What place is there for the absurd National Conservatism conference?
Politics this week has been enlivened by the curious import of a United States inspired National Conservatism (NatCon) conference in Westminster.
Attended by a number of right of centre academics, theorists and politicians, it provided a window into a global right wing movement designed to enhance a vision of conservatism based on nation, independence and tradition. Emanating from a 2019 US-based think tank with conferences already held from Washington to Italy, it appears to believe that its vision of such a nationally based Conservative proposition is required to overcome the various challenges of life and politics, which more mainstream Conservative politics are apparently failing to do.
While not able to listen to all the debates and addresses, it seems not unreasonable to make some judgements based on the released quotes by the organisation itself. These suggest that national conservatism seeks to define itself by offering challenges to propositions which either do not exist, to an imagined set of enemies, or are presented in such a two dimensional manner as to reduce complex issues to a simplistic “either with or against us” confrontational agenda. These may have been released to be provocative and ensure notice. Some are fatuous, but others may be more sinister.
Reducing two world wars to ‘Germany mucked up twice’ seems callous and juvenile
Examples which have attracted interest include the following: in addressing the concept of nationalism, author Douglas Murray said “I see no reason why every other country in the world should be prevented from feeling pride in itself because the Germans mucked up twice in the last century”. Leaving aside that nations are not prevented from feeling pride in themselves, reducing two world wars to “Germany mucked up twice” seems callous and juvenile.
Journalist Tim Stanley said: “If we are going to war on anything which put the word ‘national’ in its name, we’re going to have to crack down fast on the National Trust, the NSPCC and the NHS”.
I am not sure who is “going to war” on the word national.
An academic Gwithian Prins tweets: “Britain shines like a beacon wide across the Commonwealth. Many remember the British people with fondness, but the British people no longer believe in themselves.” Really? Was he on the moon during the coronation? Does he watch the London Marathon as thousands raise millions of pounds with pride for their chosen causes? Did he miss the NHS responders commitment to the country during the pandemic?
If these were absurd comments, a sinister note came from Kevin Roberts, president of the formerly prestigious Heritage Foundation, who accused the European Union of chauvinism, decadence, incompetence and “tyrannical ambition”. As a leading member of the team promoting national conservatism, his views on values might be weighed against his support for Donald Trump, and the fact that he recently offered Tucker Carlson a job after he left Fox News in disgrace.
What is striking in listening to and reading the remarks from the National Conservatism conference, is the indignation and anger which seems to go with their argument, and that they are even challenged on their beliefs. There always has to be an enemy; globalism, the left, the EU, universities – whatever. There is little or no nuance and complex issues, such as modern family life, are reduced to traditional norms with little empathy for difference. It is not wrong to raise some of the difficult themes in the conference, and for politics there must be no “no go” areas, or cancellations, but dealing with them by aggression, denigrating opponents and wrapping yourself in faith and flag has a bad history.
Meanwhile a Conservative government and Prime Minister is grappling with real life challenges. Conservative MPs would help by giving this lot a very wide berth.
Alistair Burt, former Conservative MP and pro-chancellor of Lancaster University
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.