If you look around you,” one glum questioner remarked in the first Q and A, “this isn’t exactly a young crowd.” But his comment must have been pre-prepared, because he was wrong. Instead one was struck, at the inaugural London National Conservatism conference, held May 15–17, by the number of under-thirties: a third of the attendees, according to the organizers, which gave it an energy often lacking from right-wing gatherings. Here, too, were wise old heads like Theodore Dalrymple, and distinguished academics like Eric Kaufmann, and bestselling authors like Douglas Murray, and public intellectuals like Louise Perry, and a few clerical collars, and some of the most senior politicians in the country. The tickets were sold out. You had to fight your way through to the coffee urns. The drinks flowed, the air hummed. The thing felt alive. But what did it all add up to?
A few of us suspected that the NatCon banner concealed some irreconcilable differences, and we came out of the first morning session on Monday grinning smugly. First Yoram Hazony, NatCon’s founding father, pointedly observed that Britain had owed its economic dominance to “300 years of protectionism,” dating back to Henry VII’s support for the wool trade, and that there was no reason to write off such policies today. In the very next speech, MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Thatcherite to his marrow, repudiated protectionism: “If we open our markets . . . prices will fall.” So, are they free-trade true believers or aren’t they, the National Conservatives? I seemed to hear, as in a dream, the words of R. H. Tawney: “In all societies where capitalism has taken root, the divisions which it creates are so profound and far-reaching that all other movements . . . must either come to terms with the existing economic order or attack it: they cannot remain neutral.”
In the break, as I compared notes with friends, a sharp-witted political analyst came over to join us. “So is there a place for libertarians in—” I began.
“No,” the analyst cut me off with a face like flint.
Despite the evident divisions, I was nurturing a grand theory of National Conservatism. As I searched the venue for a coffee urn that hadn’t been drained dry, I found a man on a similar quest: Danny Kruger, MP for Devizes. “My thesis is that this is the anti-‘Imagine’ coalition,” I said as we descended to the basement, empty paper cups in hand. “As in John Lennon. Everyone here cringes at ‘Imagine.’”
“Oh yes,” he said. “I’m actually covering that in my speech.”
And he did, inveighing against Lennon’s “dystopian fantasy” of no countries and no religion. Kruger is one of those mysterious examples, still never fully explained or investigated, of a serious political thinker who has managed to break into the House of Commons. His speech was eloquent on the tendency of Thatcherism to “eat itself,” consuming the social institutions on which a functioning market depends; on human nature—“We are related before we are alone”—and on the basic unit of society: “The normative family, held together by marriage, by mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children and the sake of their own parents and for the sake of themselves: this is the only possible basis for a safe and successful society.”
(The political establishment, of course, regarded this as a shocking sentiment. The next day the prime minister distanced himself from such outrageous comments, and the following day the deputy leader of the Labour opposition sneered at the John Lennon line.)
Kruger is critical of the Tories of 2010–19: They presided, he said, over the hollowing-out of local government and the continuation of a “butler economy” over-reliant on financial services, while failing to check the “new religion” that mixes “Marxism, narcissism and paganism.” Another internal Tory critic among the speakers was the excellent MP Miriam Cates, who last week revealed that she wept at a government policy designed to nudge mothers into the workplace and children into nurseries.
In fact, apart from the two actual cabinet ministers, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who spoke at the event, it was hard to find anyone with a good word to say about the Conservatives. At the drinks party on Tuesday evening, you kept hearing the same joke. “Those protesters outside with banners saying ‘The Tories must be stopped’ . . . I don’t think they realize that’s largely what the speakers are saying, too.”
Yes, the event included several standard-issue Conservatives, with their gospel of free markets, of the alleged power of “aspiration” and “hard work” to guarantee anyone a decent life, and of undogmatic flexibility on everything else. But it also featured quite a few subversives who have concluded that this kind of Toryism is, at best, progressivism in slow motion. Maybe they needed each other. Without the standard-issue Conservatives, some of them well-known political celebrities, the event might have felt nerdy and unworldly. Without the subversives, it might have felt intellectually moribund.
(The press, of course, did not notice this crucial division. Instead, they were exercised by the use of the word “globalist”—a term “closely associated with the far right,” according to the Guardian—by Kevin Roberts of the Heritage Foundation.)
On Monday night we dined in the spectacular surroundings of the Natural History Museum, where an eighty-foot whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling: an exhibit with considerable symbolic value to Conservatives, being a large blue creature narrowly saved from extinction by a few determined idealists. We were addressed by Douglas Murray, perhaps the most gifted public speaker at the conference. A fierce polemicist against the contemporary left, Murray’s invective remains fresh partly because he recognizes that English is a language of understatement.
The contemporary left, of course, does not recognize this, and for forty-eight hours after the speech, Twitter was filled with denunciations of Murray because he referred to Germany as having “mucked up” in the first half of the twentieth century. This was, we are told, a morally repulsive attempt to make light of Nazism.
Like most of the hostile reporting on NatCon, that reaction itself demonstrated why the conference sort of held together. As one journalist remarked to me, you could actually have a conversation at NatCon without the suffocating force of the new taboos that linger anxiously over any left-wing gathering. This was, then, a conference for that growing political faction, the Non-Left.
Yet as I listened to Murray, I recalled his criticism of the 2021 National Conservatism conference in Florida: that it was “filled with a disproportionate amount of Catholic social doctrine.” You could scarcely build an election-winning political movement, Murray accurately observed, if your platform featured “opposition to the right to abortion, opposition to no-fault divorce, and a nostalgia for the era before the invention of the Pill.”
The British NatCon is a less radical event than the American edition. Even so, I sensed there was a similar-looking elephant in the room. The real zest, the sense of dynamism and danger, came from speakers like Miriam Cates and Louise Perry, who warned that unless people start having more babies, Western societies face cultural and economic breakdown; who, like Alex Kaschuta, argued that without a “transcendent vision” we are reduced to a grim struggle for status; who, like Nina Power, bluntly urged their audience to just go to church; who, like Mary Harrington, were prepared to question the foundations of post-sixties society (in Harrington’s case, by denouncing the Pill as “the first transhumanist technology”).
None of those speakers is Catholic. But there is one major institution above all others where such ideas are not just permissible but qualify as common sense—and where they are reflected in social practice as well as intellectual tradition. Murray is probably right that, for the boldest aspects of NatCon to take political shape, it would require mass conversion to Catholicism. He regards this as a fatal weakness of the project. It seems to me to be an obvious strength.
Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.
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