A few seconds after Suella Braverman began to address the National Conservatism Conference, she was interrupted by a heckler who shouted that this country “would welcome you unless you come on a boat”.
No sooner had the heckler been bundled out of the room than a second heckler started shouting, and was likewise ejected.
“Any one else?” Braverman asked with a smile. “It’s like audition day for the Shadow Cabinet.”
But this was actually an audition – held before several hundred conservatives (the lower-case “c” is deliberate, for the audience was not confined to members of the Conservative Party) who were gathered in the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster – for a Shadow Cabinet job which will probably not become vacant until after the next General Election.
If the Conservatives lose that election, Rishi Sunak would most likely step down, and a new Leader of the Opposition would be needed.
Braverman, daughter of two immigrants, reminded us that her life story has the power (like Sunak’s) to cheer conservatives, and confound the Left, by acting as an affirmation of Britain and all that it has to offer:
“My parents came here through legal and controlled migration. They spoke the language. They threw themselves into the community. They embraced British values.”
Braverman, wearing a red dress and gold necklace, spoke of patriotism, aspiration and sacrifice rewarded:
“Neither of my parents were born into wealth or privilege. Their parents instilled in them conservative values. They knew what this country sacrificed to secure freedom and defeat Nazism. They never took this country for granted or talked it down.”
They regarded Britain as “a paragon of democracy, equality and opportunity”, and instilled in their daughter the importance of tradition, education and hard work.
Altogether an uplifting story, and no one, apart from the two hecklers, was going to challenge it. But one could not help wishing, in some ways, that there had been more hecklers, for preaching to the converted is not the most exciting form of oratory.
Braverman said “we need to get overall immigration numbers down”, it is “not racist” to wish to control our borders, and we should instead train up enough of our own lorry drivers, builders and fruit pickers: not the line taken by some of her Cabinet colleagues.
To cover herself against any accusation of rebellion, she warned against “devouring ourselves through fratricide”, though of sororicide she had nothing to say.
The mood of the conference tended more towards pessimism than rebellion. The country is, as usual, going to the dogs, and conservatives are, as usual, distressed to see ancient verities disregarded.
Theodore Dalrymple, a retired physician who contributes to The Spectator and The Critic, deserved a prize for being more pessimistic than anyone else. To him should go a princely edition of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or, if he prefers, Oswald Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West.
Dalrymple offered chapter and verse about the ignorance of the young, the horrors of modern architecture, and the complete lack of pride in their work shown by anyone employed by a local council.
He said the police now look “like a fascist paramilitary militia with all the paraphernalia of repression hung about them”, and are are turning us into “a nation either of eggshells or of snitches”, or indeed both, which along with many other bad things “has been promulgated under a Conservative Government that ought to be ashamed of itself”.
“If there were any justice,” he added, “many senior officers would be arrested for wasting police time.”
The same woes, he observed, are found in France, the same fear of disintegration, and there is no quick fix that would lead to national recovery: “any regeneration has to be slow and voluntary”.
One theme which alarmed many speakers, including Ed West, author of Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, is demographic decline.
“The world’s most effective form of contraception,” West said, “is the London housing market.” Primary schools are closing in London because people who might have had children can’t afford anywhere to live.
Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, won applause for declaring that “liberal individualism has proved to be completely powerless to resist a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls”, and went on:
“When culture, schools and universities openly teach that our country is racist, our heroes are villains, humanity is killing the Earth, you are what you desire, diversity is theology, boundaries are tyranny and self-restraint is oppression, is it any wonder that mental health conditions, self-harm and suicide, and epidemic levels of anxiety and confusion characterise the emerging generation?”
Several speakers observed that when one has no hope in the future, one decides not to have children.
Jacob Rees-Mogg managed to be interrupted by only one heckler, a polite-looking man who approached the rostrum, as if in order to adjust the sound system, but then said he wished to draw our attention “to a few characteristics of fascism”.
The sound system was at once switched off, so Rees-Mogg’s counter-suggestion that we sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” could not be heard.
Once the heckler had been bundled away, and the sound was back on, Rees-Mogg said:
“He can have his National Loonies Conference next week and see how many people he can get to come along.”
This first day of the three-day National Conservatism Conference did not produce ready-made solutions: that would have been unconservative.
But it did show a large number of people, many of them young, thinking about the problems, and wondering what part a rehabilitated, reinvigorated, Christian conservatism inspired by Burke and Disraeli might have to play.
Between the wars, under Stanley Baldwin, and after the Second World War, at Swinton College, the Conservative Party attached enormous importance to winning the battle of ideas against the socialists.
It is equally important now to win the battle of ideas against the “woke” thinkers who want to tear down every customary restraint in order to build a brave new world which turns out to be hell on earth.
So while I am not vain enough to imagine I can in any way temper Dalrymple’s pessimism, I think this conference indicates that all is not yet lost.