Sussex European Institute

Seminar 2: What is (and is not) centre-right?

21 January 2005, Sussex European Institute, University of Sussex, Falmer, UK


Tim Bale; Fraser Duncan; Zsolt Enyedi; Brigid Fowler; Brian Girvin; David Hanley; Sean Hanley; Dan Hough; Dan Keith; Andre Krouwel; Lourdes Lopez Nieto; John Madeley; Sally Marthaler; Emmanuele Massetti; Marek Rybar; Aleks Szczerbiak; Steven Van Hecke; Paul Webb.


The dynamics and contours of the centre right
Professor Brian Girvin, Department of Politics, University of Glasgow, UK

The term centre right remains an elusive one. One reason for this is its shifting meaning historically, though it is possible to identify both core elements to it and long term continuity. It is important to distinguish the centre right from the centre within a political system. The centre shifts as a result of the political dominance of a particular party, ideology or policy framework. Thus the left broadly defined the centre across Europe and the US after 1945, institutionalising the welfare state, justifying state intervention and maintaining a policy framework informed by social democracy. Within this context, parties on the right were drawn towards a centre that was now redefined (when compared to the inter-war period) and in turn the centre right itself shifted to the left. By the 1960s it was sometimes assumed that the differences between left and right had almost disappeared so pervasive was the left defined consensus.

However, though the centre right was forced by political competition to accommodate the leftist mood of the post war world, that did not entail that its distinctive ideology had disappeared. Conservative parties, Christian democracy and to an extent Liberal parties formed a centre-right that remained distinctive from the centre left, though of course there were also differences within that political domain. This centre right family needs to be further distinguished from the extreme right bloc of parties that have existed since the end of the Second World War, but which have gained further prominence since the 1980s.

The centre right has defined itself historically in terms of its reservations to modernity since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. As modernity is a continuing evolving process, there will normally be a political space for challenging the progressive changes introduced in society. In particular, the centre right has been anxious to defend existing institutions, behaviour and structures against the encroachment of modernity, even when the existing institutions were established by the evolution of modernity. Thus, most parties on the centre right have opposed democracy at one time or another, but once that political process became established they provided conservative reasons for maintaining and defending it against more radical challenges. Since the 1960s the centre right had been redefined in respect of its response to the social changes associated with feminism, race and moral politics. The success of the New Right in the 1980s can be attributed to its successful challenge to the New Left politics of the 1960s and 1970s. As a result the centre was redefined in terms of the New Right and the centre of gravity moved rightward. One result of this was the need for social democracy to redefine itself in terms of this new political reality. In so far as Labour and Social Democratic parties have been successful in the 1990s and beyond, this has been a consequence of the recognition of the new centre ground around which political competition takes place. However, it is important to note that the definition of the centre itself has changed as a result of the political success of the centre right.

None of this is to suggest a mechanistic outcome, but it is to argue that in the complex nature of contemporary political competition the centre right redefines itself in response to changes within modernity. If in the past the centre right (especially conservative and religious parties) opposed modernity, in the contemporary period its focus has been on defending a version of modernity which is challenged by the destabilising nature of capitalism and modernity.

On this analysis, the centre right has an unenviable task in a perpetually shifting environment. Two aspects of this are worth noting. The first is the position of Liberal parties who, though products of modernity, have frequently allied themselves with more mainstream conservative parties (in Britain and Continental Europe) but whom on occasions also can find themselves on the centre-left (as in Britain during the 1990s). Liberal parties move in and out of the centre-right for tactical reasons and perhaps might be seen as the quintessential centre party (but that is a question for another day). The second is the Republican Party in the United States, which is now a conservative party in a more traditional sense. Conservatism now defines American politics to an extent unparalleled since the 1920s, defining itself in religious and nationalistic terms. The Republican Party has successfully mobilised a new centre-right in opposition to the New Left politics of the 1960/1970s and redefined United States politics as a result. In contrast, the European centre-right has found it more difficult to challenge the social changes of this period as a result of widespread secularisation.

The centre right should be seen as a dynamic term, one that has changed in response to the changing nature of modernity. However, though capable of change its appeal has consistently been to those who are concerned by change and this remains the paradox of modern conservatism.

The European Peoples' Party: institutionalisation and adaptation
Professor David Hanley, School of European Studies, University of Cardiff, UK

The application of these two concepts to the development of the EPP may be one way of understanding some of the changes undergone by the centre-right today.

Panebianco saw institutionalisation as denoting a key stage in a party's development. It had assumed a recognisable degree of organisational density or tissue, reflected in material foundations such as membership, sound finance, premises, media, etc. At this stage it was fairly autonomous with respect to other actors in the political system. Institutionalisation is a necessary condition of efficacity (capacity to realise the party's objectives), but this capacity may also involve adaptation, either of ideology or organisation, in order to seize further opportunities.

The EPP has become reasonably institutionalised since its beginnings in the ECSC Assembly in the 1950s, commensurate with the growth of power of the European Parliament (EP). It has resources, as well as administrative solidity; it embodies career opportunities for officials and MEPs alike; it exerts some influence on the policy process and so must be seen as quite efficacious. Its increased efficacy is due to the fact that it has adapted considerably, more so than rival transnational parties (TNP). This adaptation is both ideological and organisational.

In ideological terms, since the mid-1980s, EPP has downplayed traditional Christian-democrat (CD) themes of solidarity, the role of the state in securing justice via redistribution and neo-corporatism, in favour of a neo-liberal, market-friendly, competition-fuelled discourse; even its federalism is muted.

Organisationally, EPP has extended beyond its Christian-democrat core. Of some 64 parties from 32 countries (including observers and associates), a bare third would qualify as Christian-democrat, even being generous with the label; they are increasingly outweighed by a combination of liberals, nationalist/conservative parties and even anti-centralising parties of the periphery. The looming presence of over 35 eurosceptics (UK Tories and Czech ODS) in the parliamentary group, with their own resources, staff and media outlets, casts a further shadow over the party, even though these forces are not members of the party.

Various large scale explanations for this adaptation have been adduced, such as the growth of secularism and consequently diminishing appeal of CD values, or the political side-effects of economic globalisation (narrowing of real choice for governing parties). More useful explanations might be sought in the opportunity structures of EPP, viz. the nature of competition within the EP. Successive EU enlargements towards states without a CD tradition meant that new allies had to be sought if EPP was to keep up with or surpass its rival PES. Posts and resources depend on size. Resistance to such expansion came mainly from the older CD parties, who were outweighed by the CDU/CSU, the key player in the strategy that might be described as 'never mind the quality, feel the width'. Once the expansionary turn was agreed, it was easier to feed in awkward centre-right parties such as Forza Italia and the Partido Popular.

EPP's dilution/expansion has two aspects which distinguish its experience from that of single CD parties in nation states. The latter do not usually merge with rivals/partners on the centre right; alliances are enough. But the numerical logic of the EP, where size is all, made that unity necessary. A related factor is EPP's longstanding 'duopoly' with the PES, the two effectively co-managing the work of the EP. Such circumstances are again rarely replicated in national parliaments.

Thus while EPP's ideological evolution has in some ways run parallel to that of other centre-right national parties, its particular status as a TNP in a specific competitive environment, the EP, gives it a distinctive coloration.

Right in the centre! Centre-space occupancy in European party systems.
Dr André Krouwel, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands

In political science literature three conceptions of the political centre exist: (1) a spatial approach where the centre is a relative position in a uni- or multi-dimensional space, (2) the centre as a strategic, pivotal and central position of one (dominant) party around which other parties oscillate and (3) the centre as an independent programmatic and ideological position that parties consciously adopt in between opposing extremes in order to neutralise or negate the major social cleavages within a political system, the so-called 'radical centre'.

Utilising a spatial approach to the political centre, this paper argues shows substantial cross-time expansion and retraction of the centre space in fifteen European countries over the post-war period. Also the centre of politics seems to have shifted to the right over the past two decades. The analysis also unearthed a contradictory development of contracting centre ranges in European party systems, while at the same time the centre occupancy by political parties has declined. What seems to be occurring in European party systems is a clustering of political parties on the left and the right outside the political centre. Also the character of centre space occupancy has transformed. While in the earlier decades of the post-war period mainly Christian democratic, agrarian, liberal and some conservative parties inhabited the centre space, now the centre space is increasingly populated by social democratic parties. This is an astonishing finding when combined with the earlier notion that the centre space has moved substantively to the right. Social democracy has moved to the right at a very fast pace in order to catch up with a centre that was moving away from them.

Adrift from ideological moorings? Christian Democratic Programmatic Developments in 1990s
Dr Fraser Duncan, Department of Politics, University of Glasgow

During the 1990s, the ideological identity of Christian Democracy appeared to be drifting from its original moorings, a trend identified in the work of both academic observers and in the critiques of intra-party dissidents. Such analyses diagnosed a withering of the social profile of Christian Democracy as well as a more free market-orientated agenda. The data collected by the Manifestos Research Group provides us with one means of charting this development. Though doubts remain about the value of the dataset, in particular its exaggerated and at times unconvincing depiction of party placements, the application of issue salience theory to the electoral platforms of the CDU/CSU, ÖVP and CDA in this decade reveals a number of common patterns, most obviously a rightwards movement during this period. The left-right scale obscures, however, more interesting nuances within Christian Democratic programmatic change.

Closer examination of the programmes reveals that this shift away from the centre was not the result of a more pronounced emphasis on free market liberalism, but was instead mainly a consequence of a marked reduction in the space afforded to socio-economic interventionism and a heightened interest in traditionalist themes. By the last election of the decade, cultural traditionalism had acquired a conspicuous new prominence in Christian Democratic programmes in each of the three countries. The manifesto data cannot provide a conclusive answer to the question of ideological drift but does appear to offer some support to depictions of a significant change within Christian Democratic identity.

Christian Democratic Parties in Western Europe since the End of the Cold War
Steven Van Hecke and Emmanuel Gerard, Department of Political Science, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

The period of the 1990s seemed to sound the death-knell of Christian Democracy in Western Europe. The Christian Democratic vote was in structural decline and many parties were being deprived of government participation. However, at the turn of the decade, especially since the events of 11 September 2001, there has been a sudden and clear resurrection. This paper - based on the results a research project that analysed Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe since the end of the Cold War - tries to synthesise this evolution and explain the downward-upward trend by referring to the effects of the end of the Cold War. After examining the electoral and governmental performance of Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe since 1989, we analyse the impact of three aspects of the end of the Cold War - the acceleration of the European integration process, the emergence of new parties and issues, and the changing pattern of political ideologies - on those parties. Furthermore, we focus on some aspects of party change that are characteristic for Christian Democracy in this period. Finally we try to point out the challenge for the future of Christian Democracy in Western Europe.

'The transformation of the Popular Party: from isolation to leadership'
Dr Lourdes Lopez Nieto, Ciencia política y de la Administración, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, Spain

This paper tries to address some of the concerns of the seminar series with a case study: that of the Spanish People's Party (PP) during the leadership of Jose Mª Aznar (1989-2004). Since Aznar became leader and in contrast to the period from 1976 until its so-called refoundation process in 1989, the PP has assumed a responsible leading role, both at the national and the transnational/international level. It has formed the main opposition and the government in Spain, while several members of the PP have played a leading part in international institutions, from the presidency of the European Parliament to the IMF. Members have also taken more partisan positions in organizations like the EPP and the DCI. In fact, during the last 15 years, the relationships between European center-right parties such as the PP have been intense. Through the above named institutions there have been links, contacts, seminars, congresses, etc. in order to transfer policies and strategies.

So what kind of influence has Aznar had in the transformation of the PP? To what extent have these international relationships and the convergence at that level been essential in the changing role of the party? Is it possible to measure the degree of influence between the PP and other right parties? The paper addresses some explanations and answers to all these questions, and at the same time argues that at the beginning of the XXI century it is important that the study of political parties - their actors, institutions and policies - take the international dimension fully on board.

Points Emerging

    1. Locating the centre, and therefore the centre-right, has to be about more than one issue dimension (i.e. socio-economic) because of the possibly increasing importance of other dimensions (e.g. libertarian-authoritarian or GALTAN) for voters and parties alike. Inasmuch as 'identity politics' is important, it is important for those on the right as well as the left, as the US experience clearly demonstrates.

    1. Locating and defining the centre or the mainstream right also has to be about more than expert surveys, manifesto data, or even voter perception: to the extent that distances between each party may well be as much relative as absolute, all these depend in part on how each is labelled by other parties; in other words, the process of definition or location in space is also the process of contestation over space.

    1. Self-definition is also clearly important: even though it is not always as easy as it might be to come up with positive, distinctive policy/ideological content and/or consonant organisational forms that might allow us to 'check' such definitions against 'reality' or some kind of benchmark: traditionally, the right goes in for definitive party programmes less than the left. That said, an obvious useful marker (for both ideas and organisation) is the EP party group or transnational party that a national party affiliates to.

    1. The international dimension is one that is too easily ignored and yet too easily made too much of. Clearly, international events and crises can be useful for the parties' self-understanding and our understanding of them: for instance, the invasion of Iraq and the possible admission of Turkey to the EU are potentially defining moments. Transnational links can also be important to party change (in both directions and on both levels): an example would be the EPP's decision to include the Spanish PP. But to what extent to parties links with each other go beyond ad hoc eclecticism and the borrowing of fairly obvious campaign techniques? Is there really a European centre-right community? Can there be when the right is split between continued adherence to the European social market and the more liberal regimes being urged on Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed on the EU itself via the Lisbon process?

    1. The question of why identifying and defining the centre-right is such a headache compared to defining the centre-left is an interesting one. Is it because the former is less consistent over the two or more dimensions we use to help us locate it? Is it because social democracy (once you separate it from the Greens and the Left parties) seems to have the centre-left sewn up? If that is the case, why is it so? Why is the centre-right a more crowded terrain in many if not all countries in Europe?


Pieces to read

Van Hecke, Steven and Gerard, Emmanuel (2004) Christian Democratic parties in Europe since the end of the Cold War (Leuven: Leuven University Press).