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Artillery Row

The next Right

Making National Conservatism British

It’s time to be honest with each other — open kimono time, as I like to call it. The Tories are odds-on to be ousted from No.10 at the next election. 

If (when?) they return to opposition, there is likely to be a battle for the soul of the party — although given the latest MRP poll has them returning just 84 seats, it may only count as a skirmish. 

There are several wings set to fight it out. The first is a new “growth caucus” of 40 MPs who, unperturbed by the failure of Liz Truss, have formed the Conservative Growth Group and intend to keep pounding the drum for a bold growth strategy of tax cuts and deregulation. There will also be a faction that keeps the fires burning for Boris. Many believe that Johnson is simply the only person who can offer the Party electoral relevance again — although given the Big Dog is set to lose his seat, the fire may be reduced to little more than a pilot light. There will, as ever, be a strong caucus continuity Cameronism: One Nation Tories seeking a return to a sensible, pragmatic politics of the centre. Conventional consensus conservatism may be down, but it is not necessarily out. 

There will also be a newer strain of conservatism. For the first time, we may see voices arguing for something approaching National Conservatism

The problem is no longer ignorance. It is disdain

I count myself as part of this last grouping of conservatives, and I want to define it a little — and by doing so, argue for it. It requires definition because, of the three, it’s the newly emergent strain. It also requires definition because at the forefront of postliberal political thought are Americans like Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin and Chad Pecknold, authors of the Postliberal Order substack. 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. British postliberalism refers to an entirely different conservative tradition, however, and that tradition makes clear the need for a specific vision of Tory postliberalism (or National Conservatism, for ease of reference). 

The tradition of “One Nation” conservatism is strong, and postliberalism is often conflated with it — but the multiple flowerings of “One Nation” throughout the party’s history mean it is a label that is so broad and so overused it has largely lost its meaning. The post-war party used it to gird support for the developing postwar consensus, before it developed into something of an anti-Thatcher label, before being repackaged as the soft, modernising socially progressive liberalism of David Cameron. May and Johnson claimed it too. Can a political belief system possibly be so broad as to underpin Cameron, May and Johnson, but specific enough to be of use? Unlikely. Added to this is the fact that the term is already claimed. The One Nation Caucus that claims the mantle is still “freighted”, as Andrew Adonis writes, with “remainer centrism”.

The key foundational principles of One Nationism centre around paternalism, strong government and the preservation of personal freedoms. Whilst the original definition of one nation offers some relevance for National Conservatism in Britain — principally the notion of a national party and strong government — there are some striking differences. It is questionable whether the term is a good fit for the deep rethinking of both society and economy that postliberalism offers.

In Sybil, Disraeli wrote Britain’s social classes were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were … inhabitants of different planets”. That is no longer true. Thanks to the internet, we are now perhaps more knowledgeable about each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings than we have ever been. The problem is no longer ignorance. It is disdain. 

We can see this in the divisions over Brexit, Boris Johnson and even Lee Anderson. The erosion of public life and the atomisation of society has resulted in a world where we are able to “other” the belief systems of whole sections of society as hostile to our own, whilst preventing us from coming into contact with a sufficiency of alternative viewpoints to moderate or even soften that hostility. A particularly egregious case in point is the use of our institutions by the liberal progressives who dominate them as weapons, rather than upholding their value as institutions that command respect and attachment amongst all.

The challenge for postliberals is not to battle ignorance. It is to rebuild a framework of an ordered, cohesive society in which a plurality of paths of meaning may be followed.

Disraeli’s vision also gave the ruling class an obligation to look out for the lower classes to provide social stability which, it was hoped, would stop revolutionary consciousness amongst the working classes and ensure greater societal stability. 

Part of Britain’s problem is still, certainly, that a clique of elites is now ruling in its own favour, in opposition to the wishes and views of the vast majority. Still, too, that this is causing social friction. Disraelian One Nationism was very much elite-led, however, and that is largely antithetical to the postliberal viewpoint. Postliberals see the progressive liberal consensus, which has guided the politics of the ruling elite, as a source of much of society’s ills. As I’ve written before, “The ‘anywhere’ domination of our politics should end, but it should end by the injection of more ‘somewheres’.”

Globalisation throws another spanner in the works of paternalistic policy. How can we demand a paternalistic interest in Britain and her citizens from an economic elite that is almost entirely international? The economic elites of Disraeli’s time were men like John Cadbury and Titus Salt; can we expect the same sense of duty and moral obligation from Mondelez International that we did from Cadbury?

One Nation Conservatism also had a strong emphasis on individual rights. The individual rights asserted in Disraeli’s vision were significantly more essential — and had less cost to the rest of society — than the individual rights progressive ideology is seeking to advance today, however. Disraeli faced questions around the rights of workers to strike, to not work above ten hours a day and whether workers and employers should be equal before the law. We are asked, after years of Nick Timothy’s “ultra-liberal ratchet”, whether poor people should be able to kill themselves because they are poor.

A purely redistributive state is not the politics of the common good

If there is inspiration to be found in One Nation, perhaps it is best found in the words of Disraeli’s successor as Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury. He handily redefined the nation in One Nation to mean uniting the Kingdom rather than the classes, arguing in 1883 that: “the great characteristic of this country is that it is a free country, and by a free country I mean a country where people are allowed, so long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they like.” Although Tory postliberals might rather use the word neighbourhood, there is inspiration to be found in Salisbury’s emphasis on the importance of individual freedoms within a stable social framework.

National Conservatism’s grounding in postliberalism means it’s susceptible to significantly less conservative schools of thought, too. There’s a growing trend for postliberals to be labelled as Red Tories, and for Red Tories to label themselves postliberals. Red Toryism (and by extension blue Labourism) is a fusion, as the name subtly implies, of a redistributive left-wing economic agenda with a more authoritarian right-wing social agenda. As Gladden Pappin writes, this is the result of the largely left-wing origins of British postliberal thought so far:

The UK also developed its own critiques of liberalism from the Anglican theologian John Milbank, the philosopher John Gray, Lord Maurice Glasman (who founded Blue Labour) and Adrian Pabst. British postliberalism tends to be a left-wing phenomenon, couching its goals in the terms of Christian socialism.

Postliberal thought does not — and for National Conservatism, cannot — mandate socialism. Whilst I have characterised the market as some kind of monster, it remains the fact that Britain and her people are now more wealthy than any before them (except boomers, obviously). The market is still a magnificent force for enrichment. National Conservatism recognises it as a great force for wealth creation, without supporting market fundamentalism. It places higher importance on non-economic values like family, community, meaning and fairness.

The redistributive nature of a left-wing economic programme is a poor fit for National Conservatism. A purely redistributive state is not the politics of the common good: handouts can never restore pride or dignity to those who receive them. What is required is a far more fundamental reorientation of economic policy than reallocating ever increasing amounts from those who enjoy the benefits of globalisation to those who bear the costs. 

Postliberals recognise that what begins as an economic efficiency often ends in social catastrophe. A strong, interventionist government is needed to play a preventative, rather than just palliative role. That’s because they recognise the moral evil inherent in social breakdown, heeding Thomas More’s words in Utopia:

For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.

Finally, the fact that the Red Tory label implies a fusion — and continuation — of the existing political consensus means it simply doesn’t have the scope to represent postliberal thought in a meaningful way. Postliberals do not advocate a more culturally conservative or economically interventionist agenda as a cut-and-shut way to deliver what is popular. Their aim is a radical redefinition of the current consensus of politics away from the pursuit of personal liberty as the sole aim of politics and the restoration of the idea of the “common good”, to which people owe rights and duties that extend beyond those which are arbitrated — like tax — by the state.

National Conservatism speaks to many of the concerns of the right and to many in society more widely. It offers an ideologically coherent explanation for the 2019 electorate and a platform to build similar super majorities going forward. Perhaps, we whisper in quiet corners, it might even provide a platform for a Conservative government to enact conservative legislation. If it slides into repackaged One Nationism, or falls to the left-wing tendencies of existing British postliberal thought, my fear is that it will end up as little more than another mile marker on our unchanging course, a forlorn hope conservatives once had that they could “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”.

One of the biggest problems for National Conservatives — and one that, if we’re to avoid that fate, must be overcome — is that we don’t have a locus of thought. American postliberal thought has been nurtured and fostered by bringing “varied strands — theology, political theory, political economy and law … together and crystallized into a number of projects”.

Only when a similar ecosystem is established can National Conservatism be stretched, strained and shit tested 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. There’s hope that the National Conservatism Conference, organised by Yoram Hazony and James Orr, might spark something — likewise, Nick Timothy and Gavin Rice’s new venture on “the future of conservatism” at Onward.

Tory postliberalism cannot be used as an excuse for wet to be wet, nor can it be used to meet left wing aims. National Conservatism can provide an ideologically coherent, deeply conservative answer to many of the systemic problems we face in the years ahead: a stronger nation state, a more cohesive polity, a landscape of value for every life. It cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

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