Photo by Chalabala

Reflections on a revolution in Westminster

Asking questions is the first step to finding answers

Artillery Row

A revolution came to Westminster from May 15–17, 2023. This was when the National Conservatism conference, after three events in the States and two in Europe, came to Britain. To hear talk of it from the left and some liberal Tories, this was a gathering of fascists and nut-jobs, coming together to overthrow democracy, equality and all the good things of late-stage liberalism. In reality, it was an argument between Peelite Whigs and Disraelian Tories, with a dash of foreign flavour thrown in to season the mix. Looking back, it doesn’t seem obvious that the Whigs had the better of it. 

Surveying the hall on the first day, I immediately noticed the youth of the audience, 40 per cent of which was under thirty. There was a definite charge to the air. I haven’t felt such a sense of vibrancy to a right-wing event in Britain, ever. Are there underlying issues and schisms? Obviously, given national conservatism’s nascent form in Britain. Still, the potential for something significant, maybe even positive, to happen is there.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my nearly two days spent at the conference. The speaker list, on the face of it, seemed so varied in philosophical outlook as to be in danger of radical incoherence. There were indeed deep contrasts between certain speakers and the rest of the conference when it came to questions of political economy. 

Yoram Hazony, the founder and patriarch of the movement, hymned the glories of Britain’s past and its possible future. He made the point that one can’t just gulp down the heady liquor of Hayek and Friedman and then say that one has the answers to all problems of political economy everywhere and always. Sometimes, the national interest matters, and protection and industrial strategy is needed. Not so, said Jacob Rees-Mogg in the keynote immediately after: the freer markets, the freer the people.

 This theme repeated itself. The economics panel on Day Two was split down the middle between two ultra-free marketeers for whom “GDP line go up = more good, and two speakers who support an industrial policy for certain sectors having reckoned with the reality of a time of geopolitical instability and neo-mercantilism.

Pollyanna-ish optimism about markets left the younger age group cold

Suella Braverman attempted a synthesis in her keynote between Thatcherism and anti-wokeism — not entirely convincingly in my eyes. Later, Melanie Phillips condensed twenty years of her arguments concerning our cultural revolution into an eloquent call to recover the covenantal politics of the much missed, late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In the process of which she shredded Margaret Thatcher as a revolutionary rather than a conservative. She castigated the right’s unthinking dogmatism concerning the role of the state in expressing and enforcing limits on social mores and norms, such a role making possible the society that we do indeed live in. 

This might all sound like it confirmed fears about a general incoherence, producing a scattered event that amounted to little more than a talking-shop — one where nerds (like yours truly) got to talk about things to a receptive audience, along with political figures making stump speeches. There was some substance to this concern. However, I reflected and discussed with others that we in Britain are about four years behind the equivalent US conservative space in its ideological development. On the American right, organisations like American Compass, are debating what kind of industrial policy to have, not whether one is needed. 

The first NatCon gathering in America in 2019 had similar divides on politics, economics, social policy, foreign policy and much else. Yet it is only through such gatherings of people with their ideas and beliefs that the right questions to ask can be arrived at, in order to chart a way to finding answers. By the second and third American conferences in 2021 and 2022, those speaking had coalesced. 

The statement of principles that arose from these events articulates a vision for government and politics, economics, culture and foreign policy that recognises the inevitability of the need for state power to achieve one’s goals, whilst trimming the state of bloat where possible. It is therefore much too early to yet write off a British version of NatCon entirely, as simply a Thatcher tribute act with added anti-wokeness. 

The panels and many plenaries were almost universal in their repudiation of zombie neoliberalism, its supporters now political parrots pining for the ideological fjords. Almost no one on these panels thought the problem was that neoliberalism had just not been tried properly, or that the solution was to recreate the 1980s in the 2020s. The talks and discussions on biopolitics, religion, national culture, foreign policy, history and the place of national conservatism in British life (on which I appeared) all lambasted thirteen years of Conservative party failure to act to conserve any of the subjects discussed. They even traced some of our current predicament to the calcified incoherencies of conservative yesteryear. 

Along with this divide over political economy, there was also an age divide. The younger speakers and attendees all seemed to know what time it is, as the Claremont Institute has it. Some of the older politicos often seemed stuck in a dead past, embodying Gustav Mahler’s view of unhealthy traditionalism as the worshipping of the cold ashes, rather than maintaining the warm flame with new fuel. 

Those who think we need to repeat the programme of the 1980s in the 2020s were, from what I observed, greeted by those in the younger age group with polite scepticism that produced dutiful applause, but more often an undercurrent of impatience. Many of the positive comments on my own talk came from students who wanted realism about our current socio-economic malaise, without fatalism concerning the way out. Pollyanna-ish optimism about markets and the material condition of Britain left them cold. 

The age-gap also speaks to a deep need for experience to guide the impetuosity of youth. Impatience and anger, if not channelled by prudence and wisdom, become recklessness which leads to destruction. I don’t know if there can be such guidance from one generation to the next, when the older generation is partly responsible for creating the very conditions that the younger delegates are reacting against. The longing for leadership is one that must be reciprocated if the vitality and urgency of youth is to be employed for noble, meaningful ends. 

It was in this light that, barring Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, many I spoke to felt justified in asking of the senior political figures: where have you been for over a decade, and why are you still not rectifying this now? What is the point of you, if you can’t use the power of your office and the state to achieve conservative ends — or mitigate that which cannot be solved?

Who cares about the implications of small matters like falling birthrates?

Dan Hitchens is nonetheless correct in noting that the presence of such political figures grounded the conference and prevented it drifting away into the Platonic clouds of idealist abstraction. Being reminded by the example of the politicos of the interplay between philosophical principle and political practice, and what happens when this fails, was salutary in itself. Whether the workaday nature of conservative politics evolves under the influence of the intellectual ferment at the conference, or whether this ferment is subsumed into the political blob of professional Toryism, remains to be seen. I have a feeling that such a thing won’t happen, given the deep scepticism of many towards those in political office.

These debates and divides were almost completely ignored by the media coverage, which seemed outraged that there were some social conservatives at a conference on conservatism. Do I agree with all the ideas expressed and arguments made? Of course not. The sacrifice of critical engagement in favour of a moralism from the hall monitors of the liberal Clerisy, however, the mirror of that which they damned attendees with, was deeply dispiriting. 

This is the first time I’ve experienced the media narrative versus the reality of the thing described, and it was surreal. This reflects an infantilisation of our politics, one where concepts are collapsed in service to political emotivism. Boundaries and borders between beliefs, ideas and people as such are lambasted as evil. The question is seemingly no longer where such lines should sit, but whether they should exist at all. It also seems that the ability to discern complex and distinct strains of thought, within a worldview that one may find distasteful, has disappeared. I should say this applies to the right as much as the left. 

The fact that deep, substantive subjects were discussed is seemingly of little importance. I mean, who cares about the questions and implications of such small matters like falling birthrates, what the human person even is in a world where our mammalian sex binary is in question, the oncoming reality of biotech that will remould the human being before our eyes, a chronic lack of housing, the interplay between the material conditions and moral means to the good life, what “the good” can even mean in a pluralist society, the concern over unprecedented mass immigration, the centrifugal potential of multiculturalism, the place of religion in a public life increasingly irreligious, the spiritual drive of the human condition offered false solace by the identitarian New Moral Order, the place of the living past in the lives of those in the present, how Britain should conduct itself in a world made more interconnected and claustrophobic by technology, how to approach a world undergoing economic deconvergence? 

All these matters are in desperate need of fresh insights and thinking, especially when both sides of the political spectrum seem so uninterested in any alternative. There hasn’t been a serious attempt at thought on the right since the intellectual ecosystem that grounded Thatcher’s ideas of government and economics. I sensed a yearning for something different and deeper amongst those listening. For myself, the questions of life regarding politics, economics, culture, norms and how we should live are all given greater salience by the fact of my genetic fragile skin condition. Far from making such matters irrelevant, it makes the quest for the right questions and finding the right path towards possible answers more urgent, not less. 

With this in mind, to have a future in Britain, I would submit that national conservatism would do well to ditch the moth-eaten caricature of Thatcherism and look backwards, to the conservatism of Disraeli and his Edwardian ideological successors as one source of inspiration. As Tom McTague argued, this tradition is both particular to Britain and a central part of our conservative tradition. If conservatism is the application of old ideas for new times, such a rediscovery and reappropriation of a past for the present would be both conservative and connected to the empirical facts on the ground. 

As with our nature as embodied souls, where essence and substance intertwine to comprise the human person, material and cultural factors are inseparable in the realm of politics and the composition of regimes. All the whining about woke will avail conservatives little if people are hungry and cold, with their country physically crumbling around them. People cannot live on anti-wokeness alone

Whilst the “elevation of the condition of the people” is essential, affirmation of principle is vital. Moreover, the questions of life regarding meaning and purpose must be engaged, as they were at NatCon. Questions like “Who am I”, “What is my Purpose” and “Where do I Come From all speak to the fact that the human condition seeks after a sense of home in a world we only inhabit for a brief span of years. Someday others will walk where we built a life. This cannot be sacrificed for an economism that has undergirded the prevailing and now failing Conservative Party ethic of consumption. 

The relationship between such matters have been under discussion and subject to debate on the American right for years now. If such an Anglicisation takes place in Britain, in the context of our cultural and political particularity, then this would indeed be something to celebrate. I hope that the conference represented the first, halting words on a new page. Such a future remains to be written. 

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