Discover more from Aporia
Special Report: Who are the Nat Cons?
Helen Dale reports from the National Conservatism conference in London.
Last week, Aporia had the chance to attend the National Conservatism conference in London. It was a three-day affair of speeches, coffee break conversations, and new friendships. We would like to thank and congratulate James Orr for organizing and inviting us to such a successful event.
Given the liberal media’s comically bad coverage, we wanted to give our readers an insight into what went on behind closed doors.
Written by Helen Dale.
Steve Bray, the “Stop Brexit” man, has a limited number of tunes in his collection, and he plays them on a loop.
He set up his sound system outside the UK’s National Conservatism conference last week—held in the Herbert Baker designed Emmanuel Centre—and blasted security staff, delegates, press, and speakers alike. Baker’s buildings were, however, meant to last (many of them are still dotted around New Delhi and Pretoria), and this commendable solidity meant “Ode to Joy” followed by the Benny Hill theme made their way only fitfully inside.
People started making requests, not appreciating the limited nature of Bray’s musical repertoire. I was rather hoping for the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sixth, but no, Bray’s sole Beethoven bit was Ode to Joy. “Ode to Joy is a beautiful piece of music,” I said to him at one point, “but Beethoven did write others”. Yes, he plays Ode to Joy because it’s the EU anthem and he thinks it will annoy Brexiteers. Do that to a bunch of NatCons and their liberal Tory sympathisers, however, and they’ll just ask you for more Beethoven.
Although it didn’t start in a cordial fashion, what progressed towards friendly chat between Bray and conferees over three days gave the lie to widespread claims that a nascent fascist movement was being birthed within. If nothing else, the conference made clear that the substantive content of “National Conservatism” is still radically unclear. Calling it “fascist” is, quite apart from anything else, extraordinarily premature.
A shortage of policy offerings
Much of the event (as I expected) was taken up with pretty complaints accompanied by a singular lack of usable policy. Poverty of policy development is common to both national conservatives and ideologically simpatico (but more left leaning) post-liberals. This is something they are going to have to fix if they’re to be taken at all seriously on either side of the political aisle.
I say this because the conference’s best speakers—Louise Perry, Matthew Goodwin, Nigel Biggar, David Starkey, and Emma Webb—identified real and serious economic and civilisational problems that must be addressed. No amount of poo-pooing the company they keep changes this.
Yes, National Conservatism is an American-Israeli movement, and it showed in an overdose of Godbothering and general humourlessness. And yes, Americans must be taught, slowly and painfully, that part of the reason their country exists in the form it does is rooted in a default British opposition to “enthusiasm”, for which seriousness is often confused.
Hostility to enthusiasm has origins in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the religious activities of some on the Parliamentary side of that conflict. Come Charles II’s Restoration in 1660, people were happy to execute Leveller and Fifth Monarchy Man Thomas Harrison as a regicide. When his British sympathisers took ship for the New World, those who stopped home were not disappointed.
Fifth Monarchy Men would wait on hilltops for God to take them up into heaven, a behaviour echoed among modern cults (these days, UFOs do the heavy lifting). By this logic, America was the best polity for religious and political enthusiasts. Far better for Britain to have its Merry Monarch and an Established Church to surround his activities with beautiful music.
This background meant there was hardly a laugh to be had until David Starkey got up and performed a routine worthy of Billy Connolly or John Cleese.
Real issues, real problems
That said, Perry is right that the UK state pension is a Ponzi scheme. Current contributions are paying for current entitlements, leaving nothing in the kitty for future generations. She’s also right that immigration—even in countries like Australia and Canada, which have managed it far better than the UK, EU, or US—is at best a partial fix, because immigrants, too, grow old.
Another fix is more home-grown babies, but because we’ve designed an economy utterly dependent on mass female labour-force participation and refuse to build enough houses, we’re experiencing a monumental baby bust. Ed West wasn’t just being ironic when he quipped that the London housing market is the world’s most effective form of contraception.
Goodwin, meanwhile, is right that Britain is governed by people who do not understand those they govern. Like many NatCon speakers, he was as critical of the Conservative government as the protesters outside: Britain is broken, nothing is working. His observations were not mere extrapolations from polling data and focus groups evincing disillusion with the current state of the country, however. We really do have a situation where governed and governors alike are unable to inhabit each other’s preferences or understand each other’s lives.
In what was probably the conference’s best session—titled “History and Heritage”—Starkey, Biggar, and Webb (along with an outgunned Ofir Haivry, whose English simply isn’t good enough for him to give a speech in it) managed to show—not tell—of the dangers attaching to cartoon heritage. Biggar’s account of how he’d been drawn into believing cod history as a child was both beautiful and moving:
So there I was, age nine, in my Lowland Scottish boarding-school. It was 1964 and I had just watched Peter Watkins’ classic television docudrama about the battle of Culloden in 1745. I remember dragging myself up the stairs to my dormitory, weeping and moaning, “Why do we, the poor Scots, always lose to the English?”
Despite an English mother and an English-educated Scottish father, before I had reached my second decade, the tragic, heroic narrative of Scottish victimhood and English oppression had possessed me. I bought entirely into the story of the Scottish Us versus the English Them.
And all that, in spite of what Watkins’ film actually showed. Because, as I discovered when watching it again in the mid-1990s at the age of forty, Watkins clearly shows that the battle of Culloden was not between the Scots and the English. It was between Gaelic-speaking, cattle-rustling, feudal, Catholic Highland Scots on the one side, and on the other, Government troops who included English-speaking, agricultural, Protestant Lowland Scots.
My people had worn—not kilts—but redcoats. The national story I had imagined, and which stoked feelings of victimhood and resentment, was false.
Other things also became clear, or at least clearer. Suella Braverman wants to be leader of the Tory Party (almost certainly from opposition). Michael Gove’s portrait should appear beside the word “slippery” in the dictionary. Danny Kruger is much brighter than most MPs.
Some of the snitty commentary on the conference from both left and right was legitimate and fair, even subtracting the Godbothering. Mary Harrington—like many refugees from the left—seems not to have read anything from non-left intellectual traditions: not conservatism, and certainly not classical liberalism. She endorses male-only socialisation and spaces, for example, without any awareness she’s just reinvented 19th century Gladstonian liberalism and its support for freedom of association. She’s also steeped in the sort of Foucauldian nonsense that witters on about “biopolitics” and produces English-literature graduate word-salad:
The culture war over schoolchildren being transitioned without their parents’ consent is just what happens when you map the idea of Gillick competence onto a belief that ‘normal’ is not the desired medical endpoint but a baseline we can and should surpass when desired.
…could pass for the worst of woke-speak. When criticising her old team, she gave us:
[…] the movement formerly known as ‘the left’ is one of a radical libertarianism of the body underwritten by a ballooning biotech industry demanding the rights of individuals to pursue total biomedical self-mastery.
Judith Butler, call your office.
Free trade v protection
One reason the substantive content of national conservatism is radically unclear is because its free market and protectionist wings have not yet debated properly, something the conference utterly failed to facilitate. Instead, it was organised in such a way that people spoke in turns, which meant the two groups talked past each other.
Most of the free traders—except Kruger—sit on government benches and so represent settled policy among Conservatives. Think Daniel Hannan or Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example. Most of the protectionists are critics from outside politics—commentators like Juliet Samuel, academics like David Goodhart.
I was parked up the back in the press seats beside Times columnist David Aaronovich when the free trade v protectionism foofaraw was at its most intense, and between us we started coming up with teams (drawn from conference speakers) for an Oxford Union-style debate. Team free markets, we thought, was probably best represented by the two peers, Hannan and David Frost. Protectionism, meanwhile, was carried forward with great force by Samuel and Goodwin.
I grew up in a country where debates over this issue in the period immediately before and after Federation in 1901 convulsed wider society. What became the “Australian Settlement” and lasted for roughly 80 years had roots in its eventual resolution. At one point, Australia had a coalition government consisting of the “Free Trade Party” and the “Liberal Protectionist Party”. Yes, those were the actual names of the parties. They combined to form moderate opposition to the nascent Australian Labor Party, which at the time proposed autarky and radical socialism.
Here, then, is my fear—speaking as someone on the free market, liberal Tory side of the aisle—drawn in part from Hannan’s NatCon speech. Much of what he argued turned on the ability of free trade and free markets to increase national prosperity, wealth that can then be used to pay for the sort of conservative lives many NatCons want to live.
There is something in this. National conservatives and post-liberals want to do a lot. But if we’re to have more houses, more nuclear power, and more support for families, then we must raise GDP. Big ticket items, as my dad used to say, costabit. However, evidence is piling up that free markets and free trade don’t buttress either conservatism or stable family life in the way Hannan thinks they do. Rather, they turn out to be a universal solvent and the only way to ensure rising prosperity, all at once. That is, they make us richer overall but also strip working-class men (in particular) of both income and dignity.
Bray and his acolytes had a symbiotic relationship with the conference. At one point, a street preacher shouting about Jesus assailed them, and they managed to look suitably embarrassed at being on the receiving end for once. They’d pack up each day at five pm on the nose, too, becoming more sheepish as time passed. On Wednesday—having decided to leave early—I asked for Ode to Joy as I walked out the door. Bray smiled and pressed play. The official EU version of Beethoven’s famous piece accompanied me most of the way to Westminster tube station.
Helen Dale is Senior Writer at Law & Liberty, a magazine owned by US think-tank Liberty Fund. She won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford and Edinburgh. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction. She writes for various outlets, including The Spectator, The Australian, Standpoint, and Quillette. She lives in London, is on Substack and Twitter.