Develop Your Rallying Cry: Become a Radical | Joel Clough
The rise of populist politicians across the West generated a liberal shriek of despair and disgust at the behaviour, rhetoric and the “extreme” propositions being put forward to the electorate. The hysteria, fear and derangement of commentators exposed the establishment’s sympathies for liberalism. The electorate, in turn, rejected the narrative of the establishment and exercised their democratic right to elect what the mainstream media deemed as an aggressive and radically new politics. Throughout this article, I hope to convince you that liberal democracy and “talking” was nothing more than a façade; for this antagonism has always been the state of politics. Rather than shying away from this spectacle, we should engage in battle and develop our rallying cry. If we conservatives are to dictate the narrative, we must become “radicals”.
The philosopher Fukuyama assumed that liberal democracy was to be the end of history. Liberal democracy had seized the day and won the last and final ideological battle. Humanity had moved through the different socio-economic epochs and had finally concluded. Thus history was over, as we were never going to move on from the present. It was game over. Life completed. Since then, Fukuyama has been given prophet-like status, for liberal democracy began to dictate societies around the globe: from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain; to the democratic crusade which swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Liberal democracy has been seen to grow progressively more influential. But then came the populists. They did not just knock on the door of liberal democracy – they blew the house down. Liberal democracy had grown fat and lazy. It misunderstood or simply ignored widely held grievances. When the liberals offered solutions, they failed to command widespread support. Thus, people turned to the populists and consequently, government after government was hijacked by this aggressive form of politics.
Many have argued that this has challenged our cherished liberal democracies. I, for one, do not believe so. Abraham Lincoln declared that government was ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. “For the people” implies that governance is representative. With representation came alliances. Those who shared ideas, beliefs and outlooks began to forge parties. Alongside pluralism comes division. Complex societies are marked by significant differences by groups who have different aims and interests. Populism seeks to exploit the natural divisions created through democracy. Populism distinguishes society into two homogenous groups and predicates itself on an antagonistic relationship between them. How often have we heard politicians say that they represent ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’. Whether this is Jeremey Corbyn speaking ‘for the many’, or Boris Johnson declaring himself ‘the people’s politician’. Populism has become a normal part of our discourse. The opposition to populist movements has been built upon a priori analysis. Many academics have claimed such populism has damaged our dialogue and that such antagonism damages our political progress. However, these suspicions towards how demands are formulated and promoted are nothing more than the status quo foreclosing popular sovereignty as the guiding principle in our democracies. The grievances which populism benefits off are real, observable, and relatable to many voters. Those who fear populisms impact on our democracy, fear democracy itself.
Some academics, such as Simon Tormey, take the view that populism can only arise in times of crisis. For why else would different groups become so impassioned? I consider such academics to misinterpret human nature. Machiavelli regarded as human nature to be wolf life, warmongering and violent. If we look to history, this seems to be accurate. So accurate that the fables which we teach to our children reveal this aspect of human nature, for example, the wolf and the lamb. The political sphere epitomises this. Carl Schmitt thought of this dichotomy as one of friends and enemies. Friends share our interests, are unified with us in our goals, and through the representative nature of politics, are in association with us. Our enemies may not be morally evil or repugnant to us, yet they do not share our interests and are the ‘other’. For Schmitt, the political is not about talking but winning. Liberal democracies have long predicated themselves on talking. Yet, those who treasure talking fail to recognise that those on the opposite side of the chamber will reply peacefully while holding rocks behind their backs. In Britain, representative democracies have resulted, most of the time, in majorities. With majorities, voices are not heard equally, and one group’s interests are always placed over the ‘other’. Rather than be blind to this reality, I feel it is a necessity that the Conservative Party begins to recognise its friends, build alliances, and forge a longstanding and robust bloc. If we are to be ‘the people’ we must exploit the divisions on which democracy stands. We must become populists.
Gramscian thinkers acknowledged the need to build alliances across various social groups with different interests to gain these majorities. One will witness this today at any left-wing march. Trade unions, anti-racist groups, environmental groups, and pressure groups such as Free Palestine march arm in arm. Ernest Laclau and Chantel Mouffe explain these successful alliances. The left has been effective at utilising rhetoric and narratives, which are near-universally accepted. Concepts such as ‘justice’, or ‘fairness’ have become vital buzz words for those attending these rallies.
Such ideas are vague, and discussion rarely goes beyond the normative. Yet they have caused conservatives to fight an uphill battle. As who would stand against these concepts apart from the unjust and the unfair? Thus, a homogenous bloc of people was created. These concepts have inspired revolutions in past centuries. They shift the Overton window to such an extent that the battle of ideas takes place with the ball in their court. We have slowly given up institution after institution as we fail to challenge such notions. Many conservatives believe that the BBC and educational institutions are lost, and with that, the left is free to dictate discussion. The more naïve conservatives will dismiss my warning and respond with a boast concerning the eighty seat majority. But once Brexit is done, does anyone realistically assume that we will keep every seat which we gained in the once strong Red Wall? Although Starmer has as much charisma as a bag of sand, he is not incompetent. He will form a more vigorous opposition than we ever faced from Corbyn. As generations age, they seem to remain increasingly left-wing rather than buckling to conservativism as they once did. The firstborn millennials will turn forty next year. The majority stay liberal and show no signs of these positions waning. So I ask those of you who are content, how long will you be content for?
As a party, we need to change. It is no surprise that conservative movements have failed to build such alliances or dominate the institutions. When the conservative party returns fire, we offer a reduction in stamp duty or VAT. This may be hard to hear for some conservative party members. However, such policies or statements will not inspire or sweep the nation, they will not march into our institutions, and they will not gain generation after generation of support. At most, they will induce a shrug. Or at the very best, a nod. I have been to funerals with more life in them than some of the party manifestos published over the last thirty years. Conservatives have the natural disposition that there is “nothing new under the sun”. A conviction to rely on tried and tested methods. But to blindly follow these methods regardless of the looming threats is nothing but foolishness. If we wish to maintain the best parts of the past, then we conservatives, ironically, must change our ways and do away with being meek and mind-numbingly boring. Rather than being calm or considered, we must become extreme.
We must take the initiative and dictate the narrative. Conservatism has weapons at its disposal. What happened to the Russell Kirk’s speaking of an enduring moral order? Or the great philosophers such as Roger Scruton insisting that we create beauty? Or the Thatcher’s winning election after election off the back of freedom? Who does not want to be moral, beautiful, and free? Who will replace these giants? We can become a spectacle and draw eyes. But as a movement, conservatives have lost their grandiose narratives. If we are to introduce conservative policies and principles, we must find the soul of conservatism once again. If we are to shift the Overton window, we must be gung-ho in this culture war. It is time for a new way of doing things, for as Schmitt foresaw, war is always inevitable, and we must be prepared to do battle. If we do not become radicals, then we will face the consequences of those who are.