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Varadkar: Hey, Fine Gael isn’t a conservative party, you know

Look, Leo, some of us knew this already. Apparently, though, other people needed to be told again:

“There is a misconception that Fine Gael is a conservative party when it has in fact played a “crucial role” in advancing equality and in particular gender equality, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

Noting that women have often been written out of Irish history, Mr Varadkar said there is also a tendency to write Fine Gael out of history when it comes to achieving social progress.

Speaking at the launch of a book on former Fine Gael female politicians, the party leader said he believes the party is often wrongly perceived as a conservative party.

“We are not. We are very much a party that is a centre party, perhaps a centre-right party, but a centre party nonetheless. One that is, at least for the last few decades, economically and socially liberal,” he said.”

Here’s a simple statement of fact: The country does not have, in any shape or form, a “conservative” political party. There are parties of the left aplenty. There are parties of the centre, too, like Fianna Fáil. There are small, right wing, nationalist parties, not represented in Dáil Eireann. But there’s no truly “conservative” party in Ireland.

Fine Gael was that party, at one point. What would a conservative party look like? Well, it would probably look a lot like Fine Gael looked under the leadership of Liam Cosgrave, or maybe even, to a lesser extent, that of John Bruton. Tough on Crime. Big on Free Speech. Sceptical of immigration. Not particularly convinced by demands for social change on issues like transgender rights and that sort of thing, but broadly tolerant, too, of people’s right to live as they see fit. Most especially, though, it would have some sort of vision for what it wanted life in Ireland to look like for the average person. Fine Gael does not have that. Parties of the left do, but Fine Gael does not.

Many people, of course, mix up conservatism with the idea of a party being “right wing”. In truth, Fine Gael is, in many ways, a party of the centre-right (at least on paper). They do believe, after all, in the free market economy, low taxes, and light touch regulation. But those things are not necessarily conservative, and are, in many cases, a flag of convenience. Conservatism, after all, seeks to preserve the things about life and society that are good, and strengthen us. A conservative will embrace the free market not because the free market is morally good, but because it provides the best way for families to lift themselves from poverty. But the moment that the free market starts to threaten the wellbeing of families, and cause more stress in society than it delivers joy, a conservative should seek to rein it in.

Fine Gael is not an unpopular party, whatever its detractors might say. It has the solid support of around a quarter of the population, and maybe more, on a given day. But it is increasingly a party that is hated, almost viscerally, by many more people than that.

Fine Gael has delivered social change. But it has done that, on issues like gay marriage, and abortion, for little other reason than that the changes were popular with a wide swathe of voters. Had those things been unpopular, Fine Gael would not have been for them. The problem with this approach is that once you understand that Fine Gael is committed to simply doing, on social issues, what is popular, you begin to notice that they lack any vision of their own.  Fine Gael is not a green party, for example, but it says green things, because voters like them, and farmers know it doesn’t mean them. It is not a feminist party, but it says feminist things, because feminists like that, and putting a few more women in the Seanad keeps Miriam Lord happy.

But what does Leo Varadkar, for example, really want Ireland to look like? The Ireland that ten years of Fine Gael has delivered, after all, is one where (covid aside) most households have two working parents, massive childcare bills, long commutes, and far less quality time at home than generations that came before them. Divorce rates are up, the number of children with mental health problems is at an all time high, housing is increasingly out of reach for the next generation, the healthcare system is a mess, gangland crime is on the rise, and the government’s most recent non-covid priority is to secure more housing for immigrants.

Clarifying that Fine Gael is not conservative is the first nice thing Leo Varadkar has done for conservatives in his entire career.

But if FG is not conservative, then what is it, exactly?

A conservative party, much like a socialist party, would start out with a vision of where they wanted society to end up, measured on non-economic criteria, and work from there.

For example, a properly conservative party would say something like: “We want to build a society where people have the chance to succeed, more time with their children, can live in affordable homes, in safe communities, feeling free to say what they think and worship how they wish, without fear of punishment”, and begin to develop policies that would get them there. Fine Gael, by contrast, too often seems to start with the policies, and figure out what they’re for later.

Take the commitment to the Foreign Direct Investment model, for example. It’s been around so long, and is so widely believed to be successful, that hardly anybody stops these days to ask if it actually delivers for Irish people. As Matt Treacy noted on these pages a few months ago, too often what it actually delivers are high paying jobs to well-educated immigrants, while delivering little of benefit to the people who live in the areas where the companies situate themselves.

Fine Gael increasingly appears to see the GDP figures as an end in themselves, and the nation as a weird sort of collective. “A thriving, liberal, nation at the heart of Europe” is about the closest thing the party has to a creed, almost as if those things are good in and of themselves, regardless of how they actually impact on people.

And is Fine Gael even centrist, and liberal? Hardly. Talk to any Fine Gaeler – one that comes to your door, or one you know in your life – and you’ll find that very few of them have any particular ideological commitment to, for example, the Government’s hate crime legislation. They’re for it, in many cases, because it’s the “liberal” thing to do, not because they especially believe in it.

The harsh truth is that after a decade in power, Fine Gael doesn’t believe in much these days aside from positioning itself in the way best suited to win the votes to remain in power. Having spent sixty years trying to replace Fianna Fáil, they’ve ended up becoming Fianna Fáil. They are a party these days of interest groups – lawyers, for example, never need to fear dangerous reforms of their profession with Fine Gael at the helm. NGO’s never need to worry about their funding being cut. Academics can rely on them for grants. Farmers can rely on them to stick up for CAP. They’re “conservative” in the limited sense that they’re not interested, especially, in real change – the Health Service remains, and will remain, unreformed. The Seanad, despite promises, remains unreformed. The planning system remains a mess, and an impediment to solving the housing crisis. The only changes they make are those that are superficial, popular, and not really structural.

So what are they for? Probably, the answer is that they’re for what most Irish voters are for: Not rocking the boat, but making sure to sound really caring as they do so.

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