An event took place in London this week. You might have heard about it in the news or read about it on Twitter. It was called ‘NatCon’ and people got excited about it.
You would, however, be forgiven for wondering, from the rather hysterical media coverage of the ‘National Conservatism Conference UK 2023’, a) what all the fuss was about; b) what on earth ‘national conservatism’ is; and c) why the conference was taking place. To be perfectly frank, having attended most of the event and enjoyed listening to many of the speakers, I was left none the wiser with respect to these questions myself. But I can perhaps at least shed some light on what I hope I will be forgiven for calling the semiotics of NatCon and the reaction to it – which I think are significant.
Before getting to that, some comments on the substance of the conference itself would be helpful – as most people reading this article will I suspect have drawn the conclusion from media coverage that all manner of outlandish and controversial things were said. In fact, I will have to disappoint you. It would be unfair to the speakers, many of whom were excellent, to say that I’d heard it all before, but to anyone who pays attention to right-wing media commentary on either side of the Atlantic, it was in large part rather familiar stuff. Conservatives, we learned, need to build more houses. They need to fight against wokeism with “facts and truth”. They need to be worried about demography. They need to be prouder of Britain’s history. They need to do more to support the nuclear family. They need to have a youth policy or something like it. They need to manage immigration better. They need to sort out universities. We know all this (and to be honest a lot of Labour MPs would agree with chunks of it, too). So that’s the ‘what was all the fuss about?’ question covered: mountains, molehills, etc.
Where things got interesting, and where something like a debate seemed to be emerging, was on the question of what ‘national conservatism’ really is and whether it is even a useful concept in the British context. Here, there was one major cleavage in evidence: whether being a national conservative means embracing free market capitalism or One Nation Toryism of the paternalist, interventionist stripe. Is capitalism a good thing that increases prosperity and opportunity and means people need the state less since they can look after themselves? Or is it a dangerous thing that reduces us all to a swarm-like borg of alienated, atomised worker-cum-consumer drones lacking culture, family or community?
This is a genuinely vexed question and the speakers had very mixed views. Dan Hannan and Lord Frost argued the former position; Matt Goodwin, Melanie Phillips and Juliet Samuel the latter. But the audience seemed to my eye in any case to have made up its mind: Thatcherism is dead as an intellectual force, irrespective of its merits. The big cheers in the auditorium were for Disraeli, not Hayek. (I was astonished to find myself, at a conference billing itself as being about ‘national conservatism’, hearing Philip Pilkington giving a straight-up Marxian critique of consumer capitalism and its effects on the family, and being roundly applauded for doing so. How things have moved on from Thatcher producing The Constitution of Liberty from her handbag and saying: “This is what we believe.”)
The future of the conservative movement in Britain, then, seems to lie in the big state, for good or ill. Is this, then, what ‘national conservatism’ means? Reheated One Nation Toryism, emphasising intervention in the economy, family, community, and national togetherness and belonging? Tim Stanley and Melanie Phillips, who were among the most impressive speakers I saw, seemed to think so. Nigel Biggar and David Starkey, both also (predictably) good value, supported this reading in their own ways – emphasising the importance of historical narratives in binding a national community together. Seems like it would be politically palatable to a big section of the population, but one wonders what the concept of national conservatism really adds to that old recipe. It sounds rather like what the Tory Party stood for when Harold Macmillan was in charge. I’ve nothing against that, but he didn’t need a concept of ‘national conservatism’ to do any heavy intellectual lifting.
And things get more puzzling when we reflect that Britain has never accurately been described as being a nation – it’s four of them – and that in the modern day devolution has created serious and intractable divisions which it is hard, on its face, to see being mended. Scotland in particular feels like a foreign country to the English visitor now in a way that it never used to before devolution (and I speak as the son of a lad from Paisley). It’s easy to see why the concept of national conservatism works for Hungarians and Israelis, and to a certain degree Americans too – and there were plenty of representatives of all three nationalities at the conference. For the British, I’m just not convinced, and I’m not sure many of the speakers were, either.
So much for what national conservatism is all about, then – still very much open to interpretation. The final of my initial three questions was why the conference was taking place at all. And here, if I am being scrupulously honest, I’m not sure. I am an academic and I know what academic conferences are for (at their best): presenting experimental ideas and getting interesting feedback from an engaged audience. This simply wasn’t the format of NatCon – it mostly consisted of speeches with a little bit of time for Q&As here and there. There was no cutting-edge intellectual agenda being formulated. (I was at times reminded of Ted Honderich’s old complaint that conservatives “make a virtue of not even trying” to explicate anything like a proper political philosophy. We could have heard about Aristotle, MacIntyre, Plato, Strauss, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Girard, and so on, and what they might have had to say about our current predicament – put in an accessible way. We didn’t.)
Yet nor did we get what one would I think have encountered at a lefty equivalent – i.e., lots of break-out sessions and discussion groups and hashing out of tactics that attendees could take away and put into effect in their workplaces or universities. There was no real activism on display. If anything, the mood was more like that of a support group – an opportunity for like-minded people (broadly united by the one really deep-rooted common thread: a hatred of wokeism) to vent and reassure themselves that they were not alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not sure what value was being added in practical terms.
It seemed in other words to be an event that hasn’t quite found its feet or worked out what it wants to be. I mean this by way of constructive criticism from an uninvolved well-wisher spectating from the sidelines: it needs to figure this out quickly if it is to do anything constructive.
On, though, to the major issue, which I earlier, inexcusably, labelled the ‘semiotics’. Here, again, I should emphasise that any critical comments I make are intended in good faith. But I think this was where the real significance of the event lay – and the signals being sent were in many regards undesirable.
First, it is undoubtedly true that there was a huge difference between the event that actually took place this week and the event that Guardian and New Statesman journalists imagined was happening. There are big sections of the chattering classes in this country who have simply convinced themselves that the word ‘conservative’ is synonymous with ‘fascist’ and that the word ‘national’ is synonymous with ‘racist’, and that any event describing itself as being about ‘national conservatism’ is QED illegitimate. NatCon had a kind of symbolic value in revealing this to be so – that nobody even bothers pretending to approach these subjects with an open mind anymore. Indeed, it now seems to be the case that the very notion of a group of conservatives getting together to discuss ideas is somehow dangerous per se: the gang of protestors relentlessly disrupting proceedings outside the conference certainly seemed to think so.
But by goodness we (if I can use that word) don’t help ourselves, and it is worth reflecting on the kind of messages that are sent – usually unconsciously – by body language, vocabulary, mood, and approach. While attending the sessions at NatCon, I found myself again and again returning to the question of what I would make of all of this if I was David Aaranovitch (who I spotted, to his great credit, paying attention more or less throughout). And I think – not wishing to put words in his mouth – that I would have found the mood to be two things: a little bit sneering and a little bit insecure.
The sneeriness first. It would be wrong to say there was no humour in evidence at NatCon. It was thin on the ground, but it was there. But there was almost none of the likeable, self-deprecating kind of humour that tends to get an initially dubious audience onside. Instead, I heard a lot of jokes at other people’s expense – usually, let’s face it, about ‘the woke’ and their inconsistencies. I get it: wokeness is incoherent. But a lot of people sincerely do believe in a woke-ish form of social justice, and an awful lot of people already have in their head an image of Tories as smug, self-entitled, snooty and sinister. Does a hall full of ‘national conservatives’ sniggering with derision about the idiocy of social justice warriors, then, send the right kind of signal, or does it rather confirm the image that most normal people have in their heads when it comes to conservatives already? And does it make it more, or less, likely that the average person will uncritically accept the mainstream narrative about NatCon – that is all a bunch of closet racists getting together to plot against social justice?
This matters. Non-conservatives have a network of images in their minds about what ‘conservatism’ really means – i.e., greed, snobbery, discrimination and fustiness. And here I think I should say, trying again to be scrupulously honest, that Douglas Murray’s widely-shared speech struck the wrong kind of tone in emphasising the left’s politics of ‘resentment’ (while standing on a podium in the Natural History Museum beneath a giant skeleton of a blue whale, let’s not forget). Not only do I think that the politics of resentment line is simply wrong (the great problem that the left faces is – as we encounter time and again – a hypertrophied sense of compassion rather than resentment); it just confirms everybody in their pre-existing view that Tories look down on poor people and think of them as envious. We have to get serious about whether we want more political polarisation rather than less. I would much rather there was less, and I think indeed that conservatism – which prizes, after all, national cohesion and shared common ground – ought to be fighting harder for that.
But what I also think David Aaranovitch would have reflected upon is how insecure everybody sounded. Conservatives (rightly, in many cases) feel themselves almost to be under siege culturally and think of themselves as witnesses to a slide into civilisational oblivion. But one doesn’t win converts to a cause by exhibiting a siege mentality, and one really doesn’t win converts by presenting oneself as the passive observer of decline. NatCon was characterised too often by what a centrist or leftwing observer would describe as whingeing from the sidelines about the state of the world. That’s weak and unattractive (even if I often indulge in the temptation myself).
This problem can partly be rectified by trying to get ahead of the game in addressing the genuinely catastrophic problems which are unfolding before our eyes. That requires a proper intellectual agenda, to hark back to a point I made earlier. But it also requires an awareness of what conservatives look like to outsiders, how they comport themselves, the vocabulary they use, and the tenor of their conversations. NatCon had, I’m afraid, a bit of a tin ear when it came to those matters. Quite a few speakers (Nigel Biggar spoke very movingly) mentioned that conservatism is fundamentally about love – of family, of locality, of community, and of country. I agree. But the overall mood being projected was not a particularly loving one.
However, there was another sense in which the conference had a kind of semiotic significance. This was the message it sent about conservatism beginning to get serious again.
Conservatism, it is important to remember, is not an ideology like Marxism, fascism or liberalism. It is, rather, a reflexive opposition to change which is too rapid. This means that its fortunes wax and wane in direct proportion to how rapidly change is taking place. Conservatism was born in the crucible of the French Revolution – the historical example par excellence – and has been at its strongest at other periods of great unsettlement, like in the middle of the 19th Century, the beginning of the Cold War, and in the 1970s and 80s as the social consequences of the 1960s began to play out.
For a long time – roughly between 1991 and 2016 – political consensus was strong and one could kid oneself into thinking that whoever held political power wouldn’t really change a great deal. Now, it is beginning to seem that it matters very much indeed – that, in fact, the most fundamental questions of all (whether women are women, whether national borders should exist or not, whether the nuclear family is good or evil, whether men are intrinsically ‘toxic’, what a human being is, whether there is such a thing as the human soul, whether there should be an age of consent) are at stake and that almost nothing is off the table. It is a time of profoundly disturbing and destabilising change, in other words. And it seems that, as one would expect in such circumstances, conservatism is just beginning to flex its muscles in response.
In this respect, the event was a fascinating one to attend. On the one hand conservatives seem to be sensing that they need to actually get off their backsides and win back political and cultural influence. And on the other, the left seems to have noticed. This, above all, explains the bizarrely histrionic nature of the media’s response to NatCon. If the political establishment felt secure, a few hundred ‘national conservatives’ getting together in London to hobnob would be ignored as a bunch of cranks. That they weren’t indicates in turn that the Establishment itself has figured out there might – just might – be a fight on. This may be the most important set of messages that the conference and the reaction to it sent – that a braver and more determined brand of conservatism is emerging and that the ‘new elites’ really don’t like it. Early days, but it seems on this evidence that things are going to get interesting.
My own gut instinct is that while the Conservative Party hasn’t quite grasped all of this yet, history suggests that it will reinvent itself in order to do so. The Tories basically exist to win elections – that is the parliamentary party’s only real ideology – and a mixture of economic nationalism and social conservatism would be I think a pathway to doing so, irrespective of whether I would personally find it appealing. This probably means that we’re in for a lot more culture war and, frankly, a worse economy. The general mood amongst attendees at NatCon was one of ‘intense relaxation’ about that. My own feeling is that, unfashionable as it might appear, we need to remind ourselves that, as Ryan Bourne recently put it, “When you stray from limiting the state’s role to clear and unambiguous necessities, you create the tools for your opponents’ mischief.” But that ship seems to have sailed.
Dr. David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.
Stop Press: In CapX, William Atkinson has written a mixed but largely positive report about the National Conservatism conference.
Stop Press 2: Lord Frost writing in the Telegraph says the Tories should embrace National Conservatism.
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