This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on or about 2 November 2023 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication.
It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.
Prosperity is taken for granted and freedom is an optional extra. Conservatives are looking for a new sales pitch, and it’s not Adam Smith.
It says a great deal about the current time that in London this week at one of the biggest gatherings of centre-right politicians, commentators and academics since World War II, Antonio Gramsci was mentioned more times than Adam Smith.
Gramsci was an Italian communist who died in 1937 in jail at the age of 46 after being imprisoned by Mussolini. Gramsci is credited with the origin of the concept of “the long march through the institutions”. By this, he meant that socialism would not come from the “bottom up” when the workers seized the means of economic production as Marx predicted. Instead, socialism would arrive from the “top down” as intellectual elites captured the centres of social power.
Gramsci is regarded as the father of cultural Marxism. Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, is thought of as the father of free market economics. An increasing number of conservatives are coming to understand (correctly) that the study of culture is today at least as important, if not more important, than the study of economics.
At the inaugural meeting of the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship – the initiative of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, John Anderson, the former deputy prime minister, and Philippa Stroud of the British House of Lords – 1500 delegates from more than 70 countries spent three days discussing not flat taxes, but subjects ranging from the importance to adults and children of the “M” word (marriage), to why so many students at the world’s elite universities are protesting in support of Hamas, and whether “the West has the will to survive”.
On that last topic delegates were split. Many agreed with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s comment, “Western civilisation is like a cut flower – and cut flowers die”. But even those with a slightly more optimistic outlook acknowledged the West seems to be approaching, as new Speaker of the US House of Representatives Mike Johnson put it, a “civilisational moment” brought on by four global stressors: acute geopolitical tensions, mass migration, economic stagnation, and the appearance of something that hasn’t been seen previously in the modern-day West – a generation living without religion.
After Gramsci, the writer referenced most often at the conference was GK Chesterton, famous for his quote, “When men [sic] stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything”.
It does at least indicate that for the first time since the 1980s the centre-right is getting serious about thinking.
The theme of the conference, “A Better Story”, is an admission that at least in English-speaking countries, the traditional narrative of the centre-right no longer holds the imagination of the public. Prosperity is now taken for granted and freedom has become an optional extra.
An unanswered question was whether one of the reasons for the failure of the centre-right’s narrative was because the rhetoric of centre-right politicians so seldom matches the reality of what they do in government. Inevitably, at an occasion of so many people spanning persuasions ranging from libertarian to classical liberal to conservative, there were loose ends. But nevertheless some common themes emerged.
By common agreement the centre-right has failed for decades to take school and university education seriously. The suggestion from one American speaker that half of the universities in his country should be closed and turned into vocational education colleges was greeted with loud applause.
Another comment met with acclaim was from the British billionaire Paul Marshall, who said that big business as much as government was responsible for the corruption of the free market into the crony capitalism from which the West suffers.
It was significant that both Michael Gove, speaking as a minister in the UK Conservative government, and Angus Taylor, as the Liberal shadow treasurer, from Australia emphasised “the system wasn’t working” – and they placed much of the blame for that on big business.
The stereotype of the UK Tories and the Australian Liberals as the parties in the pocket of corporate interests is well past its use-by date. Neither the Tories nor the Liberals are yet the parties of “the workers”, but the direction of the parties’ ambition is clear.
One three-day conference does not make an intellectual renaissance in centre-right thinking around the world, but it does at least indicate that for the first time since the 1980s the centre-right is getting serious about thinking.
This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on or about 2 November 2023 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. The views expressed are those of the author alone.