Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Focus on the body

Reflections on the National Conservatism conference

At the back of the Emmanuel Centre, “press” skulked like birds of prey. There was John Crace of the Guardian, Rob Hutton of this parish and my fellow Substacker David Aaronovitch — all wondering what to make of the National Conservatism Conference. Yet the line between press and attendees was vague. None of us quite knew what to make of each other.

When I was a younger and more pretentious man, I had a lot of fun arguing about the real meaning of conservatism. I feel silly about it now — not just because I’m only somewhat more of a political philosopher as I am a nuclear physicist but because it feels like debating the meaning of “health” while a patient dies on the operating table.

To ask ourselves about the real meaning of national conservatism runs the risk of doing the same in a more esoteric style. Often, at the conference, speakers and attendees were talking past each other. Someone would reference “free markets” and the post-liberals in the room would shake their heads in Chestertonian disgust and grumble about real Conservatism being more than just an exercise in raising the GDP. It is, of course. But if we want to have more homes, and more power stations, and more fun conferences to talk about conservative ideas, it would be nice to raise the GDP — which, after all, is in the mud. 

With that said, when Daniel Hannan hymned the virtues of free markets like an Anglican vicar warbling about the Holy Spirit, he missed the point from the opposite direction. Fundamentally, Yoram Hazony, who began the National Conservatism conferences, was correct to make the point that it is senseless to make them an idol or a vice.

Professor Hazony spoke eloquently about the glories of Great Britain — the home of Shakespeare, and Cook, and Crick and Watson. It made us Brits feel good. We probably shouldn’t have had to be told that we have such heritage. (Later, Nigel Biggar spoke well on the same theme.)

A faint air of unreality hung around the conference. In one of the best panels, Mary Harrington, Alex Kaschuta, Ed West and Louise Perry spoke about declining birth rates, and the social and psychological pathologies it can encourage. The speakers were insightful and often moving. The substantial minority of us who were childless millennial opinion columnists applauded with mingled enthusiasm and embarrassment. 

The protestors who hung around outside blasting hideous music at the poor beleaguered security guards, and who in several cases disrupted the talks, had a kind of symbiotic relationship with the event. We all got attention from one another. (I probably shouldn’t have been rude to one of them but, in fairness, blasting hideous music while screaming about fascism is pretty rude as well.)

Most surreal of all were the Conservative ministers who spoke between speech after speech that was righteously assailing the long and sorry record of their government. As someone else quipped, if the protestors thought they had a beef with the Conservatives they should have talked to the attendees.

Perhaps we should have blasted loud music at Michael Gove.

I had no idea that it was possible to say nothing so earnestly

To hear Gove is to hear a man who could have been a multi-millionaire in the more lucrative used car business. I had no idea that it was even possible to say nothing so apparently earnestly. Asked what he recommends that young conservatives can read for inspiration, he suggested, among other things, all of Roger Scruton’s extensive oeuvre. It would have been tempting to ask Mister Secretary Gove to tell us what his twelve years in office did most to give practical effect to his reading of Scruton. Tempting, but pointless, and embarrassing. (It’s a burning mark of shame and not just for Michael Gove that when this government of cowards sacked the smeared Scuton, not one minister stood up for him.)

It’s hard to take Tory politicians seriously. They talked about controlling immigration but after thirteen years of broken promises it felt like hearing a glutton insist for the thirteenth time that he was going to give up chocolate cake even as icing stained his lips. David Frost sounded the most sober and serious, though he had the advantage of being a Conservative who had resigned. Still, at the risk of sounding like a bit of a wonker it would have been more nice to hear more policies. Where are we going to build the power plants? How are we going to reform the NHS? It’s all very well to grumble about the “woke”, but what are going to do about its state-backed institutional power? For the conference to mean something, its aspirations must cohere into a plan. But if Tories have a plan they might end up being held to it.

What is national conservatism? One of the later panels addressed God and the nation. All of the speakers agreed that Christianity and Britain were as separable as a heart from a body. That Christians think all peoples should turn to Christ raises the issue of whether this is a religious question, or a political question, or both. Certainly, to make explicit religiosity a defining outwards-facing feature of a British political movement would consign it to the realms of the nice but niche. That said — religion can animate policy without being the policy. Some transcendent element is needed, after all, to balance politics between bone dry pragmatism and the flames of the fanatical. 

What is national conservatism? Let’s face it — it’s national restoration or it is nothing. Amid the valid doom and gloom of the conference, you didn’t hear about a lot that was worth being conserved. Granted, one could go too far here. Few Britons die in violence or starve to death, and if those sound like small things then the millions upon millions of human beings who have died in violence or starved to death would like a word. But with housing unaffordable, energy on the brink, migration soaring and the small matter of Europe being riven by its worst conflict since the Second World War this is not the time for mild conservative clichés about slow and steady change — a possibility as out of reach as a Fanta Zero to a man lost in the desert. 

The philosophical must inform the practical — but here it must do so quickly. Focus on the body on the operating table. How can it be saved?

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