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Artillery Row

Why I am a Liberal National Conservative

Neutrality and balance have not yet been tried

Next week I will be addressing the sold-out National Conservative conference in London. There have been a spate of alarmist pieces suggesting that the conference is “promoting the cause of the traditional religious right” or a Powellite front for the illiberal democracy of Viktor Orban.

We reject the postliberal idea that individual rights are part of the problem

There’s no question that NatCon conferences have encompassed a broad array of speakers who disagree as much as they agree. The movement’s statement of principles has been influenced by the more religious context of American conservatism and the views of Israeli-American movement founder Yoram Hazony. These principles include many sound ideas, such as the importance of family and national sovereignty, and scepticism of mass immigration. Many of these principles are not a demand for maximalism, but for rebalancing the current left-liberal dispensation. The one element that sticks in the throat of a classical liberal is the idea of “God and public religion”.

My view is that the majority of speakers and delegates to the conference are, like myself, liberal national conservatives. We reject the postliberal idea that liberal procedures, such as individual rights and the separation of church and state, are part of the problem. Whilst Hazony endorses the American constitution, other postliberals such as Patrick Deneen or Adrian Vermeule trace our problems to its Lockean liberal underpinnings. Hazony calls for school prayer and the public endorsement of religion, which cuts against post-1945 judicial interpretations of Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation”. 

This also skates over the fact that national conservatism is not just a riposte to neoconservatism and market fundamentalism, but to the failed religious right of the 80s and 90s, with its fixation on abortion bans and evolution. Trump, not Cruz, won the 2016 Republican primary.

Liberal national conservatives defend what Isaiah Berlin calls negative liberty, but we also endorse moderate versions of positive liberty such as the importance of individual autonomy, reason and self-expression. Whilst endorsing the Christopher Lasch-Daniel Bell claim that individualism has bled into antinomian narcissism, we would not wish to see the pendulum swing back toward a conformist communitarianism. Instead, it should be possible to express individuality as well as national community. Communitarians argue that we realise our authentic selves not merely through Cartesian introspection but through attachment to collective identities — it should be possible to strike a balance between the two. A liberal national conservatism rejects contemporary left-liberal biases against those who attach to religion and majority ethnicity, but it does not seek to use the state to push those identities.

In 2001, as a young academic specialising in the study of nationalism, I received an unsolicited review copy of a book called The Jewish State by an author I had never heard of, named Yoram Hazony. I nearly ignored it, but a quick skim convinced me it was worth the investment. It is striking that my reaction to Hazony in 2001 is similar to my positive but mixed view of his important recent works, The Virtue of Nationalism and Conservatism: a Rediscovery. In my 2002 review for an academic journal, I wrote: “Like myself, many readers in the Anglo-Saxon world will find Hazony’s ultra-Zionist stance disturbing — especially in the wake of the recent tragic events … But Hazony’s nationalism has focused scholarly attention on the woefully neglected hegemonic social force of our times: cosmopolitanism.”

Children should learn about the excesses of Stalinism alongside those of Nazism

In subsequent correspondence with Hazony, I discovered that he has been indirectly influenced by my late doctoral supervisor Anthony Smith, whose friend and colleague, Clemson University professor Steven Grosby, helped shape Hazony’s thinking on nationalism. In the nationalism studies world, Smith and Grosby hold, as I do, that nations are not purely modern constructs, but are built on pre-modern ethno-historical foundations. Against anti-Zionist contemporaries (and co-ethnics) such as Ernest Gellner or Eric Hobsbawm, Smith and Grosby defended the existence of Israel. The postliberal call for a religious-national state arguably goes beyond this, reflecting the views of religious Zionists rather than Israel’s secular Zionist founders.

None of this means we should throw the national conservative baby out with the bathwater. Where Hazony and other postliberals say neutrality and balance are not possible, and we should replace the woke religious dispensation in public life with a Judeo-Christian public religiosity, I aver that neutrality and balance have not yet been tried. Conservative politicians and pressure groups have barely begun to use the liberal democratic and legal tools at their disposal to defeat cultural socialist coercion in schools, corporations and the public sector.

This is beginning to change. Ron DeSantis’ bans on critical race and gender theory in schools are the beginning of an attempt to push the religion of cultural socialism out of the classroom. Moves to defund Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in universities and public bodies are another. Much tougher enforcement of political neutrality and non-discrimination is required in government, and laws preventing firms from discriminating against employees for their political views need fleshing out in courts and legislatures. 

In many cases, depoliticisation and neutrality are appropriate. In others, such as school curricula, museums and public holidays, balance should be the goal. The democratically-favoured equilibrium is one that celebrates a positive vision of the nation whilst accepting national sins. This means replacing the “Britain is racist” and decolonization dogmas with contextualization, swapping today’s insular progressivism for a world-historical perspective. Children should learn about the excesses of utopianism (read: Mao, Stalin) alongside those of Nazism or the Confederacy. They should hear as much about indigenous slavery and inter-tribal genocide as they do about the sins of white settlers. Mughal, Aztec or Ashanti imperialism should inform any discussion of British imperialism. Conservatism needs to win these battles against the educational establishment.

National conservatives should work to make the moderate expression of majority identities and preferences as acceptable as the expression of minority ones. Empathy for those who wish to immigrate should be balanced with sympathy for those for whom — because of their attachments and temperament — immigration brings a profound sense of loss. Western elites must reflect more on Ulf Hannerz’s idea that there can be “no cosmopolitans without locals”.

Ultimately, the conservative coalition of tomorrow needs to bridge the concerns of liberals who fear for free speech, due process and objective truth with those of conservatives who seek to rebuild what Robert Putnam terms society’s “bridging” and “bonding” social capital.

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