The country is going to the dogs. That is the message from the National Conservatism conference and there is a long list of people to blame.
People who do not have children. Unmarried people or married gay people who have children. (Not to mention people who think gay people should be allowed to get married.) Unassimilated immigrants. The godless. The cosmopolitans and the metropolitans. The free traders and globalists. Enthusiasts for the financial services and tech sectors. City-dwellers. The south-east of England. The managerial classes. The university graduates. People who don’t tweet using their real name or fail to change their child’s school to one that is less woke (yes, really).
The liberal elite, obviously, but that includes the Conservative government. The so-called Conservative government, that is. There really isn’t anything Conservative about it, is there? That is why the country is going to the dogs.
It is tempting to linger over some of the confusions and contradictions in the various pronouncements at the conference. We need to reduce immigration because immigrants place too great a pressure on public services and housing. But we also need women to give birth to more children. Presumably, these will not be children who will be born in hospitals, attend schools and live in houses.
We need more British people to work so we need fewer immigrants. But we certainly should not be funding childcare support to help mothers enter the labour market. In fact, we are not that keen on mothers entering the labour market at all.
Collective guilt for acts done by others with whom we share a characteristic is absurd. Collective pride for acts done by others with whom we share a characteristic is central to our sense of self.
Government should stop telling people what to do (surely the Covid lockdown was in breach of the Magna Carta?) although when it comes to some matters we want the state to act like Gilead (I paraphrase).
The tone is pinched and narrow and disapproving but, above all, rather foreign (to use a phrase that might be understood by its contributors). It feels like an agenda for a different country or a different time. And that, of course, is what it is.
[See also: The Tories are falling into incoherence]
The event was sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a US-based organisation. For an anti-internationalist organisation, it is very internationalist in nature, bringing together like-minded nationalists from many countries and holding conferences in many locations. But the money and the ideology is essentially American, with an emphasis on faith, family and the flag. At least we were spared advocacy of gun rights.
The past is a foreign country and the NatCon conference felt at times like an event from an earlier generation. As far as I spotted, there were no complaints about the dismemberment of the British empire, men with long hair and the Beatles receiving MBEs, but someone did have a go at John Lennon. (I am not one to defend Lennon’s personality or politics but he has been dead for 43 years. Shouldn’t their bogeymen be a bit more contemporary and relevant? Someone like Roy Jenkins.)
It all sounded very angry. Angry with lots of people but especially the liberal left woke elite who are so polarising and divisive (a point made repeatedly in various polarising and divisive speeches).
As a political project, the anger with so many people is a problem. If the NatCons don’t like somebody, the chances are that the somebody in question will not like the NatCons. It is not unreasonable to interpret the hatred of modern Britain as meaning the hatred of modern Britons. Otherwise known as “the electorate”.
To take one example, Danny Kruger called for the Conservative Party not to retreat to the south-east. On the basis of the local election results, the Tories are retreating from the south-east, not retreating to it. My view is that the Blue Wall is on the verge of crumbling not collapsing at the next election, but much more of this explicit hostility and the Conservatives will be reduced to rubble across much of the Home Counties and Thames Valley.
One can, of course, overstate the power of the NatCons. They are not about to eject Rishi Sunak from Downing Street and most Tory MPs would steer well clear of any association with them (what Michael Gove was doing there is beyond me). Sunak has to pay the right plenty of attention and he is naturally more socially conservative than his predecessors. But he is not by temperament or manner a natural NatCon. NatCons evidently disapprove of him.
The importance of the conference is about what it tells us of the potential future of the Conservative Party. There is nothing inevitable here but it is a perfectly plausible – even likely – scenario that Sunak loses the next election, resigns and in the ensuing leadership election MPs allow a candidate to go forward – presumably Suella Braverman – who has an agenda very similar to that which we have heard this week. My confidence that the Conservative Party members would reject this nonsense is not overwhelming.
Not that long ago, the agenda of the NatCons belonged in minor parties and the fringes of the Tories. It has become more mainstream, but is still principally an internal challenge to the leadership. It is conceivable that post-election it may fully capture the Conservative Party. This week, we may have seen the Conservative future and it does not work.
[See also: Death rattle conservatism]