This is the speech that Václav Klaus, the former president of the Czech Republic, gave at the 2013 Conservative Renewal Conference.
Thank you very much for inviting me to attend this interesting, important and very timely gathering and for giving me a chance to speak here this morning. As you know I spent most of my life in a very non-conservative communist regime which was based on a totally different set of ideas than of the British Conservative Party. I would have never expected to be asked to speak at a Conservative Renewal Conference in Great Britain, in this highly respected citadel of conservatism.
It is a great challenge for me to say anything meaningful here now. As someone who – very soon after the fall of communism, which is already more than 20 years – founded a party based on very similar views as those of the British Conservative Party, as someone who regretted that this unique and highly treasured trade mark was stolen by a group of politically very problematic and with us not cooperating people, as someone who was fascinated by the rapid victory of freedom and democracy in his part of the world but who see their weakening, if not complete evaporation in the current EU, I feel very strongly about the state and the fate of conservative views and ideas.
I visited your country last time this spring attending Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and returned home with a rather unpleasant feeling: the British people were OK, but the absence of anyone significant from Western Europe at the funeral indicated to me very clearly that the truly conservative ideas and political stances on the European continent are practically dead. They probably do exist at the margin but are hidden in modern catacombs, how I would label the not widely known and not easily found webpages.
The question is whether such ideas still do exist in the country where they were born, whether they are taken seriously here, whether they are promoted with strength, courage and decisiveness they deserve, whether they are not ex-ante compromised being confronted with the not only unfriendly, but openly hostile atmosphere of the current, more or less socialist, post-democratic, postmodern, politically correct, but aggressively immodest and behaviourly almost anarchic era. Those are serious questions which should not be underestimated or brushed away. I believe we’ll get positive and – hopefully – inspiring answers to them here today.
I assume the conference with this title has already some tradition but I found this title rather surprising. Do we really need a renewal? Are we in a situation when the old, well-defined, widely accepted and recognized conservative ideas are considered obsolete, inappropriate, refuted, and inapplicable in the current world and is it as a result of this that we feel obliged to come up with new ones? Or are we facing an era when conservative ideas are lost, forgotten, not sufficiently defended and promoted and as a result we are more and more deeply immersed in the Brave New World ruled (and defined) by non-conservative, if not explicitly anti-conservative ideas? Do we have to renew, modernise, reformulate our ideas or do we “only” have to return to them?
My answer to these questions is probably easy to guess: it is sufficient to return to them. We have a large stock of conservative ideas, values, traditions, institutions, behavioural patterns at our disposal and we are aware of them. It is not necessary to invent any new ones. Our humble return would represent – in my understanding – the real, much needed renewal. For this country, for Europe, for the whole West.
We know and probably do not dispute that the current state of affairs did not suddenly and unexpectedly come out of the blue. It has its roots in the growing acceptance of non-conservative ideas (and ideologies) during the whole 20th century. These ideas existed always, but their current extraordinary strength was made possible by the far-reaching undermining of democracy which is the consequence of the denial of the dominant role of nation states in the organization of human society, of the growing role of international (and global) organizations and institutions and especially of their extreme embodiment, of the European integration model as it has been developed in the last half a century.
To my great regret, the growing dominance of very immodest and unscrupulous, far from conservative, visibly antidemocratic, politically correct and manipulative ideologies can be neither denied nor overlooked. As I said, they are not new. Some of us felt their gradual emergence and their growing influence already in the communist era but we were also not able to discuss this issue openly at home and it also had no priority for us then. We were not able to present our views abroad because we were not allowed to travel abroad. It would also be against the stances of our dominantly leftist, in the West so much admired dissidents.
We, nevertheless, followed with great attention the fights (and the sad and distressing political end) of your great leader Margaret Thatcher. We carefully studied the debates in the field of economics between Monetarists and Keynesians (and considered them ideologically and conceptually similar to our domestic debates between the exponents of pro-market and pro-central-planning views). We were also not able to grasp the magic of the wishful thinking of the proponents of the so called Helsinki process in the 1970s (and saw it as a way to help our communist rulers, not us). We were not applauding the destruction of many traditional, conservative behavioural patterns in the 1960s, not to speak about the absurdity of barricades in Paris in 1968 and the terrorist activities of groupings like RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) in Germany or Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in Italy in the following years.
Having directly experienced an irrational totalitarian regime, we felt the threads hidden in the early enviromentalist´s bibles – Silent Spring or Limits to Growth. We became aware of the irrelevance of institutions such as the United Nations (not only because we got a clear message about their insignificance in the moment of the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies into Czechoslovakia in August 1968). We saw the dangerous traps connected with the dreaming about the possibility and desirability of convergence of capitalism and socialism, with never-ending plans about all kinds of “third ways”, with the faith in the paternalistic welfare state called “die soziale Marktwirtschaft”, etc.
After the fall of communism, many of my compatriots were surprised and disappointed to see how widespread and deeply rooted these ideas were in the nominally free and open West. When we tried to say that loudly in Western Europe at that time we were considered naive, aprioristic, excessively ideologic, unrealistic, slightly immature, if not childish. But, I am afraid, we were right. We witnessed and felt further deterioration in this respect when the end of communism and of the Cold War substantially decreased the previous consciousness and alertness. That is why, the world has changed to the worse since that time. Let me suggest where I see it:
– the victory of human-rightism over conservatively understood civic rights and over the traditionally defined principle of citizenship is now almost absolute. Human beings are considered citizens of the world, not the citizens of Great Britain or the Czech Republic. Almost without being aware of it, the people living in Europe have been gradually losing their traditional civic rights. Conservatives and classical liberals did not oppose it;
– parliamentary (or representative) democracy, as the fundamental cornerstone of any meaningful democratic order, has been – day by day, EU summit by EU summit – losing with all kinds of unelected pressure groups and vested interests. The Europeans more or less gave it up and accepted being defeated in their fight with NGOs and ideologically with NGOism;
– nation state has more or less capitulated in its clash with international organizations, and in Europe with the EU;
– new morals and behavioral patterns succeeded in replacing the conservative, centuries-lasting traditions and values even in countries such as this one;
– economic rationality has been losing to politics again. An almost communist type of reasoning begins to prevail: politics can dictate economics. This time more green than red politics which is – in its consequences – almost the same;
– the precautionary principle – the basis of the current aggressive environmentalism – has replaced the naturally cautious human behaviour based on spontaneous risk-aversion. This principle became a new sacred religion, which blocks rational human behaviour and especially meaningful economic policies;
– the decision-making in public matters has moved far away from the citizens (and voters), and due to this the role of international faceless bureaucracy and the so-called experts has increased more and more.
How it all happened? As I said, it was not a sudden change. These dangerous ideas and policies were seeded long ago and have been promoted throughout decades. They were radically strengthened in the era of Great Depression in the 1930s, in the era of your great compatriot John Maynard Keynes. They were confirmed and reinforced by the World War II experience and by the post-war reconstruction – as a consequence of it, the more or less socialist mindset started dominating. The strength of these ideas had its ups and downs (one of them in the moment of the recent financial and economic crisis), but one thing, one process, one tendency has proved to be permanent – the move towards global, and subglobal, which means European governance and towards the suppression of the only efficient guarantor of democracy, of the nation state.
The point I would like to make here very strongly is that – in my view – the main vehicle for the loss (or at least for the wide-ranging weakening) of conservative positions is the existing model of the European integration process, and its current reincarnation, the European Union (as created by the Maastricht Treaty and “augmented” by the Lisbon Treaty and other consequent institutional amendments). That is the reason why integration turned into unification, cooperation of sovereign and independent nations turned into European-wide centralization of decision-making, and liberalization and original opening-up turned into harmonization, standardization, excessive regulation and overall state intervention. Healthy diversity has been transformed into rigid obligatory uniformity. Democratic arrangements inside individual member countries were replaced by a bureaucratic decision-making in Brussels. Democracy transformed itself into post-democracy. Aldoux Huxley and his Brave New World are not too far away these days.
We have to stop it. We have to introduce fundamental changes and a radical discontinuity with the past. We – all of us together – have to start either organizing radical restructuring of the EU institutional arrangements or – individually – get out of the EU. There is no third way. The passive alternative is to continue following all the very unconservative and undemocratic directives coming from Brussels, and continue constructing all kinds of fiscal, banking and political unions instead of returning to democracy and to a nation state. And last but not least to the good old conservative ideas and values.
What we need is a new Thatcherism. The name will be probably different, but its substance must be based on the defence and promotion of ideas we inherited from our predecessors and especially from your predecessors here in your country. We have to stop to flirt with social paternalism, with environmentalism (and especially with its extreme version – the global warming alarmism), with new politically correct “isms”, which undermine conservative traditions in the field of family and private human behaviour, etc.
We have been on the defensive for a long time. The time for change has come. We have to start a self-assured and self-confident offensive based on the conviction that ideas matter, that we do possess them and that we feel obliged and strongly motivated to use them in our fight for their victory. I am sure the British Conservatives know it better than I do.