After three and a half years, Brexit has become a reality. And it is taking place under good conditions: the government of Boris Johnson is in a strong position when it comes to starting negotiations with the EU. It could even be said that panic reigns in Brussels.
On Friday 31 January 2020, the French President began by explaining that the Brexit campaign in 2016 had been a campaign of lies and manipulation, before promising the British that they would remain our friends. And then Donald Tusk encouraged the Scots to take their independence! On a more serious note, the European Union is announcing a tough stance in the negotiations, whose feverishness, however, contrasts with the condescension towards Theresa May’s government three years ago.
Something is going on, however, far more important than the state of mind of continental technocrats! The British Conservative Party has become the new centre of European conservatism. Until now, this role has been occupied by German Christian Democracy. But nothing is more symbolic than the involuntary passing of the torch from Mrs. Merkel to Boris Johnson. It has taken four years, but it is worth taking the measure of what has happened.
2015: Angela Merkel is out of conservatism for good
In September 2015, Angela Merkel took a solitary decision to open the borders without restriction to refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. This […] was taken against the recommendations of the border police and against the will of its coalition partner, the Bavarian Social Christians.
Within a few months, more than a million people entered Germany. Some were genuine refugees; others were taking advantage of the opportunity. There were also those terrorists who passed among the others before committing attacks on French soil in November 2015. But it was not from France that a reaction came. Our country’s leaders are far too engrossed in a blissful vision of “Franco-German friendship” to have a start. It was in Britain that something decisive happened. When we look closely at the result of the referendum on Brexit, nine months later, we can see that the issue of immigration has tipped the vote towards the exit of the European Union.
Angela Merkel may never have realised it, but she is the main person responsible for the British vote in favour of leaving the European Union. (We should thank her for that). Firstly, because she did not take seriously what David Cameron told her about the risk of Brexit if he did not return to London with substantial concessions in the autumn of 2015. Then by her immigration policy.
It was during Angela Merkel’s time in the Chancellery that the nature of German Christian Democracy changed. Coming from the highly secularized East Germany, Angela Merkel is representative of a Protestantism emptied of its spiritual substance, which is impossible to differentiate from progressivism. She moved her party to the left:
- first by governing with the SPD;
- then by publicly criticizing Pope Benedict XVI
- and then by wanting to ally herself with the Greens, with the decision, also sudden, to get out of the civil nuclear industry;
- by her immigration decision;
- by the rather pathetic way in which, before the last general election, she pushed same-sex marriage, while ostensibly abstaining from voting in Parliament.
The result was not long in coming: a party called “Alternative for Germany” emerged to the right of the CDU and CSU. This party is, however, too ambiguous in its relationship to the Nazi past (many of its cadres return to the old thesis of a German society unscathed by compromise with a totalitarian movement; some even relativize the seriousness of Nazi anti-Semitism) to be able to build a new conservatism.
I say it here, without taking gloves off, to the friends of the AfD who are present in the audience: get rid of ambiguities. Take the measure of the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship. Otherwise, although we admire your fight against progressive conformism, we will not be able to consider you completely as “conservative” (Hitler’s first objective was to eradicate the Decalogue, the moral law, the conscience of European civilization; an authentic conservative must hate it even more, if it is possible, than he will hate the communists because Hitler aped the right to achieve his destructive, nihilistic, revolutionary ends).
British conservatism: so old and so new!
Faced with the crisis of German conservatism, a decisive shift has just taken place, with the spectacular rebirth of the Tory party under the leadership of Boris Johnson.
It is in Great Britain that the conservatism of the 21st century is emerging in all its strength. You will tell me that this conservatism is as old as Benjamin Disraeli. Didn’t Boris Johnson just give back substance to “One Nation Conservatism”? But we should not underestimate such an achievement!
In fact, it must be recognized that British conservatism had declined as a model since the end of the Second World War. With Winston Churchill, the Tories had identified with the most heroic British patriotism. And then came the rebuilding, the rallying to the vision of the Welfare State. Until the 1970s, Labour was the intellectually dominant party in British politics. The Conservative Party had lost its originality; what distinguished it from Labour?
At the end of the 1960s, Enoch Powell warned of the dangers of the mass immigration that was beginning, but he was rebuffed by all ‘PC’ people, just as he was not allowed to express his fears about joining the EEC.
Ten years later, Margaret Thatcher took over some of Enoch Powell’s attacks on Edward Heath. But most importantly, she invigorated the party by making it the front-fighter of free market reforms in economics.
The Iron Lady, a convinced Methodist, kept the image of the Protestant ethics of capitalism dear to Max Weber, but she did not succeed in combining sovereignty, ethics, and free market in a lasting way. She was betrayed by generations of baby-boomers who, fascinated by the potential of modern financial markets, showed little concern for ethics. She was betrayed, politically, by her own party, which rallied to European federalism and a globalist neo-liberalism after driving her out of power.
The British Conservatives, together with John Major, have partly joined the Europe of the German Christian Democrats. As they could not go as far as Helmut Kohl proposed, they kept one foot out by not entering the euro. And then they let themselves be overtaken by Tony Blair’s Labour Party when it came to European zeal. In 1997, the British Conservatives lost power for 13 years.
Precisely what has invigorated them are the ever more marked advances of continental Europe towards European federalism. When the French rejected the European Constitutional Treaty (in 2005), the British were all the more frustrated by a referendum as Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, and Angela Merkel substituted the Lisbon Treaty (2008) for the Constitutional Treaty. Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s successor, lost power in 2010 for calling an old lady, who had been a Labour activist for years and who politely challenged him about immigration, a “bigot”. When David Cameron came to power, he felt he had no choice but to take into account the concerns of British voters both about immigration from the European Union and about British sovereignty. The stage was set for the referendum. Cameron was re-elected in 2015 with the promise of a referendum.
Decline of Christian democracy, advent of popular conservatism
The old Christian democracy of the European continent had advocated the construction of Europe, with a view to peace, after the two world wars. Is it still possible, however, to support this European construction when, on the one hand, it has become a vehicle for mass immigration, particularly from countries that do not respect the distinction between religion and politics?
And when, on the other hand, the European Parliament is the amplifying body for all the excesses of so-called bioethical laws that defend neither life nor ethics? All the German Christian Democrats who did not oppose Angela Merkel while she drifted with the progressive mainstream, became the gravediggers of a German conservatism that still had, under Helmut Kohl, its coherence.
I do not mean to say that the turning point in British conservatism is unambiguous.
- Boris Johnson’s ecology borrows more readily the terms of the UN’s langue de bois than those of the late Roger Scruton.
- The same Boris Johnson is not clear on societal issues.
- Britain faces a real threat of Islamic radicalisation on its soil.
There is a paradox in unilateral praise for free trade when it is precisely the globalisation of the 1990s and 2000s that has been at the root of the social inequalities that undermine British society—and have caused the divide between the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres” identified by David Goodhart.
But Boris Johnson provided the minimum core demanded by British voters prepared to vote Conservative: restoration of sovereignty; immigration control; investment in the NHS.
Above all, it is fundamental to understand that a country that is in a position to fully exercise its sovereignty can overcome the most difficult internal crises. This is the unsurpassable lesson that General de Gaulle bequeathed to France and Europe. It was along these lines that Viktor Orbán reinvigorated Christian democracy in Hungary.
Seen from continental Europe and the United States, it may sometimes seem to us that Boris Johnson’s conservatism could be improved on this or that point. But, as General de Gaulle says in his War Memoirs: “Before philosophy, we have to meet the challenge of survival! “ And that is the choice made by the British people and which the Tory Party, after much internal debate, has chosen to support: to remain a living society, free to make its own choices.
What a contrast with my country, France, a prisoner of the euro and the cognitive confinement of its ruling class, which remains attached to an imaginary ‘German model’ instead of understanding the extraordinary turning point in the Anglo-American world since 2016. For this is the reality of the new decade. We European conservatives can rely on the new British Government, but we know we can also rely on Donald Trump’s national conservatism.
The Anglo-American world is becoming fully conservative again. Political conservatism is only complete when it puts the defence of freedoms at the heart of a sovereigntist project. This is in my eyes the true meaning of the “Make America Great Again” motto.
What we see emerging, with the courageous struggle of the Visegrad group of countries—with the surge of a new conservatism in Latin Europe and with the vitality of the Anglo-American conservative awakening—is the possibility of affirming to the world that Europe and America together can once again become the heart of the fight for a free society in the world, the home to which people everywhere can turn as they struggle to establish the rule of law.
Basically, our era is traversed, in Europe or in the United States, by terrible contradictions. But we can safely say that the common ideal that brought Ronald Reagan and John Paul II together is still very much alive.