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A conference was held recently in London under the auspices of The Edmund Burke Foundation (EBF). This ‘National Conservatism Conference’ is one of a series, partly to launch the EBF in different jurisdictions (particularly the U.K.), mostly to to push its core message. The EBF was founded in 2019 and is chaired by Yoram Hazony.
I could write a whole post on how the hijacking of Irish-born philosopher Edmund Burke’s name is an intellectual travesty. As an economist I am used to the academic game of putting words in the mouths of long dead prominent thinkers. Countless historians, economists and others do this; fabulous careers have been made out of reinterpreting ‘what Keynes really meant’.
I could explore the work of Yoram Hazony. That too could take a while, so I will try to be brief. Let him speak in his own words. Apparently, we are all living in a neo-Marxist state:
The year 2020 was a watershed moment in the history of all democratic nations. This was the year that the hegemony of liberal ideas, established in the wake of the Second World War, came to an end. In its place, the great liberal institutions of America have almost uniformly embraced a form of neo-Marxism (sometime called “anti-racism” or “wokeism”) that promises a future free from the sins of the past, yet will deliver only misery and cruelty. By now, most important news media, universities and schools, big technology companies, major corporations, and even government bureaucracies, intelligence agencies, and the military have adopted a policy of accommodating—or even celebrating—this neo-Marxism with its revolutionary new theories of race and gender.
It’s tempting to just dismiss all this as batshit crazy, wing-nuttery. ‘We are all governed by Marxists now’ is a trope beloved of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists and neo-fascists the world over. But this was a conference attended by UK cabinet ministers, several Tory MPs, prominent journalists, an ex-head of MI6, assorted professors and several public intellectuals. If this is the future of the Conservative Party either we or they are doomed. There is no middle ground.
Burke had one key belief: things should change only gradually. Today’s National Conservatives want to change everything: they are the true radicals, seeing little that they like about modern Western civilisation.
No doubt they would reject the label ‘radical’. They wish to take us back in time to when society was ordered in ways they find more congenial. That’s their vision of conservatism: not radical, merely a reasserting of yesterday’s values and behaviours. A yesterday that exists only as a myth.
Let’s see how they describe themselves:
The National Conservatism Conference brings together public figures, journalists, scholars, and students 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.
We see national conservatism as the best path forward for a democratic world confronted by a rising China abroad and a powerful new Marxism at home. We see the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.
The United Kingdom is forging its own independent path outside the European Union. National Conservatism offers a guide which honours Britain’s history, seizes the opportunities of the moment and fits us for the future.
The Nation is the prime focus of the NatCons. Here, it is true, we can see a thread, albeit a thin one, connecting them to Burkean thinking. But if the ground shook in London this week, it was because so many deceased scholars were spinning in their graves.
The Conference, held over several days, hosted a large number of speakers on a narrow range of topics. Top of my list of notable speeches was one by Douglas Murray - count yourself lucky if you have never heard of him. He admonished Germany for giving nationalism a bad name because it ‘had mucked up twice in the twentieth century’. I’ll leave that there.
One keynote speaker is a self-described friend of Victor Orban. ‘Hungary is no country for woke men, that’s as it should be’.
Other topics were the family (your duty is to stay married at all costs), religion (fundamentalist), the Enlightenment (a wrong turn), capitalism (pro and anti), Brexit (the best thing to have ever happened to the U.K., but only when it is done properly), the Conservative Party (requires a Trumpian takeover), Globalists/neo-Marxists/North Londoners (don’t mention anti semitic dog-whistles), free trade (pro and anti), babies (the more the better), immigrants (the less the better), graduates (the less the better), populism (marvellous), internationalism (anti, unless you are an international organisation like the Edmund Burke Foundation), John Lennon (anti), anger (mountains of it), and, last but not least, hatred of anything modern - including, probably, you.
Why bother even thinking about any of this, let alone dignify it by writing a post? The Conference has been going for several years, in locations on both sides of the Atlantic, and hasn’t attracted much publicity. It’s mostly stayed where it belongs, on the lunatic fringe, safely ignored. A few years ago, one Tory MP spoke at an earlier version and was admonished by his party for doing so. However, as I’ve mentioned, this recent Conference was attended by cabinet ministers, ex-cabinet ministers, Tory MPs, high-profile journalists, academics and spooks.
All this raises a very important question: is this (explicit) attempted ideological takeover of Britain’s Tory party likely to succeed?
Nobody knows the answer to that one, but the contest to replace Rishi Sunak is on. It’s assumed by the runners that he will depart after he loses the next general election.
Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, made a keynote address to the Conference, anpparently aligning herself with its beliefs and values. No matter that these are incoherent, they amount to a platform that will no doubt appeal to the few thousand ancient members of the Tory party that will elect Sunak’s successor. Any future Tory leader needs the votes of this unrepresentative group. Quite a few of them were in the audience at the NatCon conference.
The political wheel has turned full circle and Conservatives now have their equivalent of Labour’s Trotskyite Momentum entryists. The Labour Party has grappled with its hard-left faction for years and, in a two steps forward one step backwards kind of way, has made progress. It’s now the Tories turn. They risk being consumed. So, therefore, does the country.
Braverman, Truss and Johnson - and, no doubt, others - will view National Conservatism as their route either to the leadership or back to the leadership. That’s how to get those required votes from the few thousand voting members of the party.
Is there any chance that this hard right, Trumpist, agenda will appeal to the country at large? Under normal circumstances I would say the average Brit would never fall for this neo-fascist nonsense. But things are far from normal.
Some of us will detect shades of 1930s Blackshirt rallies: the U.K. has always had a lunatic fringe, often of the left, occasionally of the right. We fell for the Brexit catastrophe, so why not embrace the NatCons? As we saw in the 1930s and at other times, if the underlying conditions are right, if economic problems and/or social turmoil have reached a sufficient level, extremism can flourish anywhere, even in the U.K.
It’s the economy stupid. The U.K. is convulsed - failing - for many reasons but top of the list is the stagnant economy. One that hasn’t grown in any material way for 15 years. The politics of a zero growth economy are poisonous and can often lead to extreme outcomes. Populism may be incoherent but, historically, can appeal to a stressed electorate. Look what the Great Depression led to. Italy today and the rising popularity, again, of Marine Le Pen in France. And Donald Trump in 2016 and 2024.
National Conservatives hate us liberals. They believe they have a monopoly on ethics and morality. Neo-Marxists, globalists, metropolitans and graduates are godless, childless, single, woke and lacking in character. This is as offensive as it is reality turned inside out. That’s my personal protest. The more substantive point is that the NatCons claims to inclusiveness and unity, mostly around the flag and the nation, don’t extend to people they don’t like. People like me.
The NatCon project to export of America’s culture wars are designed to get us all embroiled in the US’s interminable battles over guns, babies and Jesus.
Nationalism is a poison. Yes, love your country, say anything you like about it. Speech, indeed, should be free. But tell the whole truth, not just a partial version. Failing to acknowledge the role that nationalism has played, historically, in promoting hatred of the other, is unforgivable. ‘I love my country’ is absolutely fine. But, ‘I love my country and therefore hate anyone who does not’ is far from fine. You don’t need to be an historian to know where that so often leads.
NatCons do hate. Don’t let them win. Don’t, like Sunak and most of the U.K. government, stay silent in the face of all this. You risk what might happen next.
British people worried about the Conservative Party's lurch to the far right should join the Conservative Party and therefore earn the right to vote in the next party leadership election. Basically moderates need to hijack the party the way the far left hijacked Labour and were able to elect Corbyn as leader (twice).
So can we safely surmise that the greedy opportunists will jump on the NatCon bandwagon?