Why National Conservatism Could Herald Future of UK Politics
LONDON—The latest National Conservatism conference, held May 15-17 here, may end up being a pivotal moment in British politics.
The convention, sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation and called the NatCon U.K. Conference this year, has become a significant gathering place for American conservatives since the organization launched its first major event in 2019.
Among the many speakers at the conference held in The Emmanuel Centre were Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg; U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; journalist and author Mary Harrington; and education reformer Katharine Birbalsingh.
Notably, the conference took place nine days after the coronation of King Charles III. Though American conservatives largely ignored the royal event—1776 and all that—it did unleash a wave of patriotism in the United Kingdom.
However, despite the good feelings produced by Charles’ coronation, many in the U.K. have a sense that the sun is setting on the country they once knew and loved.
One conference attendee told me how his parents and grandparents loved the popular post-World War II song “There’ll Always Be an England.” He said that, given the current trajectory, he and many others in younger generations believe that England as we’ve known it soon will not exist.
NatCon U.K. addressed the cultural revolution taking place throughout the West, as well as the fundamental question of national survival.
The general message from speakers was that Western countries—through a mix of mass migration, declining birthrates, and institutions that fail to pass along traditional political and religious values—will be reduced, at best, to economic zones rather than the distinct national polities they once were. In addition, the national conservatives seek to shape conservatism itself to ensure that policy means align with positive societal ends.
Protesters outside the National Conservativism conference held up signs denouncing Tories, the Conservative Party of the U.K., to which Rees-Mogg belongs.
But the speakers inside were hardly a pro-Tory bunch. In fact, many criticized the party harshly. It’s notable given that, although Tories are currently in power, their grip on national politics is fading and they likely face defeat in upcoming elections.
Here are four major themes from NatCon U.K., which could be a harbinger of what’s to come in British conservative politics.
Tories Don’t Represent UK’s Average Conservative Voter
A major theme of the conference was that Britain’s Conservative Party fails to offer voters a ruling alternative to the Left.
Instead of addressing the most critical issues facing the country, speakers typically said, the party offers a bland, timid form of fiscal conservatism at best while punting on cultural issues that are essential to putting the country on the right track.
“Why are so many people in Britain today so utterly disillusioned and despondent with the state of the country?” asked Matthew Goodwin, co-author of “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” and a scholar at the University of Kent. “Why do so many of us walk around with a palpable sense that something has gone fundamentally wrong?”
Goodwin said that millions of citizens don’t believe that either major party truly speaks for them. On the Right, he said, there was a party that ushered in economic liberalism, and on the Left there was a party that ushered in cultural liberalism.
The result has been a revolution, Goodwin said, in which Britain had been reshaped around “a bewildering and narrow liberal consensus” that’s actually shared by only “20% of the country.”
The values of this political transformation reflected the values of the new, “narcissistic elite,” Goodwin said, and it shows almost no interest in the values of the majority.
He said this new class is defined by three things: a destabilizing, hyperglobalist economic model that prioritizes big business and the “urban graduate class” over the whole society; mass, uncontrolled immigration that has contributed to cultural disintegration; and a hollowing out of national democracy and self-government.
What’s happening now is a counterrevolution, Goodwin said, where a political realignment is taking place to oppose the “broken” consensus.
Nation-State Remains Bulwark Against Tyranny
One of the primary concerns of national conservatives is preserving the idea that nationalism, properly understood, is beneficial to people around the globe. This extends from the thesis of National Conservatism Chairman Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book “The Virtue of Nationalism.”
“There is still a belief in Britain that [in] coming to this room and joining with these people that it will be possible to gain clarity, a clear vision of what has been lost and what can be gained,” Hazony said in his remarks.
The liberal insistence on putting the individual at the center of everything over the last half-century has been a complete failure for Western countries, he said.
Speakers frequently referred to how the nation-state would be the locus of revival in the face of homogenized, globalized institutions that suppressed traditional morality and religion. In the United Kingdom, the Brexit vote in 2016—in which the U.K was set to formally leave the European Union in 2020—was a hallmark event in the process of revitalizing national institutions.
“We have to take the nation and put it back at the center,” Hazony said. “There’s been a movement in Britain in the last few years to do just this; it began with Brexit, the idea of national independence.”
One American speaker, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, celebrated Brexit as an important step in fortifying the idea of what he called “one-nation conservatism.” (The Daily Signal is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation).
“Like the election of Donald Trump in the United States that same year, Brexit lifted the hopes and expanded the horizons of a more nationalist conservatism across the West,” Roberts said.
Roberts elaborated that the “institution of the nation is the source and reservoir of the power globalists need to achieve their goals, and one of the most resistant to elite capture.”
However, Heritage’s president said, Brexit alone wouldn’t create the national revival that many seek.
Instead, Roberts said, a “reimagined governing agenda” is essential to saving “democracy, the rule of law, free speech, religious devotion, marriage and family, ordered liberty, property rights, and yes, the real free market” from obliteration by the globalized elite.
Spiritual War, Not Just Culture War
Another emphasis of NatCon U.K. was the insistence that national revival can’t take place without some kind of genuine religious revival.
Sebastian Morello, a senior editor at the journal European Conservative, said in his remarks that we haven’t addressed wokeness properly.
What we face in the West, Morello said, isn’t just a culture war, but a “spiritual” war. Wokeness is fulfilling a religious need, he said, and the zeal of its adherents is an attempt to give people a common sense of community.
“We need to recognize that ‘woke’ is an expression of a very deep and actually very noble religious need, which has been neglected and abused in contemporary British society,” Morello said. “The zeal observed amongst today’s progressives marks a deeply religious attempt to provide a rapidly fragmenting community with a sense of common purpose; the trouble is, it’s failing to do so.”
A void of meaning has created fanatical ideological zealotry among many of the youngest Westerners is what Morello and others concluded.
James Orr, an associate professor of the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity, said that ignoring the spiritual nature of man in Western societies has led us to the poison of a new, perverse, pseudoreligion.
“That’s why in the wake of Christianity’s accelerating collapse today we are witnessing right across the West today a new public faith emerging, one that dominates every news cycle, that’s colonizing the public square, expunging from it every trace of conventional religious commitment,” Orr said.
The advance of this fanatical new quasi-religion won’t abate, he said, and that’s why national conservatives insist that a society’s primary religion should be recognized and nourished, and not simply “pushed off to the edges of the public square.”
It’s the best defense against the new “progressive theocracy,” Orr concluded.
Countering Leftist Zeal of Envy and Resentment, Conservatives Offer Love, Gratitude, Aspiration
In his keynote address, British author and commentator Douglas Murray explained that the Left has many advantages over the right, such as tapping into envy and resentment.
But perhaps most powerfully of all, Murray said, the Left has “struggle,” a possible reference to George Orwell, “where the meaning of life is answered.”
“We have the struggle for equity, equality, social justice,” Murray said. And if you don’t agree with these ends, the Left will continue to “chant the same banalities endlessly, as though repetition might persuade you.”
Murray suggested that although conservatives are in some sense more divided on what they’re conserving, they still have three traits to counter with.
“The first is love,” Murray said. “Perhaps the only answer that exists to envy; love of country, of family, of the people around you, love of the culture that has produced you, of the tradition and inheritance you’ve been born into.”
The next most important attribute to conservatives is the importance of gratitude, Murray said.
“Gratitude, not just for the things you’ve been given, but also some kind of peace with the things you haven’t been given, a recognition that you cannot have everything in this life,” he said.
Finally, Murray said, conservatives have the advantage of “aspiration.”
That is, he said, the ability to tell young people that “if they work hard they will get something better than they could have expected; that they will be rewarded for their labor; that they will not live a worse life than their parents, but if they work hard will be suitably rewarded and have a better life than their parents.”