National Conservativism Overseas

Yoram Hazony’s National Conservatism movement just hosted its seventh conference since 2019. In 2023, as in 2019, it meets in London. That year Boris Johnson became Tory leader and PM after an astonishing electoral victory. Brexit would finally happen and English freedom would be restored. Today, Johnson is ruined politically and the Tories are getting ready to be wiped out at the next election. Thus, the theme of the conference: What happened to English conservatism?

American conservatives could learn from this shocking example of political failure, because the desire to free the UK from the EU is a noble one, and requires for its success things that American conservatives are also striving towards. First, an understanding of nationalism, the articulation of the principles, duties, and hierarchies that make a political community able to triumph against the decadence we call globalization. Next, a political movement to connect elites and public institutions to the public by speaking persuasively about national character, without which nationalism is merely a delusion. Finally, the testing of politicians and other public figures through the speeches and other things that go on at a conference like this, with a view to discovering who will lead the nation.

Leaders and aspiring figures looking to speak for the public were not lacking. The conservative politicians speaking included current and former secretaries like Suella Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Michael Gove and a number of MPs. Yet the Conservative Party is still busy treating national conservatism as a nuisance to avoid. In 2020, a Tory MP was reprimanded by his party for attending the National Conservatism Conference in Rome, because Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán spoke there. Apparently, the democratically-elected leaders of allied European nations are intolerable in certain circumstances.

Something of this rejection of national conservatism lingers, despite the attendance of important politicians: a spokesman for PM Sunak was asked by a reporter whether he agrees with Danny Kruger MP’s statement at NatCon that “The normative family, the mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children, is the only basis for a safe and functioning society.” He said no. If not the family, what are British Conservatives trying to conserve? Quite a number of the speakers returned the favor by criticizing Thatcher and the market liberalism of the Tories, who have also refused to attack Blair’s social democracy in the last 13 years.

Even before Kruger spoke up, the family, birth, mothers, babies, and life were the explicit theme of the first day of NatCon. To begin with, Miriam Cates MP talked about the need for babies as the most urgent and in a way most important problem for British society. Demographic decline means both that there is less to conserve, when it comes to the way of life, and that there is less of the desire to conserve it. Then a panel of speakers including rising Twitter celebrities and authors Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, and Alex Kaschuta talked about being mothers and the various dangers facing conservatism as a family-oriented understanding of community and happiness, from trans-humanist technological aspirations to the woke of Progressive denial of the obvious differences between men and women.

Natalism as a theme also brought out the usual distinction between the intellectuals or journalists, who say controversial things, criticize, and draw attention to urgent concerns, and the politicians, who speak cautiously, reassuring the audience about the soundness of British principles and habits, and yet call the public to act in this difficult moment—neither the economy nor anything else is a cause of confidence, much less pride. The difficulty politicians face is obviously that the Tories have been governing Britain for 13 years now and the result is a confusion and unhappiness that makes it implausible to think of formulating or enacting any family policy. Conservatism has failed to govern the Conservative Party, let alone the nation. They change leaders in the most alarming way, none of whom seem to be governing. The party accordingly seems impotent to deal with most things that scare people, from crime and illegal immigration to woke or transgender education. 

I was surprised that most of the speakers made little or nothing of the recent events of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III. Without policy accomplishments, there is still this important ground of politics, the English nation, and it was left unspoken. Yet these moments of national unity, of sudden and unabashed expressions of public feeling without any contemplation of opposition, disagreement, partisanship or other quarrels would seem to be the most convincing evidence for the conservative claim that England has both historical continuity, lending it ancient dignity, and the beating heart of a nation now alive to those things which are not easily articulated, but which suggest to us the fundamental predicament and providence of human life in this world.

Most of the speakers at NatCon, with the approval of the audience, primarily identified globalization as the enemy or at least the crisis facing England. The conference as a whole, however, does not seem to look for agreement on what the alternative is or insight into how to achieve an alternative vision.

The explicit theme of the second day of NatCon was the failure of conservatism in England in this century. Though there was broad agreement at the conference in favor of Brexit, from enthusiasm to mere acquiescence, there was much to lament or politely ignore otherwise. Sociologist Matt Goodwin gave the most forceful, persuasive, and political speech about the failures of conservatism to conserve the English nation, especially the working classes, despite the Tory victory in 2019, based on a promise to govern with a view to the public good, not the preferences of a narrow London-centered elite. Henry George continued that line of argument moving from surveys and demographics to loftier political arguments, with an impassioned diagnosis of the abandonment of sound principle by the Tories for the sake of pragmatism, which really has amounted to surrendering to that narrow elite and thus betraying the electorate.

Other speeches were much more cautious about stating this problem. Emblematic of them was the opening speech of the day, by the man who organized the conference through the Edmund Burke Foundation, James Orr. His title, Faith, family, flag, and freedom, called for the defense of the shared loves and likes that makeup community in the conservative view, which are now under severe attack in Britain, as in America. With English charm and rare confidence, Orr nevertheless avoided the problem that the conservatives in Britain in the Conservative Party or otherwise, have neither governed nor addressed the public about the matters dear to his heart. It was as though the last decade or two hadn’t happened.

All of these reservations follow from my feeling that there is something indeed noble in attempting to raise the flag of nationalism and of conservatism in Britain today, to thus remind people of the need for self-government and the respect and dignity to which a free people are entitled. The best way to express the oddity of the event is that the American Israeli organizer, Yoram Hazony, was the only man to speak openly in praise of England and remind the audience of the greatness and moderation of modern politics.

I was also surprised in this regard of addressing the English nation on the need for conservatism. I could not say in what way or with what intentions any of the speakers spoke to the young conservatives or the youth of Britain more broadly, except the pro-natalism stance. Nor did the conference address the issues that most interest or afflict the young. It is therefore difficult to say whether the polished speeches and the public-spirited speakers will have the success they richly deserve, whether they will be heard and found persuasive.

National conservatism as a movement is therefore still in a difficult position. On the one hand, it is trying to achieve a new fusionism—in England, as in America, quite a number of the intellectual and political factions on the right were represented. Thus, conservatism could achieve coherence and unity, the trust and familiarity required for common action, despite ideological differences. On the other hand, it is trying to prove effective at bringing politicians and intellectuals to the attention of the public, offering some help in a political situation in which conservatives do not have the media, educational, and even political institutions they need if they are to become the majority party. The one goal concerns the self-knowledge of conservatives, the other the education of the public, and it is doubtful that they can be pursued at the same time, since they focus inward and outward respectively.

Most of the major problems English conservatives are facing are also problems for American conservatives. We have a shared sense of being under attack by revolutionary forces which, though they lack coherence, do not lack for enthusiasm or resources. We have not only common enemies like woke activists or Progressive ideologues promoting censorship, mob, or ritual humiliation instead of political debate. But also common difficulties in speaking to the nation over the insults of the elite institutions and in recruiting the kind of talented public-spirited figures who could offer solutions to the problems intellectuals point out while restoring public confidence in the way the politicians would like to see happen.

Most of the speakers at NatCon, with the approval of the audience, primarily identified globalization as the enemy or at least the crisis facing England. The conference as a whole, however, does not seem to look for agreement on what the alternative is or insight into how to achieve an alternative vision. Instead, it seems structured to state and articulate the severity of the conservative predicament, an awareness led by hope that fellowship and friendly debate will inspire leaders to appear who can face this political moment. It is both an attempt to influence politics at an elite level and a call to those who would want to act and lead in the future.