Who are the British national conservatives?

The Tory right tried to sell the free market to a sceptical populist audience

Artillery Row

In a great British city a colourful collection of acts, often absurd but somehow lovable, perform in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience from across Europe. Eurovision? No, that was Liverpool on Sunday, today saw a very different gathering — the National Conservative Conference in London. 

Instead of Graham Norton, Nat Con had its own cheerful host — political philosopher Yoram Hazony, Israeli-American advocate for nationalism in the 21st century, smiling down at all the fans, and telling us that “people around the world look to Britain with hope”. 

Nat Con also had its very own Hannah Waddingham — blond conservative heroine Miriam Cates MP. She wasn’t dancing with avant-garde Austrian singers, but she was bringing the same sort of unflappable show biz cheerfulness to the issue of falling birth-rates to a surprisingly chipper audience at 9am on a Monday. 

One thing, I should add, by way of disclaimer. Last time I covered a National Conservative conference, in Brussels 2022, I was a spectator — this time, like a contestant on Takeshi’s Castle, I’m in front of the cameras, getting knocked into the water on live TV. Yes I’m speaking! On the magnificently named panel “God and Country”. It’s a title so sabre-rattling and swashbuckling that it should be roared out by rowdy Napoleonic war officers, not garlanding talks by such gentle souls as Rod Dreher, Father Benedict Kiely, Sebastian Morello, and uh…me. No spoilers — but I’ll be roaring away on Wednesday afternoon.

Nat Con is serving conservative red meat alongside reheated Thatcherism

It’s easy to poke fun — and, like beggar prophets throwing themselves at the feet of Julius Caesar on the way to the Senate, there were plenty of absurd figures thronging the Apennine way to the Emmanuel Centre. Megaphone in hand and top hat on head there was the inevitable Steve Bray shouting “fascist!” at befuddled guests. There was a plaintive “journalist” trying to get vox pops for “Politics Joe” (think left-wing Guido Fawkes but with videos). Beware the Ides of May?

Any yet, and yet. Miriam was talking about children and families. About the future. What are all those sensible respectable mainstream politicians across the road in parliament talking about? Labour’s housing policy is a council tax freeze, raising stamp duty and more loans for first time buyers. The Tories are busy promising to prop up pensions no matter what. 

Here was Yoram Hazony pointing out that “you cannot walk out of a university with a few years of abstract economic theory about Hayek and say what is good for British economics for all time”. Here is Cates laying out the terrible plight of the British young, the frustrated desires of young men and women for families, jobs, homes. 

No wonder perhaps that there was a sea of young faces alongside the old, watching intently, and enthusiastically receiving Hazony’s speech. As I wrote in this month’s Critic, in much of Europe, this sort of rhetoric and ideology is increasingly a young man’s game, driven by fresh-faced, professional activists in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Poland and beyond. 

Young people were continually centred, Yoram speaking powerfully of “miserable young teenagers”, “wretched, miserable young people confused and without direction”. But “here in this hall we gather together the people who are beginning to say ‘actually we’ve had enough of this…I want to have meaning and purpose again’”. 

Perhaps National Conservatism isn’t going to set fire to British politics today. But who can answer for tomorrow, or the day after? Who else is saying this? Who is even debating these topics, rather than ignoring them? 

Yoram’s message of carrying forth national legacies, of men taking up national service, women looking on childbearing as an honourable calling, may horrify and scandalise more liberal members of the British commentariat. But in Hazony’s own Israel this perspective is now dominant, with massive majorities of young Israelis voting for the country’s nationalist right, pushing for a still more uncompromising nationalism. 

The message resonated — but does it all make sense? Next up was Jacob Rees-Mogg — a speech briefly enlivened when a man stormed to the stage to seize the microphone and suggest that though “I’m sure you’re very nice people, let me tell you some of the characteristics of fascism”. Jacob is used to this, and suggested that he should found his own “loony” conference and see who wants to come to it. 

That Koch Brothers agenda was given a very big platform today

Mogg, curiously enough was here to denounce the unity of Christendom, taking pot shots at the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V — he certainly likes to keep things current. All supranational organisations are doomed to failure we are told — just look at Charlemagne. This you see is why we “needed to leave the EU” as the “English nation state” is ancient and organic. Where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (two of whom voted Remain) fit into the picture we never hear, nor for that matter Britain’s own empire, which Mogg regularly praises.  

Miram Cates was selling Tory populism, but suggested, soggily, that strong families might give us a smaller state. But what, if not the state is going to support those families? We don’t find that out either. Yoram speaks of British civilisation and protectionism, then Mogg rears up on his hind legs to defend the Whig view of history, and bashes “social democracy”. 

Brexit had “reinvigorated the nation state”, we are told, though quite how doesn’t ever quite come up. It’s like baptism — nothing visible changes, but our national soul is saved. Since Boris “got Brexit done”, incidentally, net migration has hit one million. 

Nat Con is serving conservative red meat alongside reheated Thatcherism — and it’s unclear the mix really works. Everyone is agreed on social conservatism, but what economic conservatism might be nobody can quite decide. The notion, that in the midst of national and global economic crisis, that economics can be simply bracketed so we can all band together on trans issues is simply not plausible. 

Miriam and Yoram both stress controlling migration, but how does Mogg’s free trading, free market agenda fit into the picture? The connection between a fluid global labour market and falling wages is a problem for the Left that wants to restrict the market, but not migration, but it is equally a problem for the right, which wishes to restrict migration, but not the market. 

There’s furious denunciation and ridicule being heaped on National Conservatism by the Left online. But as I watched NatCon unfold, and listened to the first panel of the day, an idea that had been building finally took shape: this was half a conversation. Where is the Left on any of these questions? Mary Harrington, Alex Kaschuta, Ed West and Louise Perry got up, one after the other, to challenge our “biopolitical age”. This is the language of the Foucault and Agamben (post-modern Marxism, in Jordan Peterson-speak). 

Knowing what a biological woman is and opposing open borders do not add up to a political movement, or a winning electoral strategy

But the mainstream Left, much like the mainstream Right, is still in love with libertarian individualism, and it is only on the dissident right that there’s a platform where it gets seriously challenged. The Guardian’s deputy political editor covering the event, Peter Walker, notes the focus on fertility by comparing it to “Viktor Orbán and Georgia Meloni”. If you’re on the Left you’re not allowed to care about the West’s plummeting fertility, unless, of course, you use them as a justification for further migration. When people have fewer children than they wish, and declining economic hopes for the future, how is mass movement anything other than a neoliberal answer; what Bernie Sanders rightly labelled as a “Koch Brothers agenda”? 

But that Koch Brothers agenda was given a very big platform today. Not one Conservative British politician thus far was able to offer anything that would have been out of place at a Tory Party Conference. Brexit, culture wars, and conservatism as an aspirational free market philosophy was the subject of Braverman’s speech. “Where you begin doesn’t matter” is an odd philosophy for a conference supposed to be devoted to tradition and rooted identities. How did her call for “venerating tradition” pay out in policy terms? We aren’t told. 

Suella praised the “elasticity” of the Conservative Party — “We seek to adapt our principles”. Meanwhile the Left “browbeats and castigates in moral terms anyone who disagrees”. We also discover that “free market conservatism is not the enemy of national conservatism”, but “conservatism must not abandon people to the power of market forces”. So we need a “prudent balance”. Elasticity indeed — this is pretty much political contortionism. Is a total lack of principle really a recommendation? If this is National Conservatism, I’m a liberal leftie. 

The sun came out when Danny Kruger MP took to the stage, the only Tory who had anything of worth to say about the economy. A former Cameron speechwriter, he was straightforward about the failures of austerity, and he was also the only Conservative speaker who seemed to realise that his party had been in power for 13 years.  He denounced Britain’s shattered industry, hollowed-out local government, and low-wage service-dominated economy. It was a message, one felt, that the previous speakers were desperately in need of hearing. “Marx was right” he told us, about bourgeois capitalism. “John Gray was right” about Thatcher. I nearly started cheering. “Conservatism is not a philosophy of liberation” — sorry Suella. It was this sort of message, not Jacob’s or Suella’s, which won the 2019 election, but you’d never have known it from the previous speakers.  

When I last reported on National Conservatism, I saw European conservative politicians pushing back against libertarian capitalism. Their culture war denunciations of “woke” were linked to an entire account of nationalism that was economic as well as social, in which borders might be raised against capital as well as labour. They were able to tell a compelling story, even if one didn’t agree with its conclusion. But yet again the British right, even in this venue here today, showed itself a mass of individuals, not a governing force. Knowing what a biological woman is and opposing open borders do not add up to a political movement, or a winning electoral strategy.  

Theodore Dalyrmple (a Critic contributor) rounded off the afternoon, giving a marvellous talk on the insanity of British public life which featured Hume tower, lazy councils and hapless plods. The room tellingly, remained packed for this talk, rather than the normal post-politician evacuation. One line, “this madness was presided over by our Conservative government” roused furious applause from the audience. The crowd at the conference is surprisingly young, full of right-wing students, and there’s an undercurrent of frustration and anger with the right wing establishment. Dissident political energy in Britain post Corbyn and Brexit has largely gone untapped, and is locked out of our political system. Tory politicians want to treat that fractious current as a stream to be tapped at their convenience, for their short-term electoral ends. If what I saw today is any indication, it’s an approach that’s stopped working.

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