In October 1993, the Progressive Conservative party of Canada faced one of the worst routs in political history. In government since 1984, the party lost 154 of its seats in the 295-member House of Commons, and was left with only two MPs. So astounding was the defeat that there was widespread speculation about how other right-wing governments would fare if they faced the “Canada effect”. In the UK, I remember it turned out that only the then prime minister John Major and one other would have remained as Conservative MPs.
But those on the left, both then and now, would be unwise to gloat. For when mainstream conservative parties flail or implode, the effect is frequently to empower much more right-wing forces. That was what happened in Canada. The Progressive Conservatives lost their votes to the more socially conservative Reform Party and the pro-independence Bloc Quebecois.
France is another case in point. The inability of mainstream conservatives to impress the electorate has led to a dramatic increase in support for the National Front, or the National Rally as it has been known since 2018. Once considered a pariah party, its long-term leader Marine le Pen made it into the second round of the French presidential election in both 2017 and 2022. In the first instance, I warned in these pages about complacency over the result – Ms Le Pen had won 34 per cent to Emmanuel Macron’s 66 per cent. It was no great victory, I wrote. “Why didn’t he crush a contender whose party is treated with revulsion by much of the world?” And sure enough, by 2022 Ms Le Pen’s share of the vote had increased to 41.5 per cent.
Many will find that a discomfiting trend, relieved only (and perhaps temporarily) by the news this week that the far-right Vox party seems unlikely to enter government with the centre-right People’s Party, as had been expected, after the two parties combined failed to win a majority in the Spanish general election held last Sunday.
In Malaysia, where I live, some are nervously eyeing parallels of sorts as the country prepares for elections in six of the country’s 13 states in mid-August. Much hinges on the performance of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the conservative Malay party that helmed all the country’s governments from 1957 to 2018.
It would be fair to say that for the past two decades that Umno was in power, the progressives who followed the current prime minister Anwar Ibrahim – particularly those who geographically or mentally were part of the so-called “Bangsar bubble”, named after an ultra-liberal area of Kuala Lumpur – weren’t just opposed to the party. They loathed Umno, and were delighted by its defeat in 2018.
Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition was only able to take power after last November’s election, however, with the support of the rump Umno has been reduced to. And the party’s former supporters have not gone over to Mr Anwar’s band of reformists and technocrats – but to the opposition, an alliance between an ultra-Malay chauvinist party, Bersatu, and the Islamist PAS, which is now the biggest party in parliament.
If, as some fear, Umno does disastrously in the state polls, it should not in theory affect Mr Anwar’s parliamentary majority. But he will be a very worried man if Umno does crash and burn. The multi-ethnic coalitions he has led have only managed to win general elections when they have had a conservative Malay party in their ranks, in order to reassure the country’s dominant ethnic group. Umno, in other words, is indispensable for their future success. And its humbling thus far has only empowered an opposition that may contain some prominent and serious politicians, but is far more right-wing, by any measure.
Some argue that being in government tempers far-right parties; that the realities and constraints of being in power make them hew more moderate. Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has led the country’s most right-wing administration since the Second World War after last October’s election, is held up as an example. In France, the National Rally’s rebranding (from the National Front) was part of an attempt to reassure voters and move away from its far-right roots. For myself, I hope that is to some extent genuine, not just window-dressing, as I have a friend who is standing as a National Rally candidate for the French senate, and I would rather think of him as a “robust conservative” than an extremist.
Nevertheless, it is no wonder that many are alarmed at the position that has been gained by parties that had previously been considered beyond the pale. Just last Sunday Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, said that his conservative party would be willing to work with the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland at a local political level. Mr Merz had to contradict himself the very next day after a backlash, but by that point DW, the country’s state-owned international broadcaster, had published a commentary stating: “The 'firewall' to Germany's far right is crumbling.”
There may be many reasons for this trend in the countries where it is observable, but the decline of traditional mainstream conservative parties is definitely one of them. They may never be loved by radicals, youth impatient for change, dreamers, revolutionaries, and those opposed to the status quo – for which these parties naturally stand: the clue is in the name “conservative”. But their critics may miss them when they’re gone. It’s readily apparent who benefits from their weakening or destruction.