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Populist smears of an unpopular elite

The conservative debate over nationhood is one of the most consequential in years

At one level, the carefully confected outrage that greeted the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski’s decision to attend a conference on “National Conservatism” in Rome last month was a predictably ephemeral moment in the national conversation. Yet it also underscored the scale of the challenge for those wishing to conduct that conversation in good faith, distilling as it did the very worst of gotcha journalism and the strange superstition that reactionary views, like a coronavirus, can contaminate anyone in the vicinity of the person who happens to hold them.

One accusation levelled against Kawczynski by the Board of Deputies of British Jews was that his attendance was tantamount to endorsing antisemitism, which came as a surprise to the conference’s co-organiser Yoram Hazony, an Orthodox Jew who is President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and author of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

Another charge was that his presence conveyed a tacit approval of homophobia, which doubtless amused the handful of gay delegates (Kawczynski himself came out as gay in 2013). L’Affaire Kawczynski was also a useful reminder of the limitless capacity of so many commentators to substitute invective for argument when faced with ideas whose flaws they feel so deeply that they cannot bring themselves to explain them to the rest of us.

By alienating swing voters they might win over, the degradation of public discourse through smear and slander will continue to catalyse the collapse of mainstream political parties —especially social democratic ones — all across Europe. In this case, the pearl-clutching was vigorous enough to distract conservatism’s critics from the movement’s discussion of the prospects and pitfalls of national loyalty, arguably one of its most consequential debates in years. The formal aim of the gathering was to honour the contribution of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to the collapse of communism.

It was clear from the outset that while there was no commanding consensus on (say) fiscal policy, the free market, tariffs, environment, or the European Union, the delegates were in furious agreement on one topic: the liberation of Eastern European nations from the Soviet Union should be celebrated precisely because it allowed each to regain democratic control over their money, borders and laws.

Weary casualties of four years of Brexit debates can be forgiven for not wanting to talk about sovereignty ever again, but the fact remains that Britain’s protracted departure from the EU has injected extraordinary energy into the case for national loyalty among intellectuals and policy makers on both sides of the political divide. The nation, it is now often claimed, is the only unit of social and political arrangement that can command the loyalty required for harnessing large numbers of people to a common endeavour. We are, in short, witnessing a resurgence of confidence among conservatives in the politics of home.

Love for one’s nation does not entail hatred of all other countries

That idea has been articulated in many contributions, including Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, Roger Scruton’s Where We Are, Robert Tombs’s The English and Their History, and Rusty Reno’s Return of Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West. Meanwhile, classic treatments of the meaning of nationhood and nationality by Ernest Gellner and Elie Kedourie or, more recently, Benedict Anderson, David Miller and Anthony Smith, are being dusted down and perused once again. Conservatives are even returning to Herder and Hegel to mine the furthest intellectual hinterlands of the notion of nation.

Most of this literature tiptoes gingerly around the N-word, but Hazony deploys it with provocative abandon. In The Virtue of Nationalism, which has stimulated widespread interest and critique since its publication in 2018, he traces a bold, schematic genealogy of nationhood back to ancient Israel. On the continuum that runs from clan and tribe to empire and cosmopolis, it is the nation that for Hazony fixes the most plausible horizon of our cultural affections and political allegiances.

More proximate horizons threaten societies with factionalism, while larger configurations tend to subsume their distinctiveness into an abstraction sustainable only through the threat of external force.

Needless to say, Hazony’s arguments have not convinced everyone. It is, however, unfair to accuse him, as some critics have, of endorsing the silly claim that national determination has always been an unqualified good. His claim is the more modest one that nationhood is the form of political arrangement least susceptible to internal violence and military expansionism. For others, the biblical pedigree he attributes to nationalism is at best sui generis, at worst flatly anachronistic.

His dichotomy between nationalism and imperialism has been dismissed as implausibly rigid. Others reject Hazony’s suggestion that Nazism was a form of imperialism, preferring to treat it as racialist ideology that, when welded to national loyalty, transformed it into the most debased expression of nationalism imaginable.

The claim that nationalism and imperialism collectively exhaust the ways of structuring a polity is not terribly convincing, but for Europeans faced with the choice between an elected national executive and the European Commission, Hazony’s dichotomy seems perfectly serviceable for the present. The EU is hardly an imperial project, but those who dismiss the idea that it has been steadily sapping the sovereignty of its constituent states should probably turn off the BBC for a while.

In any event, to reduce discussion of The Virtue of Nationalism to parlour games over definitions and genealogies is to belittle its central achievement, which is to issue one of the boldest challenges in years to the dominant orthodoxy that national loyalty and love of home are intrinsically suspect moral stances.

However entranced we might be by the ersatz universalism of Rousseau and Kant, or the bloodless proceduralism of Rawls and Habermas, the Western intellectual tradition — from the “ordo amoris” of Augustine and Aquinas to Hume’s circles of diminishing loyalty and Mill’s “principle of sympathy” — barely contemplated the idea that piety to one’s homeland was a vice not a virtue. On this older view, love for one’s nation no more entails hatred of all others than a husband’s love for his wife requires him to hold every other woman in contempt.

It has become clearer that the term “populist” is in fact élitese for “popular”

As Hume and Herder recognised, genuine affection for another nation first requires one to appraise the ways in which that nation differs from one’s own. That in turn means that the differences that ground the uniqueness of a friendship between nations cannot and should not be regulated away by intergovernmental institutions run by politicians typically exiled to their low-tax sinecures by their national electorates.

As Douglas Murray noted in his cautious two cheers for nationalism, the idea has had strikingly little purchase in Britain. In the British context, the concept of nationalism yields political capital only when invoked against the English (flying a Saltire outside your home will raise the odd smile on both sides of the border, but don’t try that with a Cross of St George).

That one of the government’s most pressing problems on leaving the EU is a newly resurgent nationalism in Scotland is a reminder of how odd it was to characterise Brexit as a nationalist project. As Linda Colley has plausibly argued, Britain’s identity as a nation was a relatively recent construct, forged to secure the Act of Union and create a Protestant superstate to resist the might of Catholic Europe. The truth is that British politics has never been affected by debased forms of nationalism. Even Ukip and the Brexit Party, largely anodyne movements of national renewal compared to their European counterparts, vanished the moment it was clear Brexit would be resolved in their favour.

But Britain’s relative immunity from political radicalism and the robustness of its constitution is rarer on the continent. The perceived democratic deficit, driven largely by the breakneck integration of member states into the structures of the EU, has triggered a startling rise in so-called populist movements in almost every major European country.

It has become clearer that the term “populist” is in fact élitese for “popular” or — better — “getting democratically elected on policy platforms we hold in contempt”. Last year Italy’s Lega surged to victory (albeit short-lived), Poland’s Law and Justice Party won a record share of the vote, while Hungary’s Fidesz continues to confound predictions of its demise. In Belgium, the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang has surged after a decade in the doldrums, while Vox in Spain and Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands scored significant electoral victories.

The longstanding cordon sanitaire separating radical parties from their mainstream counterparts is unravelling across the continent and in some cases disappearing altogether. Last year, Philippe, King of the Belgians, shocked many by meeting Tom Van Grieken, leader of Vlaams Belang, after his party made substantial gains in elections, while Sweden’s Christian Democrats appear poised to forge a previously unthinkable coalition with the Swedish Democrats if, as seems likely, they fail to preserve their fragile coalition with the Greens after the Riksdag elections in 2022.

So conservative movements for national renewal are not disappearing anytime soon and it is to the credit of the organisers of the Rome conference that they recognised the limitations of dealing with the concerns of ordinary people by calling them xenophobes before seeking their votes. In France, this strategy has worked so well that every weekend the Champs Élysées is turned into a battleground between government and people.

It must also partly account for the buzz surrounding Marion Maréchal, until recently the youngest-ever member of France’s National Assembly, who strode onto the stage in Rome to give a speech that left no doubt of her intention to return to politics under a banner of something resembling national conservatism.

For many, Maréchal’s efforts to detoxify her brand by distancing herself from her aunt Marine Le Pen is a scarcely convincing bid for electoral legitimacy. It is not at all clear, moreover, that dropping “Le Pen” from her surname will be sufficient to release her from her grandfather’s long and sinister shadow. While she plainly prizes her appeal to the Catholic right, not least for its electoral potential, her image as a faithful daughter of the Catholic Church will have been tainted in the eyes of social conservatives by her irregular domestic situation.

On the other hand, Maréchal is undoubtedly charismatic, intellectually confident, strategic, shrewd in her choice of advisers, and young enough to contest several presidential elections. Her swagger at the conference made it hard to shake off the impression that she will soon be in a position to oust Marine Le Pen as Macron’s rival in 2022. That is likely to force her to follow Macron in founding a new political party, because while she has a small advantage in the polls over her aunt among the general public, she is far less popular within the party itself. Even if she were to overcome that challenge, few would bet against Macron defeating her in the final round, just as he comfortably beat Marine Le Pen in 2017, and just as Chirac overcame her grandfather in 2002.

Still, it is clear she is assembling the kind of infrastructure that would help her exploit the notorious fluidity of the French party system for several electoral cycles to come. Édouard Husson, a distinguished academic who also addressed the conference, and Jacques de Guillebon, the editor of l’Incorrect, a confidently conservative new magazine energising Gaullist and Catholic millennials, are helping her build nationwide support via a network of business management schools with an ancillary curriculum based on the great books of the French tradition.

Maréchal rose in applause with the rest of the delegates when Viktor Orbán appeared on stage for a conversation with Chris DeMuth, a former director of the American Enterprise Institute. Orbán began in familiar vein with a forceful rejection of liberal democracy: but rather than champion the phrase “illiberal democracy”, as he did in a 2014 speech to the horror of many, he claimed he now preferred to describe Hungary as a Christian democracy. What would Christian Democrats in Italy, Germany, and Sweden make of such a claim?

It is not easy to say, but many Hungarian Christians — though a small minority of Hungarians — have welcomed Orbán’s commitment to help Christian refugees escape persecution in the Middle East. Moreover, Orbán’s pro-family policies appear (for now) to have reversed Hungary’s demographic decline, an achievement that has attracted cautious interest from influential policy thinkers in Britain.

While warmly endorsed by Maréchal and several other speakers, Orbán’s appeal to Christianity as the most promising agent for European renewal will strike many as wildly implausible. In the address that opened the conference, Rod Dreher, author of Live Not By Lies, an eagerly anticipated study of resistance movements in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, expressed his misgivings that Christianity in the West was resilient enough to weather the storm of identitarian ideologies profoundly hostile to many of its most basic moral and doctrinal commitments.

If Dreher is right, that should worry even the more secular exponents of national conservatism: national identity conserved for its own sake without regard to truth, goodness and beauty as transcendent values ordering and anchoring the contingent loyalties of a nation will never be immune to nationalism’s worst pathologies.

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