2J4BG67 Vote posters of former French president Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) at the Charles de Gaulle Memorial in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, France

Toryism à la mode

Could the legacy of French Gaullism breathe life into a listless British conservatism?

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority in December 2019 encouraged British conservatism to believe it was on the cusp of a great transformation. Get Brexit Done embodied a can-do spirit and there was anticipation about how gaining Red Wall voters would move the Conservative party a little to the left on economic matters while Labour’s metropolitanism prevented it from parrying even the slightest hint rightward on social and cultural issues. Johnson’s resignation and Liz Truss’s 49-day catastrophe have dampened the optimism, leaving Rishi Sunak to portray himself as the boring but capable option.

If political conservatism in Great Britain is to revive, learning how to think like the twentieth century’s greatest Frenchman offers some practical guidance. Even the briefest survey of Charles de Gaulle’s accomplishments makes it easy to understand his appeal. In the Second World War, de Gaulle was primarily responsible for enacting one of the most impressive turnarounds in European history: France, defeated and occupied, managed to end up acknowledged as a victorious power. 

Even up until D-Day it had been presumed that liberated France — however temporarily — would be administered by an Allied Military Government. But de Gaulle’s deft manoeuvring ensured civil commissioners were appointed as soon as towns were liberated, and the Allies were presented with facts on the ground that Supreme Commander Eisenhower judged weren’t worth interfering with. Having suffered German occupation and being threatened with American occupation, France ended up not just occupying a sector of Germany itself but with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. It is difficult to imagine that happening without de Gaulle.

Internationally, de Gaulle rooted France firmly within the Western alliance against the Communist world. His solution to the Algerian crisis was controversial — and tragic for French Algerians and their numerous sympathisers — but he extracted France from its most difficult colonial situation with a stoic (critics would say heartless) acceptance of the resultant trauma. In the rest of French Africa, he expanded the family of free nations by granting independence to new governments. With the exception of Guinea, France maintained strong and friendly links with these independent states, forging an economic and political sphere of influence which has taken more than half a century to be seriously challenged.

De Gaulle greatly admired the intense vigour of the United States yet refused to be mesmerised by it. Instead, he viewed its alluring cultural power with suspicion and recognised its potential to undermine French and European culture. (It is difficult to imagine de Gaulle drinking a Coca-Cola.) 

While his relationship with the US was difficult, critical, and often tendentious, two of the statesmen for whom he had the most respect were John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon — the only foreigners whose photographs could be found in his personal office at home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.

De Gaulle’s influence was, of course, at its greatest within France. The country was already midway through its trente glorieuses decades of economic growth but de Gaulle’s currency reforms stabilised the franc for the first time in half a century. Meanwhile the nascent European Economic Community helped the country’s industrial exports to triple, with agricultural exports expanding fourfold in just a few years.

His most enduring domestic achievement was the constitution of the Fifth Republic, providing a powerful executive presidency apart from and above the parliamentary politics which had led to unstable governments in the Third and Fourth Republics. De Gaulle granted France a constitutional order that reflected much more closely the nature, history and mentality of the French people.

But France is France. What Gaullist lessons are applicable for Britain? Positing a counter-factual Gaullist Britain is tempting: a country with better infrastructure, cheaper energy, and greater confidence throwing its weight around on the world scene. But we cannot change the past, and de Gaulle would be the first to note that policy must be firmly rooted in nature, context, and the permanent interest of the nation.

An Anglo-Gaullism would firstly call for a robust foreign policy and defence strategy. While not a superpower, this means the UK sustaining a military capable of deploying anywhere in the world — independently of the U.S. if necessary — and the ability to defend its waters and borders as well as wider strategic interests.

It is tantalising to think how much better off the world — and particularly the Middle East — would have been if the UK had followed the Gaullist model of friendship with Washington through more selective cooperation, turning down the opportunity to invade Iraq rather than mindlessly, or even enthusiastically, hopping on board. 

In many ways Tony Blair was the diametric opposite of de Gaulle: his constitutional reforms were either facetious or counter-productive. He was hypnotised by the shiny brightness of America and convinced it offered the model for modernity.

Anglo-Gaullism would certainly encourage investment in infrastructure, research, and development. Stung by the effects of the 1973 oil crisis, the Gaullist prime minister, Pierre Messmer, was determined that France would not prove vulnerable the next time OPEC flexed its muscles. Within a year he initiated a massive roll-out of nuclear power stations. 

The result: France has 56 plants to Britain’s mere six, most of which are nearing the end of their lifespans. (David Cameron’s enthusiastic courting of Communist Chinese investment for Sizewell C was an affront to Anglo-Gaullism.) The strategy should also be firmly Unionist, insisting that all four countries of the United Kingdom have at least a nuclear power station each. Supporting research into small nuclear reactors could help not only sort out the UK’s energy needs, but act as a potential game-changer worldwide.

Industrially, Anglo-Gaullism would follow its Gallic inspiration’s policy of pursuing increased productivity, stable currency, higher wages, and building skills, happy to deploy the levers of state power when they can be deftly used to the nation’s advantage — keeping out of the way, but setting the tone.

Gaullism with a British face is not just speculation

Gaullism with a British face is not just speculation: there are actual records of governance we can call upon. Sir Thomas Playford (1896-1981) holds the Australian record for longest tenure as head of government on the state level. Playford became Premier of South Australia in 1938 and left office in 1965. 

A pragmatic social conservative heading a centre-right party, Playford was unafraid to use the state when he thought it would benefit citizens. He took the electricity companies into state ownership, expanded the state bank, and confronted a drastic shortage of housing by founding a state housing trust.

Sir Tom worked hard to lure industry to his state but also set the right tone by forbidding ministers from sitting on the company boards. Under his leadership, South Australia went from a farming-dependent economy vulnerable to boom and bust to an industrial powerhouse. Economic output increased tenfold with particular growth in textiles, oil refining, automobile manufacturing, plastics, and boatbuilding. 

Comfort with the state’s role in development went hand in hand with a firm commitment to the common people. The state’s opposition Labor leader Mick O’Halloran — no doubt mixing admiration with frustration — called Playford “the best Labor premier South Australia ever had”.

Playford was firmly of the right but wasn’t afraid to use some of the tools of the left when he deemed it appropriate. Too often today’s centre-right across the English-speaking world abdicates the levers of power and delegitimises the vigorous use of the state to pursue the common good.

Britain’s railways offer a woeful example. Running the East Coast Main Line has flummoxed three successive private operators: GNER (failed 2007), National Express (failed 2009), and Virgin (failed 2018). The line has been state-owned and state-operated since 2018 while initially being prepared for a fourth attempt at private control. 

Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory brought a change of tone: six months into his premiership it was announced that privatisation plans would be abandoned for at least three years. It now looks likely LNER (as currently styled) might be rolled into Great British Railways, the new body created to put a bit of vim back into the UK’s rail system — a very Anglo-Gaullist move.

Anglo-Gaullist voices in the British conversation are few, but the journalist, Peter Hitchens, has expressed surprise at Gaullism’s absence in the UK. “It’s extraordinary that this combination of strong defence, patriotism, a strong welfare state, and national independence isn’t more common in politics,” he told Nigel Farage on GB News, “because I think it appeals to so many people and suits many people.”

Anglo-Gaullism could call upon a little post-liberalism here

Anglo-Gaullism could call upon a little post-liberalism here, a dash of Christian democracy there, family-building solidarity in tax and benefits, preservation of free speech and academic freedom, national conservatism in defence and migration, and undermining liberalism’s permanent culture war by depriving it of default state support. Above all, it must be made easier for Britons to form (and house) families, raise children, and foster a flourishing society.

If France is falling apart at the seams today, it’s thanks to the Gaullian inheritance being undermined first by François Mitterrand’s reign and now by the hapless Macron. Nothing would annoy the French more than Britain pilfering the legacy of the greatest Frenchman and using it to skip ahead of its friends across la Manche. 

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