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True blues

Modern Europe was forged and long governed by forces of the moderate right. But now they’re on the slide—and the continent has reason to fear

Since the 2008 financial crash much ink has been spilled on the demise of the centre-left across Europe. Here in Britain it hastened the demise of New Labour, while in Germany it turned the SPD into a perennial junior coalition partner. They were the lucky ones. The once-dominant Pasok has been wiped out in Greece, the Socialist Party of François Mitterrand sunk to fifth at the presidential elections last year, while the Labour Party in the Netherlands slumped from coalition government to an embarrassing seventh.

The avowedly progressive side of the ideological spectrum is, perhaps ironically, always the more given to gloomy introspection. But this time its anguish appeared to be justified. For the best part of a decade after a crisis that exposed much that was rotten in the old order, events appeared to be playing out against those forces that wanted to reform it. That pattern may have seemed surprising to some, but perhaps not to students of Britain’s political history in the 1920s, 1930s or indeed 1980s. Hard times once again appeared to be shoring up the establishment.

Meanwhile, support for the centre-right remained solid. For many years after the crash, the parties that helped forge the post-war “west” and have run it for most of the time since sometimes looked as strong as ever. Angela Merkel was able to increase her vote in 2013, a feat matched by David Cameron in 2015, when he succeeded in swatting the challenge from Ukip out of the way and winning an unexpected overall majority. Other insurgent anti-establishment parties were, on the whole, being held at bay. Given the economic battering western democracies have faced since 2008, the resilience of the old political order was remarkable. But will this last much longer?

In the last year or two, elections—and in the UK a referendum, too—have begun to indicate that the centre-right forces, like their centre-left counterparts, are now on the defensive. In Germany, in France, in the UK and latterly in Italy they have proved unable to command majorities, and seen their core support shrink and with it their ability to form governments. The arrival of the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to challenge Merkel is the perfect illustration of what is going on; new parties and movements, particularly from the populist nationalist right, have risen to challenge them across the continent. These paint centre-right parties as part of the cosmopolitan elite, committed to supranationalism and the global market and as much a part of the problem as the rootless centre-left. Some centre-right parties have aped the language and policies of the far-right, others have tried to stand firm for moderation; but almost all have seen their support slip.

Could it be that the solidity of the traditional centre-right was only the creation of specific historical circumstances? Specifically, the destruction of the main fascist regimes in the Second World War; strong nation states with settled borders in its wake; and, on the international stage, the idea of a western alliance. And, if the insurgents continue to make ground, might we see the demise of the forces of moderation and the return to a new era of nationalism and authoritarianism in Europe?

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect's July issue: Editor of Prospect Tom Clark tackles the major fault lines developing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, arguing that the issue could be one of those few occasions where the Tories can’t overcome a significant challenge. Alongside his lead essay, Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, examines why many European parties on the right are struggling and why the continent should be worried. Conservative MP Lee Rowley charts what some of the policy areas that the Tories will have to deal with beyond Brexit if they are to get it right. Elsewhere in the issue: Nabeelah Jaffer tries to answer one of the most difficult questions of our time: how do you de-radicalise an extremist. Using examples from both the UK and Denmark, she argues that the UK model needs more work to be effective; Philip Collins asks why Britain’s towns have fallen by the wayside while its cities have thrived; and Sam Tanenhaus profiles “the real deal-maker” in Donald Trump’s White House, Mike Pompeo, after the Secretary of State oversaw the US-North Korea summit.