pressing issue, but as recent measures show, Bush’s administration has coupled an environmental awareness with practicality; Bush’s disregard of the Kyoto Protocol seems to imply that, in his view, a country should not be crippled by unconfirmed science or dictated to in its policies by foreign nations.
Centre-right success American-style is a substantial topic, and there are obvious parallels between the policies Bush has implemented in the USA and those of the successful European centre-right. The reemerging lines of attack are tax cuts, cracking down on crime, deregulation, a social conscience and a sense of tradition, morality and national pride. There are other policies undertaken by some governments and not by others and the different political climates should be considered. But despite variations, the truth is that the majority of the policies adopted by the successful centre-right parties in the West are all united, both in their core principles and in their policy mechanisms.
Another theme that has become apparent is the pragmatism fundamental to conservative thought. This is vital to centre-right popularity. Deregulation, simplified tax systems, laisser-faire business attitudes and privatisation all help simplify what the state has to do. They reduce the number of civil servants. They shrink the bureaucracy that can cripple a government. Centre-right politicians want to place as much choice as possible back into the hands of the individual. They believe in freedom to compete. Most importantly, they believe and understand that people do tend to know what is best for themselves and their families.
Another point is that centre-right parties are exactly that, a mixture of the centre and the right. It is due to this balance that a centre-right party is potentially in such a strong position. A party portraying itself as a centre-right outfit must not, therefore, ignore those members who uphold a more traditional view. It is the combination of moderated assertions and more established opinions that places a centre-right party above an extreme right, centre-left or extreme left opposition.
There is a facile tendency in some quarters to associate centre-right parties with ‘old-fashioned’ opinions and, therefore, ‘outdated’ mindsets. This approach is often a left-wing smear tactic; a substitute for proper debate. As the international examples I have cited clearly show, it is neither outdated nor ‘extreme’ to have practical centre-right beliefs that encourage competition, aim to encourage independence, focus on the individual and offer economic growth through the freeing up of business and lowering of taxes. In today’s fast changing world, it is rather the classic left-wing approach of state control and high taxation that look increasingly outdated.
Examining the above examples, it is safe to say that a party with centre-right policies can win elections, can offer the population the things they want, and can even successfully control a major global power.