The Coventry Foodbank (Photo by Oli Scarff / AFP)

Anglicising National Conservatism

Britain faces grave and specific challenges

Artillery Row

Batten down the hatches, bar all the doors, unsubscribe from all your Substacks. Next week National Conservatism arrives in Britain, and commentary is already coming so thick and fast it’s bubbling up through the doors and seeping into the carpet.

David Gauke has claimed that the mere fact the conference is going on “will not reassure” alienated Tory voters. The Guardian view is that it is a cynical attempt for conservatives to make political capital out of their own failure. The criticism from the online left — as original as it is predictable — is that the event will equate to another Nuremberg, but this time more conveniently located opposite Westminster Abbey. Some have called for Prevent to ban it, presumably on the grounds attendees may be in illegal possession of conservative views.

Some of the more considered commentary, however, has focussed on whether it offers a genuine path forward for the Conservatives, or if it simply too incoherent. That is certainly the view of Adrian Pabst, who argues that the almost bafflingly broad views of conference speakers indicates the movement already has “a fundamental identity crisis” and is “an intellectual dead end”.

Yet surely, some incoherence is to be expected?

National Conservatism is a new movement, largely derived from America and rooted in postliberalism. As I’ve written in these august pages before:

Broadly, many of the problems postliberals seek to fix — the rebuilding of meaning, community and cohesion in an increasingly atomised society and the restoration of dignity to vast swathes of the body politic that bear the majority of costs of globalisation — are similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

As a result of being rooted within an entirely different school of conservatism, National Conservatism doesn’t fit squarely within existing British conservative traditions. Nor does it fit into Pabst’s Blue-Labourish tendency because, as Gladden Pappin writes, “British postliberalism tends to be a left-wing phenomenon, couching its goals in the terms of Christian socialism.” 

National Conservativism’s place outside both of these traditions doesn’t make it incoherent — just in need of anglicization. In order to become coherent, it needs to be placed into a British context. The real question, then, is if — and if so, how — National Conservatism can adapt from an American context to a British one.

Even Mississippi, the poorest US state, is richer in per capita terms than the UK

The conference will doubtless kick off a process of stretching, straining and shit testing National Conservatism “by considering how it might be practically applied in Britain, what the conception of the ‘common good’ looks like, and what policies might get us closer to it”.

The work lies very much at hand. The conference features a debate around “God and Country”, for instance. Given the much lower rates of religious participation in Britain, the question (as Simon Cooke poses) is whether “the focus on Christianity is, in a largely secular society, a complete dead end”.

Deciding what to do with God will be a secondary issue, however. National Conservatism has a strong focus on how to build an economy that can promote free enterprise whilst at the same time “mitigate threats to the national interest, aggressively pursue economic independence from hostile powers, nurture industries crucial for national defense, and restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare”.

American conservatism can afford to deal with questions about economic structures because it is a vastly wealthy country, by almost every metric the richest nation on earth. Britain is not so lucky. Even Mississippi, the poorest US state, is richer in per capita terms than the UK. In fact, we are not even doing well compared to our European peers. Keir Starmer has raised the prospect of Britain’s economy being overtaken by Poland, Bulgaria and Romania by the end of the decade, but regional inequality means most of us have already been overtaken. Whilst London’s economic output is comparable to Singapore’s, the rest of the nation’s is comparable to Romania. As Matt Klein puts it: 

Take out Greater London — the prosperity of which depends to an uncomfortable degree on a willingness to provide services to oligarchs from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union — and the UK is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe.

Years of market fundamentalism, the deprioritisation of national resilience, and the hocking of both infrastructure and housing in return for NIMBY votes, have left Britain a structurally unsound place to build a business. That only covers the physical aspects. Needless over-regulation and overly-complex, uncompetitive tax and financing structures do not help much, either.

Economic questions are the most pressing Britain faces. Given the scale of the challenges, we can’t really afford a National Conservatism that talks solely about the structure of the economy. Any new conservative movement in Britain has to begin by setting out a plan of how to rebuild the foundations. That means the basics: energy, facilities, housing, reliable transport.

What begins as an economic efficiency often ends in social catastrophe

Political economy, of course, cannot be the sole underpinning of a movement. If it is, the movement dies with it. This was one of Liz Truss’ many, many faults and before her, Margaret Thatcher’s. Once Thatcher’s formidable programme of economic reforms put the economy back on track, the government began to run out of steam. No one would claim the Thatcherism of 1990 was as ideologically productive — or in tune with the mood of the population — as it had been at the beginning of the decade. The country wasn’t behind the Miner’s Strike, but it was behind the Poll Tax Riots. Once her compelling vision of Britain’s economic future had been realised, she became the person to blame for a people who wanted a politics that was interested in more than resource allocation.

The fact remains that economic questions are the most pressing facing Britain, and they have downstream consequences. One of the reasons postliberals are so willing to challenge economic consensus is they recognise that what begins as an economic efficiency often ends in social catastrophe. Poverty is an inherent moral evil, and a great deal of the population are about to be subject to a great deal of evil. 

If it is to be effective in Britain, National Conservatism must seek to do what conservatives instinctively seek to do in times of hours of economic change and challenge. That means defending stability in people’s lives amidst tremendous change. Transforming the structure of the economy without overcoming the basic roadblocks to prosperity first is putting the cart before the horse, the change before the stability.

One of the problems with the existing schools of postliberalism is that they have spent more time with their head in the clouds than with their feet in the mud. As Philip Blond notes, “the overwhelming conclusion about post-liberalism outside of central Europe is that despite clear opportunity it has been a manifest and ongoing failure.”

Helen Dale argues that the inclusion of such a wide range of conservatives is designed to provide policy heft, counteracting what Blond describes as “the absolute lack of any serious policy offer from post-liberals or those populists who purport to be post-liberal”. Given that, and previous failures of post-liberalism to establish itself, perhaps we shouldn’t attack the NatCon conference for what it isn’t — fully developed — and welcome it for what it is: a serious attempt by the right to move post-liberalism from the realm of the theoretical to the practical.

Unless it tackles the fundamental issues holding Britain back, however, it won’t matter whose postliberal chips are being pissed on.

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