I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall very clearly. I was a few weeks shy of my seventeen birthday, and this momentous event felt as if it came out of nowhere. The Cold War had been the backdrop to my entire life up until that point; the idea that it was ending seemed unimaginable. But just over two years later, the USSR was officially disbanded. Communism in Europe had come to an end.
The thought at the time was that the political right in Europe and the west generally would be the beneficiaries. After all, hadn’t the policies of the Right just been proven to be, well, right? The assumption by many was that the end of communism was the triumph of capitalism, and by that token the ones who had trumpeted the loudest and clearest for such a victory would reap the whirlwind of a new era. And yet the almost exact opposite happened. The 1990s saw the revival of the centre-left in Europe in way no one would have foresaw at the start of the decade. In the UK, it took an election in 1992 in which the Conservatives clung by their nails to power first, but 1997 saw them reduced to 165 seats. Helmet Kohl looked unassailable after the reunification of Germany and yet in 1994 the SPD won a majority in the Bundesrat, the prelude to a crushing defeat by the socialists in the 1998 federal elections, won by a red-green coalition. In America, Bill Clinton managed to beat George H Bush in 1992, even after the victory in the Persian Gulf and the perceived triumph of foreign policy against the Soviet Bloc that he presided over as Vice President. Even in France, where Chirac and the centre-right took power off of Mitterand and the centre-left in 1995, he managed this mostly by dirigism, a state driven economic system that could only be described as centre-left (and was certainly in line with centre-left thinking of the time).
How? The fall of communism gave people in the west a renewed sense of optimism and hope – the centre-left read this and capitalised on it while the Right sat back and assumed power would fall naturally to them. The centre-right parties managed to make themselves look stuck in the Cold War politics that everyone wanted to move on from.
This centre-left hegemony was hurt by the events of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, but it wasn’t until the 2008 crash that it really fell apart. Ironically, in a mirror image of 1989, it was assumed by many that it was the Left that would benefit from the events of the financial downturn as it had supposedly demonstrated the folly of capitalism. And yet just like a reverse play of the 90s, it was the centre-right that soon found itself in the ascendency. The UK had a Conservative prime minister in a couple years time on from the crash; the Christian Democrats tightened their grip in Germany; even when the Left was able to make a breakthrough it was either a victory for far-leftism like Syriza in Greece (thus supplanting the old centre-left parties in the process), or was a crushing failure like the Hollande presidency has been.
Given the symmetry, the centre-left can learn a lot from the last two decades. The Tories seemed dead in Britain a decade ago, a party that would seemingly never get back into power. Even in 2010, it could only get there via coalition. Yet they now have a majority, albeit a small one (for now). Many of the lessons are directly applicable: get a personable leader, fight tooth and nail to claim the centre ground from the other side and wait for your moment carefully, pouncing when it does. These things can be hard to read however: as both the Berlin Wall and the last financial crash demonstrated, sometimes an event can cause the exact opposite thing to happen from what everyone expected.