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A party right on the edge

The recent National Conservatism conference highlighted the threat of the far-right and the polarisation within the Tory Party itself

Montage: The New European

Four days before the general election of 1987, Neil Kinnock gave a speech in Bridgend, which culminated with the words: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.”

Having attended the National Conservatism conference in London last week, I compiled my own list of those who would feel distinctly uncomfortable if these “Nat Cons” ever got into power.

They would include gays, lesbians, divorced or unmarried parents, childless adults and anyone else deviating from what Danny Kruger, a Tory MP and evangelical Christian, described as “the normative family – the mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children [that] is the only basis for a safe and functioning society”.

They would include ethnic minorities and immigrants; most Europeans unless they happened to be Hungarian or Polish; people fearful of climate change; those who abhor Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and Viktor Orbán; those who believe the Covid lockdowns were necessary; civil servants; atheists, agnostics, the secular, the “intelligentsia”; the cosmopolitan; “Davos man”; representatives of big tech or multinational organisations, and even fans of John Lennon with his vision of a borderless world.

They would include Remainers, Labour supporters and Liberal Democrats, obviously, but they would also include most Tories – One Nation moderates, compassionate Conservatives, Cameroonian modernisers, Thatcherite free marketeers, libertarians and Sunakian technocrats. Most mainstream Tories wisely steered well clear of the three-day conference. Why Michael Gove, the socially liberal housing secretary, chose to appear is baffling.

This strange and unsettling London conference was held at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, a large, circular, panelled auditorium which is home to an evangelical Christian church – and throughout the three days of speeches, the surest way for a speaker to get a round of applause was to rip into the present government and what John Hayes, a Tory MP, called its “desiccated, hollowed out, sugar-free conservatism”. Boris Johnson was hardly more popular. He may have delivered Brexit, but to these Nat Cons his agreement with the EU is a limp, pathetic Brexit, a Brexit in name only.

Though national independence was the conference’s core message, the event was organised by a right-wing American think-tank, the Edmund Burke Foundation. The conference attracted an audience of several hundred – mostly male, mostly white, quite a lot of them American and surprisingly young. They heard speeches by more than 60 right-wing politicians, academics, theologians and journalists from Britain, America and Israel, who collectively expounded a strand of deeply nationalistic social conservatism with distinct religious undertones seemingly borrowed straight from the playbook of Trumpian Republicanism.

It is an inward-looking, illiberal, censorious conservatism driven by a conviction that Britain is caught in a downward spiral of decay and disintegration, and by nostalgia for a glorious, rose-tinted past. It is fuelled by anger, pessimism, paranoia and disdain for all those who do not share the Nat Cons’ hardline social views. It believes there is, to misquote Hillary Clinton, a vast left-wing conspiracy bent on destroying this country and everything they hold dear.

The Nat Cons’ cast of villains is led by “woke commissars” who are determined to trash Britain’s history, culture and values, blur the distinction between men and women, and sideline the traditional family. It includes what they variously described as a “hegemonic” or tyrannical” elite, “radical rainbow activists”, “climate catastrophists”, what the journalist Toby Young called “pink-haired conquistadors”, and what Kevin Roberts, president of Washington’s Heritage Foundation, called the “leftist control of globalist corporations and entities”.

The Nat Cons blame the media, human rights lawyers, a left-wing grievance industry, teachers who teach pupils to be ashamed of Britain’s past, lily-livered Tory politicians, a subversive civil service, immigrants, a police force hobbled by political correctness, dehumanising new technology and unaccountable supranational organisations.

Above all they blame the rise of a “liberal internationalism”, which has undermined the nation state, and a narcissistic, self-indulgent, pagan “liberal individualism” that has prioritised individual freedom over community, duty and responsibility.

Melanie Phillips, a columnist for The Times, complained: “In Britain there’s been no cultural war. There’s been a cultural rout. In their long march through the institutions, progressives have found every door open to them because conservatism abandoned its role as conservers of the nation and its values”.

James Orr, a Cambridge divinity professor who organised the conference, spoke of “a new public faith emerging – one that dominates the news cycle, that’s colonising the public square and expunging every trace of conventional religious commitment”. It is presided over, he added, by a “new priesthood, new inquisitors, new witch-finders general, policing uniformity to the new dogmas and doctrines of a new religious zealotry”.

These Nat Cons cut their opponents no slack, offer them no benefit of the doubt, and choose to portray them as sinister and evil. They object furiously when the same accusations are levelled at them.

Christopher DeMuth, former head of Washington’s right-wing American Enterprise Institute, spoke of our Anglo-Saxon heritage being “under assault by powerful forces of nihilism”. Kruger, dressed somewhat incongruously in a suit and red trainers, claimed that for the left “to build their new pagan city on the hill first everything must be destroyed.” In a speech entitled “Faith, flag, family freedom”, Orr said those words alone were “guaranteed to induce fainting fits from Hampstead to Hackney”.

The journalist Daniel Hannan claimed that when he mentioned concepts like nationalism and patriotism during his 21 years in Brussels, “they were spat out by my fellow MEPs rather as a teenager might spit out the contents of a beer can that was being used as an ashtray in a party”.

National Conservatives do not do understatement. On the contrary, they deal in apocalyptic visions. Yoram Hazony, the Israeli founder of the National Conservatism movement, invoked a “cultural revolution destroying everything in its wake”. Phillips likened “cancel culture” to “the Salem witch hunts or Soviet show trials”, and talked of the “guillotine of cultural totalitarianism”. Gwithian Prins, an emeritus research professor at the London School of Economics, declared: “The woke cults can no longer be tolerated on grounds of national security because they make the defence of freedom against its enemies much harder.”

The historian David Starkey accused the left of seeking to elevate slavery above the Holocaust in the list of western turpitude in “an attempt at destroying the entire legitimacy of the western political and cultural tradition” (the journalist Douglas Murray then proceeded to observe that the Nazis had merely “mucked up” nationalism).

Suella Braverman waves following her keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference last week. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

The Nat Cons’ answer to all this decadence and immorality, and the vision that they propose, is a new disposition based on the idea of a sovereign democratic nation that treasures its history, traditions and culture, robustly defends its borders, enforces law and order and commands the loyalty of all its citizens. They want to see a restoration of the “timeless virtues”, a revival of the traditional nuclear family and a greater role for religion. They want a stronger military and an end to the mass immigration that, they claim, dilutes British culture.

Miriam Cates, another Tory MP and evangelical Christian, echoing Orbán and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, wants to encourage motherhood in order to reverse a falling birth rate which, as she sees it, is the “overarching threat… to the whole of western society”.

She argued that the young have lost hope in the future, and will not reproduce, because of a “cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying children’s souls”, and an education system that teaches “that our country is racist, our heroes are villains, humanity is killing the earth, you are what you desire, diversity in theology, boundaries are tyranny (and) self-restraint is oppression.”

The speakers’ attacks on wokery and cancel culture were hyperbolic, of course, but not entirely unfounded. They had valid points to make on the housing shortage, the strain on wages and public services caused by mass immigration, and the dearth of fiscal policies to encourage marriage and family. That said, it was not hard to see why so many people would have found the conference deeply unsettling.

There was the Nat Cons’ demonisation of anyone to the left of them, which is probably 95% of the British population. The idea that Britain’s most prominent left-of-centre politician, Sir Keir Starmer, is some kind of radical revolutionary bent on destroying the country is patently ridiculous.

There was the Nat Cons’ assertion of moral superiority, the implicit suggestion that they alone champion patriotism and fundamental British values. “Conservatives believe in and love their country,” declared Suella Braverman, the home secretary, as if nobody else does. On the contrary, it is entirely possible to love one’s country while deploring Brexit, or resisting Braverman’s draconian measures to curb illegal immigration, or accepting that Britain’s imperial history may not be unblemished.

The “fundamental British values” the Nat Cons claim to champion, moreover, are not necessarily those of the mass of British people. They do not appear to include, for example, tolerance, compassion, moderation, civility and helping the needy.

Nor was there any overt acknowledgement of the fact that they have won four successive general elections, become the establishment that they profess to despise, and might themselves be responsible for the dire state of the country. They scarcely mentioned Britain’s record levels of taxation, the soaring cost of living, collapsing public services, rampant strikes and social strife, all of which surely pose a much greater threat to the nation’s wellbeing than wokery.

It was as if the likes of Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lord Frost, Gove, Cates and Kruger have had nothing to do with the government in recent years. Braverman even used her speech to distance herself from an official immigration policy she has been in charge of developing for the past seven months.

Where, moreover, were these upholders of all that is honest and decent during the three years of Johnson’s premiership with all their scandals, lying, cronyism, law-breaking and relentless bashing of the very national institutions that the Nat Cons profess to revere? Indeed Johnson was the embodiment of the selfish, reckless “liberal individualism” that they now decry.

Why did Rees-Mogg, the self-styled high priest of Britain’s ancient freedoms, not protest when Johnson’s government sought to restrict the right to protest? Why did he not admit long before last week’s conference that requiring identity cards to vote was a failed attempt at “gerrymandering”? Where was any denunciation of Trump and his refusal to accept the result of the 2020 election?

In similar vein, the speakers invariably hailed Brexit for restoring Britain’s sovereignty (while lamenting the government’s failure to exploit it). None thought fit to mention its calamitous economic consequences, or that far from “taking back control” it has actually boosted immigration, or the fact that most British people now think it was a bad idea. Even Nigel Farage told the BBC, halfway through the conference, that “Brexit has failed”.

On the contrary, Rees-Mogg called Brexit “the fructification of the view of the British people”, while Braverman castigated ”the prognosticators of doom who said Brexit would be an economic catastrophe for the UK”.

To be honest, the conference was not a particularly comfortable place for journalists, unless you happened to work for the Telegraph or GB News. We were given press passes on the strict condition that we identified ourselves as journalists at all times, and treated all conversations as off the record unless explicitly stated otherwise. Leading lights, including Orr and Hazony, flatly refused to talk to me when I said I was from the New European, which rendered the breaks in the official proceedings distinctly unproductive.

I wandered around the side room where various right-wing organisations – the Heritage Foundation, the Hungarian Conservative magazine, the Free Speech Union, the Epoch Times – had stalls, then briefly stepped out of this particular Westminster bubble past the bouncers on the door.

There on the pavement was the inveterate anti-Brexit campaigner, Steve Bray, remonstrating with the conference-goers, and a fellow protester who was offering them “Brexit benefits” from an empty plastic bag. The pair seemed rather more rooted in reality than those inside. Indeed, Starmer dismissed the conference as a “Mad Hatter’s tea party” while his deputy, Angela Rayner, called it a “carnival of conspiracy and self-pity”.

For all that, the conference mattered. It exposed the deepening rift between the populist and pragmatic wings of the Conservative Party; between those who believe the answer to the party’s soaring unpopularity is more hardline social conservatism, and those who want less; between its increasingly rebellious right-wing ideologues, and those centrists who were appalled by the excesses of Johnson and Liz Truss and welcome the party’s subsequent return, if not to popularity, then at least to relative sanity.

It suggested a party beginning to fragment into warring factions as it faces an electoral drubbing after 13 years in power, an internecine warfare over its future direction and an ugly search for scapegoats to blame for its many failures.

The conference also marked the start of the battle to succeed Sunak if, as seems likely, he loses next year’s general election. Indeed Braverman inadvertently acknowledged that defeat was probable when she cracked a tasteless joke about how, given the advance of the trans lobby, Starmer could become Labour’s first female prime minister.

Most mainstream Conservatives sensibly gave the conference a very wide berth. They see no future in liberal, secular Britain for the sort of polarising, evangelical, culture war politics practised by US Republicans. Though Hazony described the conference as a “magnificent breakthrough”, they believe the electorate is far more concerned about bread-and-butter issues like tax, inflation and the NHS. Gove gently admonished the Nat Cons by saying that elections are won by having “the right economic policies, the right policies for public service delivery and so on”. Even Matt Hancock got in on the act, warning that the Conservatives would be “finished” if a “Trumpian takeover” of the party was allowed to happen.

Braverman clearly thinks otherwise, and the great British values she claims to champion clearly do not include loyalty to her boss.

Only a few days earlier, the business secretary Kemi Badenoch, her most likely rival in the contest to succeed Sunak, repositioned herself as a member of the “pragmatic middle ground” by ditching the bill that would have scrapped 4,000 EU-era regulations before the year’s end. The Brexiteers were aghast at this move. In contrast, Braverman used her speech to establish herself as the leading hard right candidate. Indeed, she considered the occasion so important that she – alone of all the speakers – used an autocue.

Braverman hurled great chunks of red meat to her audience. She refused to apologise for the police arresting peaceful protesters during the Coronation. She insisted that “100% of women don’t have a penis”. She denounced “self-appointed gurus, experts and elites”, and argued that “common sense has vastly more to recommend it than what emanates from those who work in ivory towers”.

She accused the left of being “preoccupied with decolonising the curricula, demanding reparations, denigrating our heroes and tearing down statues” when the pertinent fact about slavery was that Britain abolished it. She argued that “white people don’t exist in a special state of sin or collective guilt”, and that “nobody should be blamed for things that happened before they were born”.

As if to get ahead of an increasingly damaging issue for the Conservatives, she disowned her own government’s plans to admit large numbers of immigrants in order to meet labour shortages in key sectors, saying Britain should be training its own workers to pick fruit and drive lorries. She also insisted that all immigrants should be forced to integrate with British culture, as her parents had.

Braverman is taking a big gamble. She evidently believes that she can garner the support of enough Tory MPs for her name to be one of two offered to the party’s 180,000 members in a future leadership election, and that those notoriously crusty, right-wing members will propel her to victory.

She may be right, but if the Conservative Party allows itself to be hijacked by a right-wing version of Momentum, by a British version of the Republican Tea Party movement, its future looks bleak. The wider electorate would surely opt for a more optimistic, inclusive, permissive and forward-looking vision of Britain’s future than that of National Conservatism.

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