Who are the National Conservatives?

National Conservatism Conference diary: message discipline and hidden divisions

Artillery Row

National Conservatism, if people have heard of it at all, is regarded by many in the English-speaking press as an extremist ideology. In 2020, when the first conference was held in Rome, Daniel Kawczynski MP was furiously criticised by the press for appearing at a conference that also included Victor Orban. Resentment at the hostility of the Anglo-American media still lingered, and I heard from multiple people who felt their movement had been cynically misrepresented by a journalistic establishment that is ideologically hostile to nationalism, even when nationalism is wedded (as many speakers suggested) to civil liberties, democracy, and anti-racism.

One attendee I spoke to had this to say: “The dismissive and unfair portrayal of it [The National Conservatism Conference] in the British press is counterintuitive — leaders of many European countries come here simply to exchange ideas…If the British public will be constantly scared of the PC-brigade, then we will lose our identity forever. And we may lose our influence in Europe too.”

The most effective party conferences are often the least entertaining

There was, according to others I spoke to, a fear that the conference wouldn’t happen at all, with war waging in Ukraine. The conference organisers have hastily shifted their focus, with a panel on Ukraine kicking off the event, and Vsevolod Chentsov — Ukraine’s ambassador to the Netherlands — giving the first keynote of the conference. It’s easy to be overtaken by events, and in my own role as Online Editor of the Critic, I’ve been forced to give sudden and overwhelming focus to a story too big to ignore, but hard to find anything new to say about.

At least one speaker, and arguably the most controversial — Marion Marechal le Pen — appears to have dropped out at the last minute, disappearing from the speaker list days before the event. Also visible was a table of unclaimed guest badges and empty chairs at many of the talks.

One of the strange aspects to the conference thus far, and unlike (I believe) previous years, was the continual emphasis on NATO (whose headquarters are only 4 miles down the road). The second panel on the nation state, and the third focusing on responding to the threat of China, might have been pulled from any centre right event across the West.

In a heartfelt keynote address, Yoram Hazony, the Israeli guru of National Conservatism, pleaded for higher NATO spending, and a conscious uncoupling between China and the West, as well as implacable opposition to Russia. This was his theme and, it rather felt like, the line of every speaker before him for that matter. More interestingly he argued that it had always been the policy of the conference to exclude figures supportive of Russia and China’s regimes. But he said, sometimes they had “made mistakes”.

This line tacitly acknowledged that perhaps Russia’s role as the foe of National Conservatism was not always so obvious. Hungary and Orban quite obviously maintained an at least ambiguous relationship with Putin’s regime, and many on the nationalist right clearly regarded Putin as their champion against the socially liberal hegemony of Western Europe and America.

Atilla Demkó, a Hungarian security expert and former advisor to the government, struck a note of humility noting that, “I was absolutely wrong, most of us in Hungary were wrong…about what would happen in Ukraine.” There was a sense of a team that had rolled up ready to batter Western liberalism, only to be forced to pull its punches and focus instead on the threat of Russia.

As a place to air new ideas, I was so far left somewhat disappointed. Everyone was playing the usual hits, and debate between panellists wasn’t part of the format. Almost everyone there already knew each other, and there was a general sense that this was the unity conference; an opportunity to fly the flag and pitch National Conservatism as a solution in the face of Russian aggression.

The majority of the people I spoke to saw the Anglo-American speakers as an old guard

At this level at least, the event thus far has been a success. The most effective party conferences are often the least entertaining, with speakers relentlessly on message and the media narrative consequently reflecting the messages the politicians want to put out. Out in the crowd, I heard rumblings about the excesses of hostility to Russian culture (which frankly, I couldn’t disagree with, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky have thus far been cancelled in an orgy of Russophobic idiocy). But not a hint of sympathy for the Russian devil was evident on stage — the message couldn’t have been clearer if they’d burnt Putin in effigy.

But more than a cynical political machine, an actual shift feels like it’s at work — Eastern and Central Europe are mobilising behind a more united, militarised and economically independent Europe, and everyone is rallying to the NATO and EU flags. But here I found a legion of unvoiced divisions within National Conservatism.

Because just who are the National Conservatives? I asked this question a lot, and kept getting different, often contradictory answers. Everyone is agreed that they’re on the right, that the nation state is good, and that wokeness is bad. It’s a good start, but after that things get a bit complicated. Many of the Anglo-American speakers argued for Reaganite economics, classical liberalism and  new cold war against Russia and China.  They were also largely comprised of retired politicians, think tankers and journalists.

Meanwhile the massed ranks of Eastern and Central European speakers, as well as including academics and authors, were made up of senior, often still powerful figures in Croatia, Hungary, Albania, Poland, etc. Whilst Anglo speakers denounced the idea of an EU army and spoke about the priority of NATO, these politicians had far more measured critiques of the EU and warm words for it too: they clearly saw a role for the EU in National Conservatism, whilst the Atlanticists saw it as a threat to the nation state and NATO.

According to Brigadier Geoffrey Van Orden, who at one point got the Russians and the Soviets mixed up, the EU is an “artificial unity” and “the EU effect has been to weaken western capabilities and the NATO alliance”. Meanwhile, Judit Varga, Hungary’s glamourous Minister of Justice, said “I myself am a very devoted European” and suggested a more decentralised EU would represent “true unity in diversity”. And contrary to the paeans to the free market heard from the Anglos, she spoke with pride about the 5% of GDP spent in Hungary on family benefits.

I asked my fellow guests what they made of it — and I encountered a surprising consensus. Though I found some classical liberals milling about, the majority of the people I spoke to saw the Anglo-American speakers as an old guard; what had really drawn many of the younger guests I spoke to was a sense that in Eastern and Central Europe, especially Poland and Hungary, a different, non-liberal, model of modern statehood was taking shape.

Rod Dreher seemed to carry the hopeful heart of the movement

Especially in America, a growing section of the populist right see in Europe a form of conservatism they feel has been lost in America, where libertarianism has long dominated Republican politics. Though the Europeans all declared their support for NATO, you could sense the current of pragmatism. These were countries that had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Clearly they want to keep American military support in place, but they’re also keenly aware that 70 years ago their national sovereignty was signed away by Britain and America at Yalta and Potsdam. No doubt there were few other options, but one can easily see that they’re hedging their bets and keen to see European-based security frameworks, as well as resisting America’s cultural hegemony.

At one level you could see the realist alliance in play — a European East keeping the Western right sweet and in favour of the military and economic transfers they rely on. But something more idealistic is also clearly at work. A US right is recentring itself as an intellectually and culturally European project, and a European right is drawing on Western thinkers (one thinks of the Scruton Café in Budapest) to reconstruct their nationhood following the trauma of communism and amidst the chaos of global capitalism and liberalism.

The audience had swelled slightly, and more importantly, settled in to stay for the rest of the afternoon, for the final panel of the day, when the conference found religion: “The Future of Faith, Family & National Culture” and the plenary address by US journalist Rod Dreher.

Here one felt was what we had actually come to see.

Academic David Engels compared Europe’s situation with the fall of Rome, Croatian Catholic intellectual and politician Stephen Bartulica defended the “natural family”, and Dutch journalist Eva Vlaardingerbroek who denounced a “world without physical or moral borders” and the “globalist neoliberal elites” who run it.

Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest and founder of Christian anti-persecution charity Nasarean gave probably the most interesting talk, however, posing a question that I have often found myself asking, especially in my previous role covering religious freedom issues for the Tablet. Why does nobody seem to care about persecuted Christians? The answer he suggested was that we had “lost our roots”, that we are part of a “dysfunctional family” that has lost its identity. It was hard to disagree.

Rod Dreher seemed to carry the hopeful heart of the movement, saying: “I owe my Christian faith to Europe.” However he disagreed with Catholic integralism “it would corrupt the Church itself”, and pointed to Patriarch Kirill as “prostrate before Putin”. Rod focused on questions of faith, and spoke in the style of an American preacher, reflecting his native country’s rhetorical and religious traditions even as he spoke on behalf of Europe.

Rod Dreher addresses the National Conservatism conference

“Cultural Christianity is not enough…to defend and restore Christian civilisation” — amidst all the calls for the revival of Christian culture and civilisation, this was the most persuasive.

But still, as I reflected on all I had heard, and as heartening it was to hear the sort of call silenced in most modern forums, I could sense something missing. Everyone was furiously willing the end, but who was willing the means?

The National Conservatism Conference stands at the fascinating crux between academics and politicians, where idealism and transactionality mingle in unpredictable fashion. One Hungarian I spoke to described how when Jürgen Habermas spoke in Hungary philosophers and sociologists thronged the room, but when Roger Scruton came to town, it was politicians who made up the audience.

Is the National Conservatism a forum for debating and launching new ideas, or a kind of modern-day ideological party conference in which a show of strength is made? Having burst onto the scene in 2022, it strikes me as far too early to be engaging in displays of performative unity — this is a movement still seeking to define itself. Everyone’s worked out what they’re against, but they have some way to go to determining what they’re for. 

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

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

Critic magazine cover