On the sixth of May, Charles III was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. His sister and two brothers, their spouses, and their children looked on, as did his wife, his heir and his heir’s wife, their three young children, and his other son, whose wife and two children remained at home in America. This family has suffered its troubles and dysfunctions, but it does not fail to multiply and regenerate.
Nine days after the coronation, in a convention center no more than five minutes’ walk from the great west door of the abbey, the National Conservatism Conference came to London for the first time. And unexpectedly, regeneration stole the show.
NatCon U.K., sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation, was in many ways a big tent, but it came with a bold and singular proclamation: “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 unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”
So allow me to set the scene. The staging of the speeches had a drama of its own. The main auditorium at the Emmanuel Centre, which seats up to 1000 people—and which was often close to full over the course of three packed days—is completely circular and supported by twenty-four pairs of marble columns, under a huge glass dome. Rather than gingerly mounting steps from the auditorium floor to the platform, speakers emerged through a door of polished English oak at the rear, often to the accompaniment of a booming voice exhorting delegates to “Please, welcome to the stage . . .” A kind of hybrid of old-fashioned oratory and rock’n’roll was concocted. NatCon became the talk of the town.
There were protesters outside and heated invective online. Inside the hall, two high-profile speeches were disrupted by counter-speeches from the floor and in one case an incursion onto the platform. The well-spoken objecters suffered a slow-motion removal and on things went.
In the first plenary session of the conference, Miriam Cates, a Conservative member of parliament from the industrial north of England, strode out from behind the rear door and declared,
I don’t care if you’re a Red Tory, a communitarian, a follower of Burke, or, heaven forbid, a libertarian free marketeer. None of these traditions has a future, none of our philosophical musings or policy proposals will amount to anything long-lasting unless we address the one overarching threat to British conservatism, and indeed the whole of Western society. No, it’s not climate change. It’s not Russia or China or Iran. It’s not the neo-Marxist ideology that has so weakened our institutions. It’s not inflation or taxation or poor productivity. No. There is one critical outcome that liberal individualism has completely failed to deliver and that is babies.
From that point onward, the question of babies never went away for very long. Cates spoke in terms not of population decline, but of population collapse. She directed our attention north-eastwards to Finland—a nation, she said, with possibly the most generous and high-quality childcare provisions in the world, “a perfect place to start a family.” Yet the birth rate in Finland is one of the lowest in the world: 1.3 children per woman and falling.
Something is seriously awry. In practical terms, our societies run on a certain rough ratio of working-age adults to retired people. Almost all modern social and economic theory and policy has been formed in and for conditions of population growth. We are therefore heading into largely uncharted territory. And of course, as Cates pointed out, pace the conference proclamation : “If you want to be a national conservative, you need a nation to conserve.”
For much of the rest of NatCon U.K., it felt like everyone present, speakers and delegates, was engaged in completing the jigsaw that Miriam Cates had started. Some of the puzzle pieces were stamped with statistics: a 10 percent increase in house prices correlating with a 1.3 percent decline in the birth rate; only 3 percent of the world’s population living in a country where the fertility rate is not declining. The Windsors are trend buckers.
Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, amplified Cates’s alarm call:
We look at stagnant growth and we blame government mismanagement. We look at recruitment problems in the care sector and we blame the work-shy young. We look at lengthening hospital waiting lists and we blame chronic under-investment. We look at inter-ethnic conflict and we blame a failure of assimilation efforts. Very few people piece all of these political problems together and recognize that they are in fact the same problem. Put bluntly, there are not enough babies being born and the sticking plaster of mass migration is not going to hold for much longer. This is the most urgent political problem of our times and almost no one is talking about it.
Several speakers, Perry included, dug into the deeper causes of what she called the “sterility meme.” More than one found the problem to be not truly economic, but spiritual. People who don’t want to have children were not blamed or pilloried; but, away from the integrity of individual decision-making, the numbers tell their own story. Strong birth trends are an expression of hope and optimism, but secular times are anxious times, it seems. People give up on posterity. As Mary Harrington warned the conference-goers, unfettered bio-mastery, designed to ease us further down this road, is nearly upon us.
I thought I heard the final piece of the jigsaw snap into place toward the end of day two. Philip Pilkington, a macroeconomist and investment professional, was not beating about the bush. Capitalism needs babies and stable families to function. They provide it with reliable producers and consumers. But the perfect consumer is an addict; and so is the perfect producer, addicted to work. Consumption and production addicts are ideal for maximizing profits, which is what capitalism exists to do, but they will not make time to form and raise families. This poses a serious problem to capitalism, yet capitalism cannot solve it because it is not self-aware. Pilkington’s conclusion was that capitalism would eat itself, or rather, it is eating itself and the birth rate is the evidence.
Pilkington’s talk linked the natalist question to one of the other great themes thrown up by the conference: the proper balance between free trade and state intervention in markets and market effects, a topic that ended up in a stand-off rather than a resolution. Possible responses to the challenges were seeded here and there throughout the conference.
Assembling and absorbing these responses is work for another day. But an agenda was unquestionably set at NatCon U.K.: Western societies need to find the will to regenerate before the sun sets on them for good.
John Duggan writes from Surrey, England.
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Image by Wikimedia Commons on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.