Members of the Belgian police sealed off the entrance to the venue, not allowing anyone to enter on Day 1 of The National Conservatism Conference at the Claridge on April 16, 2024 in Brussels. Picture Credit: Omar Havana/Getty Images

Free speech freeze-up

Reactions in Britain to the attempted suppression of NatCon suggest a bleak future for freedom of speech and thought

Artillery Row

The Vernal Equinox is half-way between the solstices: half-way between the shortest and the longest day. Like all the solar holidays, it brings to mind long shadows and standing stones – and neo-paganism. Stonehenge and Glastonbury: picture a white sun rolled like a pin over a field of feral kids; a shrieking mass of stray limbs like the innards of an iPhone or an etching by William Blake; crap in buckets and crepe paper platted in hair.

I wasn’t thinking about the Vernal Equinox or the Autumnal Equinox or any other harbingers of death, decay, and degeneration until about 8.07am, when a swarm of whatsapps wrenched me out of my bleary morning innocence. I’d never heard of Vernal Scott, but his name was obviously an omen of some kind. He had tweeted: “I applaud the mayor and police of Brussels for their decision to close down this conference”.

For some reason, this was what the Mayor of Brussels and his dragoons had suppressed

He meant NatCon. And while I am delighted that many readers will have no idea what a NatCon is, it does mean that I will have to give a word of explanation. NatCon — “National Conservatism” — is a movement, organised by the Edmund Burke Foundation, that holds conferences on “faith, flag, and family-values” conservatism. It was vaguely on my radar back in the Euro-days as an occasional pulpit for one of the sexier Le Pens; Scruton might have gone once, presumably to indulge that particularly Tory penchant for addressing the Inuit in Mandarin. Their 2024 meeting was held in Brussels in mid-April, and the local mayor had set les Rozzers on them: the conference was shut down, although unfortunately, we were not granted the spectacle of Nigel Farage being hauled off to le slammer.

I got hacked-off about NatCon at the start of ‘23, when the Tories were settling into their new disorder, and the movement’s leader — a disarming man in a kippah called Yoram Hazony — rocked-up to announce NatCon London. During the taster, he was politely advised that “National Conservatism” had a branding problem in the UK.

  1. Nationalism is a Continental thing involving leather shorts, beer halls, and gas chambers. We have something called patriotism, which is mainly rhododendrons and parliamentary democracy.
  2. We’ve never worked out whether “Britain” is one nation or four. But we have worked out that the question is best avoided.
  3. “National Conservatism” sounds quite a lot like “National Socialism”, which folks here don’t like.

None of this was exactly taken on board, which was unfortunate.

NatCon London was a morass of punditry everyone had heard before. It was bland even by the Pigling-Bland standards of a Conservative Party Conference fringe event. There were off-the-shelf speeches by Braverman, Frost, Mogg, and Gove (I skipped most of these: the labels at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain were woke but at least they had a certain mock-gravity). The Brexit Man and his gawky drummer humped their speakers from the pelican crossing down to Marsham Street and set up camp. It was all quite strange.

Unfortunately, the Roderick Spode branding, the Disneyfied over-production, the Leni Riefenstahl lighting, and the brill-creamed bouffantry made it look like a planning meeting for the Fourth Reich, and the press was delighted to run with it. The fact that it was actually a window on the only future that might be even worse — a future of shivering losers in shepherd-huts, shit-posting about Anglicanism in their dressing gowns and watching woke Netflix — meant nothing. NatCon London violated Rules Alpha and Beta of British politics. Don’t look like a fanatic(k). Don’t sound like an American. We pitched these people overseas for a reason: they are a bit intense.

The whole circus seemed to have been calculated to have the smallest possible appeal: it won no new supporters, inspired no new ideas, informed no new policies, and cost an awful lot of money that could have been spent more usefully on practically anything else.

For some reason, this was what the Mayor of Brussels and his dragoons had suppressed. Obviously, it isn’t good when Village Hitlers like Monsieur Philippe Close — a soft-boiled oeuf who is mayor because his predecessor got attrapéd avec le schnozzle dans la trough municipale — start summarily banning painfully pedestrian talking shops. It isn’t good for European conservatism that rootless, listless, pointless NatCon got some light and oxygen from it. But it probably is good for European conservatism that the mayor of Imperious Europe’s capital city outed himself as a low-rent train conductor (“revenue protection officer” in Newspeak).

Unfortunately, as the coffee settled into my veins and I scrolled every deeper down the rabbit hole of Vernal Scott’s twitter feed, I remembered that the Covid Age has been high season for revenue protection officers, Village Hitlers, and other assorted mastodons of tyranny over our granulated society’s witless and alienated electrons.

Vernal Scott’s decision to side with l’Oeuf Mayeurnaise was getting a bit of a reaction. “Free speech not your bag, Vernal?” His reply was a staple of Dark Age philosophy that I had heard a few times the night before: “Sure, but the mayor decides.”

In the United Kingdom, he is Head of Equality and Diversity at the University of Oxford

Sire, you can’t just murder your subjects: after all, it is the tenth century. (I stole that line, but Google is being racist and refuses to identify the source for me.) You see, in Villareal-Vladivostock Europa, there’s a rule. If you want to quietly suspend some human rights or some constitutional freedoms or the rule of laws above men, and you don’t have time to gather the support staff of the European Council of Ministers in the usual basement to do it “legally”, just chance your arm and the international nomenklatura will do everything it can to let you get away with it.

Which brings us to the salient point of this screed. Vernal Scott is indeed a member of the neo-nomenklatura. In the Soviet Union, he would probably have managed some kind of turnip manufactory in the Urals. In the United Kingdom, he is Head of Equality and Diversity at the University of Oxford, and we are delighted to have him: “delighted’”, says the Chief Diversity Officer (Order of Lenin, II.ii), “to have such an experienced leader on diversity joining us, as we embark upon our new agenda on equality, diversity, and inclusion”.

Joining us? Yes, let’s toss the “past-peak-woke” chestnut on the Belgian griddle, for Vernal was appointed to this august position as recently as September 2023 (equinox?), fresh from something called the “Essex Police Service”. Vernal is “thrilled to have been appointed”. His “mission will be to persuade everyone that excellence in Higher Education and EDI are integral values”. Aye, where are the songs of autumn. Where are they?

I do not care that Mr Scott is a “gay dad” or an “ex-man of faith”, any more than I care that Monsieur Close is an egg with a pair of eyebrows. I don’t want to care about Mr Scott’s “values”, which I wish were his business. I was briefly amused to see that he thinks “diversity and human rights consultant” is a job – but then again, he’s had the last laugh on that one – all the way to the bank with public and charitable dough.

I do care a great deal that someone who will have vast, yea, unfathomable powers of sanctimonious meddling in one of this country’s greatest institutions — an institution full of people who are too cowed and too poor and too busted to stand up to such meddling — believes that random officials have the right to suppress the free and peaceable exchange of ideas upon a whim. And this actually matters, because Oxford is a coal-face of human imagination and invention, an enormous asset to Britain’s economy and influence — and the place where we recruit our political and cultural leaders.

I don’t like NatCon. But what Mr Scott said about its suppression is a knife tickling the gullet of Oxford University. He needs to explain himself. And if he will not recant, he needs to go: pour decourager les autres, because attitudes like his are destroying our society. And if he will not recant, and he does not go, then the University’s most senior leaders will have questions to answer as well.

I don’t like being gas-lit either. A few months ago Chris Patten announced his retirement as the University’s Chancellor:

I regard universities as an important part of the value system of open democratic societies… We should certainly not allow them to be dragged into the centre of so-called culture wars which have usually little to do with culture, but are invariably a clash between the ideologues and heresy hunters from the extremes. Scholarship is often abandoned in these somewhat demeaning fights. We should certainly do everything we can to avoid what has been happening on the campuses of some great universities in the United States.

“Should certainly not allow”! “Everything we can to avoid”! It’s a nice old story Pang, but it’s in the wrong tense. Future most definitely imperfect. We’re not buying it, and Vernal is Exhibit A.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover