European Populism Is Nationalist Conservatism

At the recent Free Market Road Show event held at the University of Donja Gorica, Podgorica, Montenegro, on April 20, I was asked to speak on the subject, “Troubled Times in a Divided World.” My speech contended that what we are seeing in the rise of populism in Europe is actually resurgent nationalist conservatism of the sort that F.A. Hayek warned against in his 1960 essay, “Why I am not a conservative.”

European conservatism has a character different from American conservatism, as Hayek noted, as in America the tradition to be defended is liberty (the same is true, to a different degree, of British conservatism). In continental Europe the tradition is a darker form of nationalism. Long held back, it is my contention that this ideology has been allowed to flourish by simultaneous crack-ups in what have been the two dominant political ideologies of recent decades – social democracy and transnational liberalism.

As I contend, Tony Blair-style social democracy has seen its internal contradictions laid bare:

Friendliness to markets became corporatism and cronyism. Regulation became frustrating barriers to opportunity. Welfare states became defined by the chronically unemployed, often as a result of that tight regulation, or—worse—terrorist sympathizers. Single payer healthcare lurched from one crisis to another, resulting in long waits for urgent treatment. The result is traditional European socialism in retreat.

Meanwhile, liberalism invested so much in the European Project that it has become identified with that project’s failures – a crisis of immigration, stultifying transnational regulation masquerading as “market harmonization,” and a debt crisis that is always about not facing up to realities. The transnational liberal Emperor in Brussels has no clothes, and European citizens can see that.

Nationalist conservatism has therefore filled the gap, but it is one that still possesses the faults Hayek identified. As he said, “It has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism and stolen its thunder.” European conservatism is avowedly big government, and that will lead to its fall. Hayek goes on to say:

[C]onservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about… This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.

As European conservative governments deploy authority and ignore economic forces, it is likely that the problems facing their nations will intensify rather than decrease. It remains to be seen which of the other ideologies will be there to pick up the pieces when this populist wave fails – a Marxist dogmatism doomed to failure, or a Hayekian liberalism that reconciles itself to nationalism, or at least to regionalism and subsidiarity, which offers perhaps the only hope in European politics today. Yet with Europe’s liberal leaders more concerned with punishing Britain than solving their problems, it is difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel yet.