Monday 1 May 2023

What is National Conservatism?

Unless you're a company operating a network of car parks, putting 'National' before anything automatically makes anything sound more sinister. Consider the new kid on the Tory ideas block, National Conservatism. Doesn't sound like a wrong 'un at all. And then look who is promoting the new creed: Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexit nincompoop, David Frost. This new idea, which as we'll see isn't very new at all, has been cooked up in anticipation of the National Conservative conference slated later on this month. Among the luminaries addressing those coughing up the £115 entrance fee are Michael Gove, Suella Braverman, Douglas Murray, Daniel Hannan, Melanie Phillips, Toby Young, Matthew Goodwin, and a horror scape of lesser known rent-a-gobs, racists, and terminally uninteresting ideologues.

In their piece, Rees-Mogg and Frost set out the NatCon stall. Under the very Tory heading of 'Time Britain returned to its traditional roots', they spin us a fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm. Sans the entertainment and morality lessons. It starts off fairly innocently: "At its heart, it is a belief in the nation state and the principle of national independence ... confidence that the self-governing, democratic nation is the best way that peoples have found to manage their affairs, preserve their traditions and culture, settle their differences, trade and prosper." If you want to be a bit naughty, written like that I'd doubt Tony Benn or the Communist Party of Great Britain would have found that too objectionable. Frost and Rees-Mogg go on to say that the aspiration for self-government is what drove the Brexit vote. Perhaps, but would it have got over the line without Vote Leave's anti-immigration scaremongering? Doubt it.

There's more. National Conservatism is, apparently, a movement of renewal. Taking aim at decline of the West narratives, they argue the doom need not be upon us. All it takes is "economic freedom", freedom of speech and, somewhat at odds, "anti-woke policies". For an idea what this means, Kemi Badenoch's endorsement of book-banning Florida governor Ron DeSantis gives us a fairly good idea. Summing up their creed, they acknowledge that it draws deep on really-existing Toryism:
... the British conservative tradition is characterised by love of freedom: of free markets, free trade and free individuals and families, with the inherent rights and sanctity of the human person enshrined by our common law and constitutional tradition. These principles have made Britain what it is – a country that defends human freedom, honour and dignity, at home and around the world.
How anyone could look not just at 13 years of this government, but at the 18 years of its predecessor and conclude these principles reflect decades of Tory statecraft are ignorant, stupid, or dishonest. Frost and Rees-Mogg compound the bad faith further by railing against the state for having an industrial policy, suggesting that the fraying social cohesion we have now, combined with stagnant economics is because Whitehall is beholden to some kind of Croslandite collectivism. When government in the real world is heading in the opposite direction, you could only make this claim safe in the knowledge that no one will ever ask you to show your workings.

There are a couple of things worth bearing in mind when dealing with conservative principles and philosophy. No matter how articulate or softly spoken advocates are for these ideas, their adherents only wear them lightly. When even Boris Johnson cited the tenets of One Nation Conservatism for his own purposes and basically no one in his party batted an eyelid, not even the more "intellectual" Tories. This is because the only real principle conservatism observes, at least in the context of the British Conservative Party, is power. Everything else is window dressing, or the mangled expression of the class interests their party simultaneously articulates and serves.

Let's consider some of these. Small statism, ritualistically name checked by Frost and Rees-Mogg here, has always expressed the Tory dream of a straightforward bourgeois state. One whose business is to defend property and capitalist relations of production, but not have much interest in anything else. Hand in hand with this is the low tax fantasy. I.e. Capital has no obligation except to accumulate more capital. It and its beneficiaries certainly should not be weighed down by responsibilities (via taxation) to those maimed and who suffer thanks to their social system. It represents the wealthy dream of a consequence-free life. And there is the sovereignty fetish, that in the age of Brexit we never stop hearing about and was used to justify the whole shoddy enterprise in the first place. But this "sovereignty", defined as freedom from supranational organisations and overseas courts (and, in recent years, the unilateral opting out of international treaties), is nothing more than the authoritarian impulse to unconstrained government, where the Tories, their state, and their class are limited only by the laws they legislate for. What goes on in Britain's borders and, crucially, how it exploits its workforce with the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world apart from the United States is its business and its business only.

There are other aspects conservative philosophy emphasises, such as senses of duty, the importance of covenants, voluntary association, the received wisdom of tradition, conservation, the cohesive role of faith, and above all a sense of obligation, but none of these have been taken remotely seriously by Tory politicians since Macmillan's generation. And it's important to note National Conservatism continues the Tory run of setting them aside. What Frost and Rees-Mogg are offering are gentle words for a power politics that stand for crack downs on social dissent and difference, and arbitrary government unconstrained in meeting the vagaries and challenges of managing bourgeois class rule. Meet National Conservatism, just like the old Conservatism.

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David said...

Very sinister. Makes me think of National Socialism.

McIntosh said...

It is useful that you provide a translation of 'what they say' and 'what it means'. I assume some of the NatCons are cynical e.g. Gove, and see the rhetoric as a useful device for covering the defence of inequality. However. I assume that others believe it and do see England as a sunny upland which defends freedom and democracy, and no amount of evidence will shake them from this. You only have to think of Fox on Question Time all those years ago telling the audience how tolerant and wonderful our race relations are.

Also, I assume the ideology will be widely promoted by the 'Mail' and 'Express'. It does seem to be based on their editorials and leader columns, and the speakers do seem to be their columnists. I think we can expect NatConism to have a mass base in their elderly readership. Hopefully they will be to infirm to impose it on the streets.

Anonymous said...

I rather suspect that National Conservatism comes out of the same box as National Socialism, and that didn’t turn out too well, did it, Mr Hitler?

Phil Probert

Anonymous said...

Badenoch: "... the British conservative tradition is characterised by love of freedom: of free markets, free trade and free individuals and families, with the inherent rights and sanctity of the human person enshrined by our common law and constitutional tradition."

...until the day of reckoning dawned and all it really cared about was ground rent - sorry, about having unchallenged and unaccountable power.

Ken said...

Ho hum, by “National” I assume they mean England. I can’t see wee Duggie Ross spouting this in the Scottish Parliament.
I’ve just remembered what the “families” bit reminds me of- back to basics by John Major. That didn’t end well.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

It's odd how they are so keen on everything being Free except Health, Education, Movement and people they don't approve of. Oh, and anything that they could make a profit on by charging for it. And Palestine.

Mind you, it's not that easy to see much daylight between them, the rest of the Conservative party, and His Majesty's Opposition, in terms of likely policy.

Anonymous said...

Pretty rich coming from the gang that stole Britains assets to line their own pockets. The amount nationally owned property that they appropriated makes eastern European oligarchism look like small fry.

Anonymous said...

Small brains generate small ideas.

kate blair said...

John Harris has also written about this group

They call it ‘national conservatism’ but it’s a divisive, far-right movement. Why are Tories embracing it?
John Harris

High-ranking government members hope to make political capital out of their own failures. Labour must reject this cynicism

In a fortnight’s time, a remarkable two-day political conference is going to be happening in central London. The people speaking in its debates and discussions come almost entirely from the political right: they will include the home secretary, Suella Braverman, her cabinet colleague Michael Gove, and a host of voices from media outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and GB News.........

David Lindsay said...

This is the Statement of Principles, not all of which are bad: Now ask yourself which of the five keynote speakers at this month's conference would be able to sign it. To say nothing of numerous others who were to address that assembly.

Two of those keynote speakers are in the Cabinet, as one of them has been almost continuously since 2010. The Edmund Burke Foundation's previous events have not attracted speakers at the very heart of government in the countries in which they have been held.

Eastern European leaders have featured in Rome and Brussels, and one of the Rome speakers is now the Prime Minister of Italy, so watch how many of these agenda she delivered. But with both Suella Braverman and Michael Gove given star billing in London, Britain must be the beating heart of National Conservatism.

Yet read that Statement of Principles, and tell me how it resembled the Britain that was governed by Braverman and Gove. If this event were remotely what it claimed to be, then far from having any member of this Government even in the audience, the names of the most prominent Cabinet Ministers would be ritually booed.

Anonymous said...

They’re calling themselves the Nat Cons, but I think the Nat-C’s should catch on.

Dipper said...

The problem with 'nationalism' is it means different things to different people.

One strand is a thread of national superiority, which is probably the way most people reading here see it; a political philosophy that puts members of one nation above another.

But that's not the way many other people see it; 'nationalism' is support for the notion that a nation state is the best vehicle to promote the interests of a group of people; and that means that our neighbours should also have a nation as the best way to promote their interests, and that nations co-operating with nations is the best vehicle for advancement.

What the left is doing at the moment is abandoning the notion of the nation state and replacing it with ... well what? Something about 'values'?

Most of the people decrying the notion of a national state have some other base for their rights; the left have a class-based claim in that they are now a party of middle-class privilege who can rely on signalling their membership to obtain public-sector jobs from their friends, or race activists who gain a sense of nationhood through The Equalities act and affirmative action giving them a claim on the state. It is the White working class who increasingly find themselves stateless, with no means of getting the state to act in their interest. And you know where I'm going with this, but it stands like a beacon, glowing away, never properly dealt with by the state.

Might as well go for the Full House and mention Trans Women. By redefining women to mean anyone who says 'I'm a woman', rights granted by the state specifically for women are being removed. So women find themselves with out a state that promotes their interests too.