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Is “National Conservatism” a dead end for the Tories, or a sign of what is to come?

Rishi Sunak may be tempted by an ideology of muscular nationalism – but he would risk alienating British voters.

By Andrew Marr

The right doesn’t sleep. It fails, it goes back to basics; but it thinks again; keeps going. These days, it thinks harder than the left. It treats as trivial many things the left takes seriously – fairness, the climate emergency. Its characteristic tone is joshing. But about power it is always serious.

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This month we find an apparently new kid on the Westminster block. It calls itself “National Conservatism” and is holding a conference in London from 15 to 17 May. Its promotional film begins with a voice reassuring us that “Conservatives around the world look to Britain as an inspiration” over images of the late Elizabeth II and a military parade. But then the mood darkens. A policeman, confronted by a black protester, takes the knee. Union flags on Regent Street in London vanish to be replaced by – horror! – LGBTQ rainbows.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is moving at speed – but can he outpace the spectre of Boris Johnson?]

The Voice, no longer reassuring, says: “It’s as if we’ve forgotten what we really believe, and what the public voted for in the Brexit referendum.” (Voice? Wasn’t it – Brexit?) Apparently not. Confirmed speakers include Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Danny Kruger and virtually the entire editorial cast of GB News. The tone is of a defiant Tory revolt against, presumably, whatever bloody useless government’s been in power for the past 13 years.

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It’s easy to mock. And although the headline pitch would suggest that this is a deeply British conference for British Conservatives, a few seconds on the National Conservatism website reveals it is nothing of the kind. Videos promote the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, formerly a neo- or “post-” fascist, and the Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, alongside American books such as The Case for Christian Nationalism and No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men.

Liberal conservatives have noticed. One told me this week: “Listening to them, it feels like I’m inside The Handmaid’s Tale.” National Conservatism derives from the Washington DC-based Edmund Burke Foundation, set up in 2019. Its leading figures seem to be American Republicans, often with strong Israeli connections, such as Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute, and David Brog, formerly of Christians United for Israel. Its previous conferences have been mostly in the US.

So what is it actually for? What does “National Conservatism” mean? Well, above all, it seems, opposition to globalism – the rules-based order that seemed briefly dominant after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but which has been trashed by the rise of China and Putin’s war on Ukraine.

In the organisation’s own words, it’s a movement of people “who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing”.

Put to one side the oddity of an international institute dedicated to promoting “unique national traditions”, and you can see the beginnings of a movement to chime with these troubled times. In a period when war and pandemic, never mind potentially out-of-control AI, make national resilience more important and require a stronger state, market-led neoliberalism looks wildly out of date.

The nation state is back, resilience is back, and some Conservatives, noticing that, are walking backwards from globalism. There are obvious problems. The heavy lifting in rebuilding the US state is being done not by Republicans but by Joe Biden with his Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ $739bn investment in green industry and healthcare. Earlier this month the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said Labour would follow the Biden initiative. Both of the major UK parties are promising big new investment in green technology, but it’s not clear, philosophically, why the Tories would build a bigger state.

[See also: Rescuing conservatism]

National Conservatism also comes with a fiercely illiberal social agenda and tinges of authoritarianism that would – certainly, should – make many Tories quail. (Meanwhile, a recent Reform UK rally gathered under the banner of “Let’s Make Britain Great” and heard speeches about white pride and the traditional family.) Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been hosted by the National Conservatives, as has Tucker Carlson of Fox News. Is Rishi Sunak entirely happy with this new alliance?

In an essay for the New Statesman, “Could Sunak be the Tories’ new Pitt the Younger?”, Danny Kruger, Tory MP for Devizes, makes some good points – notably about the miserable effect of quantitative easing (QE) on the young, in hiking up asset prices; and the idle affection of British employers for cheap imported labour over trained-up local workers. But he puts human rights in inverted commas – why? He wants us to leave the European Convention and would like to abolish the Equality Act.

It’s true that a “hyper-liberal” rights agenda is being promoted, particularly through universities and some public institutions, in a way that puzzles and offends many voters. But both sides are becoming hysterical in a way that, in itself, is profoundly un-British. Ironically, the sharpest verbal policing and intolerance has largely been imported from the US. In Britain, much of what is denounced as “woke” is simply what, in a more diverse society, we used to call being polite.

We have a long and honourable tradition of reticence, of moderation in language and of trying not to offend our neighbours. But Brexit helped open up Britain to a self-divided and shrilly irate American atmosphere. Gove recently denounced it all as the latest iteration of Marxism; in fact, Britain is more Brooklyn than Bolshevik.

National Conservatism’s wider alliances should give liberal Tories in the cabinet pause for thought in other areas too: Orbán, Meloni and DeSantis are a long way from the British position on Ukraine.

National Conservatism, cloaked in traditionalism and religiosity, seeks to energise voters by persuading them that everything they secretly want has been stolen from them by anonymous, unpatriotic enemies within – including what Kruger calls “the druids of science”, or, as they are more generally known, “scientists”.

Tory strategists are naturally worried about angry voters to the right. But we don’t want Trumpism here. Actual Conservatives have been in control of this country for a very long time, and if they have, as Kruger says, “the widespread impression that nothing works”, then it isn’t the corduroy-suited non-binary lecturers who are to blame.

But turbulence on the right offers important lessons. First, the philosophical zest and avid desire to retain power on show should alarm social democrats. For where is the centre-left equivalent? The 18 months, or whatever it is, before a general election should be a time of bubbling intellectual debate about the structure and role of the state. On the left, I don’t see it.

National Conservatism gives one possible answer to the big question about Sunak, which is: where does he go next? What would he do with another term? But it also underlines the fracture in the modern right between the national populists and free-market globalists. In many ways Sunak embodies the latter – his spell at Goldman Sachs, his Stanford MBA, his time as a hedge fund manager. Isn’t that just what “National Conservatism” seeks to move on from?

Toryism is endlessly flexible and adaptable, which is why it has lasted so long. Rishi Sunak may be tempted by a turn towards muscular nationalism, particularly over migration – but that is taking quite a risk with middle-British voters. Big choices ahead: is this the first – very faint – sign of a split in the Tory family between National Conservatives and, say, Liberal Conservatives?

This article was originally published on 19 April, it has been repromoted ahead of the National Conservatism Conference.

[See also: How Labour lost the moral high ground]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats