Meet the National Conservatives – a new political movement whose aim is to reassert the nation state and national independence in the face of liberal globalism. The NatCons, who are holding their UK conference in London this month, seek to achieve a post-liberal break with what they call fusionism: the Reaganite and Thatcherite blend of social conservatism with economic liberalism. While helping to defeat the Soviet Communist bloc, this fusion has failed to stop 40 years of centre-right collusion with progressive politics.
As the NatCons’ Israeli-American founder, Yoram Hazony, writes in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, “To the extent that Anglo-American conservatism has become confused with liberalism, it has, for just this reason, become incapable of conserving anything at all. Indeed, in our day, conservatives have largely become bystanders, gaping in astonishment as the consuming fire of cultural revolution destroys everything in its path.”
To prevail in the “culture wars”, which they blame entirely on the radical left, the NatCons promise to renew the Anglo-American conservative tradition supposedly founded on religion, nationalism and economic growth.
But to instrumentalise religious faith as a justification for nationalism or the free market defies belief. The Bible neither views the nation state as part of the created order nor does it treat nations as ethnically and politically bounded. This is because nations in the biblical sense, as the theologian John Milbank has argued, are rather loose linguistic, tribal groupings with complex overlaps, and the nation state is a late medieval, early modern invention.
State protection of religious liberty or of individual property is also absent from any traditional understanding of faith. The policing of people within strict territorial borders belongs entirely to the modern era, as does the free market unmoored from public ethical practices – think Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and Adam Smith’s invisible hand governing an amoral market.
[See also: Could Sunak be the Tories’ new Pitt the Younger?]
The irony is that the NatCon appeal to limited government is consistent with an overbearing state because of its unqualified support for private property and economic injustice. In common with the centre right and the insurgent populist right, the NatCons are wedded to the secular power of the market-state. Since the market exceeds the boundaries of the nation state, it turns out that national conservatism is more like international liberalism.
Indeed, the NatCons and their cheerleaders such as Lord Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg argue that it is the lack of market freedom that has triggered social fragmentation. In common with liberal conservatives, as Frost and Rees-Mogg wrote in the Telegraph, they “see no contradiction between a policy of free markets and free trade, which is the best way to generate growth, and one of rebuilding Britain as an independent nation proud of its historic and cultural inheritance, promoting freedom and resisting authoritarianism”.
This is but a return to the fusionism of Reagan and Thatcher that the NatCons purport to transcend.
Added to this is the contradictory assertion that Anglo-American values of liberty are universal yet only exemplified by the US and modern Britain. This version of conservatism is but exceptionalism dressed up as respect for national traditions. Universal Christian notions of friendship and fraternity, as outlined by Pope Francis in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, are simply absent.
Individual liberty, disconnected from self-restraint and mutual obligation (not mentioned much at all by the NatCons), slides into unfreedom – even tyranny – because unfettered freedom favours the strong over the weak, the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over those without a voice. For all their protestations, the NatCons’ defence of liberty licences both social Darwinism and state policing of the ensuing anarchy. In short, NatCon thinking is a curious blend of economic liberalism and social authoritarianism – with identity politics also in the mix – masquerading as a return to conservative roots.
National Conservatism has a fundamental identity crisis. One day it wants to be anti-liberal, the next day it is ultra-liberal. Only one thing is clear: it is anything but post-liberal.
Is “National Conservatism” a dead end for the Tories, or a sign of what is to come?