To National Conservatism. Out of the station, past the flotsam of coronation, past the Itsu, past the knot of Steve Bray chouannerie at the door. I have never been protested before and did not take it well. I sulked over my complimentary flapjack. Protest me? Me – whom everyone loves so much? The hall itself was a giant circle, something that smacked ominously of the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, which debated the finer points of bicameral versus unicameral legislatures as the Prussian army battered in the door.
The comparison didn’t end there. Listening to many of the speeches, you would never have guessed that ‘National Conservatism’, or at least the impression of it, has been the only platform since 2005 to win a large parliamentary majority. As with the ’48ers, a very real popular mandate is ignored. Here as well is the retreat into abstract ideas, which have the distinct advantage of not requiring you to commit to anything.
National Conservatism has won a general election, but most of the speakers still wanted to drag everything back to its protean stage. We were not offered a manifesto, still less a plan of action – but a statement of first principles. The more anemic these were, the more the speaker would assure us that terrible punishment was about to be visited on them for daring to say it: “I can already hear the howls of rage from the Guardian when I say that Individuals rely on Institutions.” Not that yours truly wasn’t having some jitters of his own. During an intermission I clapped eyes for a pregnant moment with David Aaronovitch, who studied me with cool regard. Reader, I fled.
The emphasis was very much on these abstract ideas, and they came thick and fast. Most speakers had worked out a personal philosophy of their own, and spent the bulk of their remarks explaining it in precise detail. For some it was about Burke, for others it was about Disraeli, or Oakeshott, or Aquinas. For some it was all about robots, or Catholicism, or how most modern jobs are boring.
Like all pleasures, this kind of introspection is highly addictive. It’s a form of personal branding. But it is a substitute for politics. If you are fine-tuning whether you are a Macmillanite post-work Paternalist with a dash of Social Catholicism, or actually an anti-transhumanist Oxford Movement techno-Anglican with Jacobite characteristics, then you can safely ignore the boring tasks of popular platforms, coalitions, and organisation. Since what we have are dueling brands rather than dueling tactics or ideas, then others can be criticised on aesthetic grounds. These are the politics of a court, not a mass movement. They are perfectly suited to our post-democratic age, in which the quietism of personal philosophy has replaced collective effort in the real world.
A movement that gets lost in these historical, antiquarian, and abstract tidbits is not serious about exercising power. Take the Boris Johnson Government. It was elected to carry out a list of reforms: leave the European Union; control immigration; lower taxation; reduce the cost of energy. Immediately, there were the usual demands for big ideas, for a philosophy of Johnsonism. We all know the shibboleths that then took hold, and how the reforming potential of the Boris Government was wasted on the semantic disputes over them. Is it ‘Red Wall’ to lower taxes? Is it Burkean to privatise Channel 4? Is it pro-‘State Capacity’ to tame the civil service? Policies were seldom discussed on their own merits, but were instead checked against these deeply tedious political philosophies that no one had actually voted for. In politics, as in our own lives, the fantasy that identity determines action causes us to never take any kind of action at all. This idea of politics terminates in the person of Rory Stewart, who uses rhetoric identical to the National Conservatives as an apology for the status quo. The Supreme Court can’t be abolished, because that wouldn’t be ‘pro-institutions’, which all good conservatives surely are.
Those who want to capture power and use it will let the dead bury their dead, and put together a popular platform that offers to transform the lives of ordinary people. There were certainly twitches of this. Some of the speakers did lead with actual policies. From the audience, the biggest claps were for shale fracking and low immigration, not paeans to Aquinas.
To my mind, this was the real divide within National Conservatism – not, as the organisers seemed to insist, between Peelite free trade and Disraelian protection. Those who wanted to carry out the demagogic mandate of 2019 did an implicit battle against those who were content to keep it all as a kind of lifestyle choice. Chief among the latter was Tim Stanley, whose entire speech centered on a tweedy low Waughism, and its political implications. Tim “worried” that we had failed to remember that he was a Catholic, and that this had caused us to speak too harshly about illegal immigration. For his part, David Goodhardt informed us that the House of Windsor could be used to smooth over mass migration – I was unsure whether this was meant as a consolation or as a threat.
What struck me while listening to many of the speeches was how much less compelling this all was than the most pedestrian Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher’s liberal reforms made Britain rich enough to eventually leave the EU; the sole fruit of modern Burkeanism has been more public money to seedy foundations (aka the Big Society).
Later, during the eighth violent denunciation of the ‘seventeenth-century liberal subject’ I was struck by something else, something more elemental – even animalistic. This was a memory of the announcement by Boris Johnson in 2020 that the imperial pint of champagne, long banned, would come back. To me, this is worth more than all the writings of Michael Oakeshott. In itself it carries a radical aesthetic challenge to Blairite society. A lifestyle challenge. A culinary challenge. Phrases like these have the power to suggest a whole new way of life; this is what the people of Britain want, and this is what National Conservatism must try to offer. “Build the wall” was one. Here is another: Huge six-bedroom newbuilds in Lambeth for young professionals. Here’s another: liquidate the charities sector, the Church of England, the Quangos, and foreign aid, and disperse the assets among the people. Here are two more: abolish the Scottish and Welsh parliaments; cheap energy from oil and shale. (If you want young people to join, offer to let them carry out this program for you). Britain has a nascent movement for reform. It has already won an election. What it badly needs now is not a theoretical grounding, but its own ‘Bread, Peace, Land’.
Stop Press: For a robust expression of the ‘Peelite Free Trade’ wing of the National Conservatism movement, see this speech by Dan Hannan.