Mass immigration, globalisation, culture change: is there more to National Conservatism (note the capital letters) than a response to all of these – and a shift of focus on the right worldwide from economics to culture? We will find out more when NatCon UK, a conference organised by the new movement, opens in London next Monday.
It’s American in origin – a product of the Edmund Burke foundation, chaired by Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism [pictured above]. Its starting-point is the transition taking place from the global “rules-based liberal order” that preceded the rise of China to the “a sharp turn toward nationalism”.
The new movement approves of the new “commitment to a world of independent nations” and wants “a protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race”.
I pick out from its ten Statements of Principle three extracts which seem especially suggestive.
First, “the disintegration of the family…gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations. Among the causes are an unconstrained individualism that regards children as a burden, while encouraging ever more radical forms of sexual license and experimentation as an alternative to the responsibilities of family and congregational life”.
Second, “the Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and non-believers alike. Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private”.
Finally, “the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation. Today, globalised markets allow hostile foreign powers to despoil America and other countries of their manufacturing capacity, weakening them economically and dividing them internally”.
The question is whether this American product, as transatlantic in flavour as the libertarianism it criticises, can be translated into British politics: indeed, whether this forthcoming conference is really even trying to do so.
For I know conservatives who agree with the economic interventionism that the Statement implies, but would hesitate to say that public life in Britain “should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision”. I know others who disagree with the economic interventionism, but agree with the nationalism.
And I know others still who believe that “the traditional family…is the foundation of all other achievements of our civilization” but who support, though sometimes with qualification, the liberalising legislation on sex, race and sexuality of the past 50 years. None of these people are signed up fully, and perhaps even mostly, to the body of ideas in the Statement of Principles.
Indeed, some of these and others, whose thinking overlaps with the National Conservatives, aren’t listed as speaking at the conference at all. I’m thinking of Nick Timothy, the Daily Telegraph columnist, Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the last Conservative manifesto, David Green of Civitas, Munira Mirza, formerly Head of the Number Ten Policy Unit, and Neil O’Brien.
Others who are listed as speaking don’t agree. For example, our columnist Daniel Hannan is a free trader; Michael Gove is not. That is no bad thing in itself: a conference with no debate would be a dull one. But such differences take us back to the question of what will emerge from it.
So on the one hand, Gove has become engaged, post-Covid, with security of food supply, of energy supply – of “just in case” rather than “just in time” supply chains. That sounds close to the economic interventionism implied by the Statement of Principles, and which Onward’s new project on the Future of Conservatism is engaged with.
But on the other, a recent Daily Telegraph article about the conference by Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost, who are also speaking at the conference, banged the drum for a “British conservative tradition…characterised by love of freedom: of free markets, free trade and free individuals and families. That sounds further away.
I can’t help wondering of what will emerge from the conference will simply be reheated Thatcherism with a dash of culture war on top. (Suella Braverman is the most senior Conservative Minister speaking; I gather that Kemi Badenoch will be out of the country in Switzerland.)
You may say that this would be no bad thing. Perhaps – but it would be very different from “focusing on replacing the idea of individual natural rights with one of national identity fused with Christianity”, as a right-wing American critic of the new movement puts it.
Meanwhile, I’ve three questions for the movement in Britain – the precursor to many more, which would seek to find out its take on, say, localism and Net Zero. First, what’s its view on the size of the state? I’ve found in some National Conservative fellow-travellers an appetite for higher state spending and taxes than the post-war Conservative consensus is comfortable with.
Next, does it believe that a Christian majority exists in Britain and, if so, what kind of majority and what follows from it? Church-goers? Cultural Christians? Where do Islam and Muslims fit in – or for that matter agnostics and atheists? Finally, British patriotism is a good thing, but is nationalism everywhere else?
If so, what about Scottish nationalism? Or Welsh? If nationalism per se is good, are these manifestations bad, and if so, why? Does supporting nationalism just mean the forms of it we approve of? And if national self-determination is the cry, what about the rights of minorities?
Arguably, National Conservatism is nothing new, and literally so: next week’s conference is being written up as a new kid on the block, but a forerunner took place in London four years ago. Furthermore, Theresa May was a kind of National Conservative – at least in her first incarnation, when Timothy and Fiona Hill were her Chiefs of Staff.
She didn’t show much interest in protectionism, which some National Conservatives support, but was certainly enthused by intervention: her first government rediscovered industrial strategy, and she won a small batch of Red Wall seats in 2017. Boris Johnson was also a National Conservative – or rather he wasn’t, because he won’t be tied down to anything.
But there were certain continuities with his predecessor. National Conservatism is very taken with the working class, and Johnson’s levelling-up appeal was pitched at them, or at least those living in towns in provincial England. Theirs was a gentler, kinder, more Anglican-flavoured national conservatism, if you like, than the U.S version.
Some of those associated with the conference will doubtless argue that this is no time for gentleness and kindness, but for ferocity and, perhaps in some measure, unkindness – what John Hayes calls being “fierce in defence of the gentle”. All the same, I’m puzzled by Burke’s status as the poster boy of the movement.
Burke was suspicious of a doctrine of natural rights, but not because held one of national identity instead. Rather, he is best remembered not for championing such a generality but rather a particular: Britain’s institutions: the “well compacted structure of our church and state…defended by reverence, defended by power, a fortress at once and a temple”.
It’s unclear whether or not the National Conservatives are interested in British institutions. The religion in which they are grounded, yes. The culture that raises or lowers them, certainly. But not maybe in replenishing those institutions themselves – at least yet. Or in how to go about the great work of our time: reducing the demand for government.