At first, I thought this was NatCon advertising its virtues to the public but it turned out to be an anti-Brexit protest by Steve Bray.
I passed Bray with a smirk and was welcomed inside by security. I found myself in a mass of people gathering to get their passes from different collection points. I went to the press table and then went to explore the tables in the upper hall.
The European Conservative, the Free Speech Union, Epoch Times, The Critic and the Danube Institute all had tables in the hall. I couldn’t help but pick up some mints and a stress ball from the institute’s table.
It’s no coincidence that the Danube Institute is one of the driving forces behind NatCon. Old rightist John O’Sullivan, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, chairs the institute and even lives in Budapest.
So NatCon isn’t just a US project, it’s also part Hungarian and part Israeli. British right-wingers want in on this, too, and they’ve got their place.
This is really a coalition of different right-wing tendencies rather than a coherent singular organisation.
The promotional video for NatCon 2023 features a lot of royal imagery and Union flags, invoking a fantasy of Britain’s long-island story.
A friend said it reminded him of the League of Empire Loyalists.
The Conservative government is in a crisis of its own making. Unable to deliver for its electoral base, the Tories are looking more doomed every day but this was a long time coming.
This crisis goes back decades, but the catalytic moment was Liz Truss almost tanking pension funds with her hubristic low-tax strategy and hiking interest rates to combat inflation.
Much like Republican nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, the old party of the British right has never quite got over Margaret Thatcher. There is still a hole in its tapestry that has the shape of the ‘Iron Lady’.
Running on fumes, the establishment right needs a new ideological framework. New nationalism may have won in 2019, but the same tactics will not play in 2024.
It’s clear what Tory strategists are thinking: Brexit is done, so culture is next.
Today’s opening plenary featured Miriam Cates, the MP for sex-ed panics, but she is not the only Conservative politician on the programme. She is followed by Jacob Rees-Mogg (without his nanny) and later Suella Braverman.
Cates gave a speech curiously similar to the rhetoric of Giorgia Meloni. She highlighted the declining birth rate in Britain and talked about the need to reverse this trend to save our future.
Naturally, she pinned the blame on ‘cultural Marxism’ which she says is “destroying our children’s souls”. She didn’t go quite as far as Meloni talking up the birth race between ‘us’ and ‘the foreigners’, but the implications were clear.
After the Cates show, we had Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for young fogies everywhere, who was going to hold forth when a man walked up on stage and grabbed the mic. He got far enough into his tirade to reference “the characteristics of fascism”.
This was met with boos from the audience. Security quickly dragged the man off the stage while Rees-Mogg tried to get the audience to chant. He made the point that we have free speech, so the man should go hold his own “loony” conference.
Amusingly, security let the man back in for the rest of the conference and Rees-Mogg got to give his very thin speech promoting a revisionist history of “the English nation” and “the English monarchy”.
The three-day event is scheduled to end with a thrilling speech by Lee Anderson. Other Tories making an appearance include Danny Kruger, Lord David Frost (who wants to be an MP) and Lord Daniel Hannan.
Most of the speakers are establishment conservatives from academics and cabinet ministers to journalists and ideologues. Michael Gove and Douglas Murray both stand out as British neocons speaking at a conference that is profoundly illiberal.
Murray will be giving the after-dinner speech (as if his words are a kind of audible digestif), whereas Gove is giving the first keynote address on day two. I’m not sure if there’s a pecking order here.
There was a time when Gove and Murray would claim they are defenders of Western values that the left has failed to protect. They would claim they support the export of Western democracy by US bombers.
So it’s odd to see them at a conference that explicitly opposes what it deems liberal imperialism and globalism. Gove and Murray are a part of a very small number of people who still think invading Iraq was a brilliant idea.
It’s quite a shift for British neocons – who tend to be more secular and more liberal than their American compatriots – to even attend NatCon. But maybe national conservatism is just neoconservatism coming home.
Some natcons have said they are “conservatives mugged by reality”, mocking the old neocon saying that they are “liberals mugged by reality”. Both sayings are false because these projects are intensely ideological.
If neoconservatism was anti-Communist liberalism radicalised, the NatCon project is attempting to take the fight to the enemy at home rather than the enemies abroad. The real enemy isn’t Russia anymore, it’s woke ideology in all its manifestations.
Establishment British conservatives are here because they are looking for a new strategy post-Brexit and potentially post-Sunak. They need a new project come the next election, whether they are going to win or lose.
This is why Rees-Mogg took aim at Sunak for betraying his promise to shred over 40 years of EU policies written into UK law. Brexit never ends. The culture war must continue, not for party, but country.
Sense of Mission
I mistakenly assumed National Conservatism referred to a break with the old fusionism of social reaction and market economics.
I expected NatCon to be more dirigiste given its almost neo-Gaullist approach to executive power and sovereignty.
It turns out the national conservatives are still trying to have it both ways.
They want a liberal market economy based on watertight nation-states and traditional, hereditarian value systems. This is a kind of ordo-nationalism.
However, the NatCon mission statement is reminiscent of a lot of American conservative initiatives with its fusion of reactionary social values and radical free market ideals.
But what sets this mission apart is its emphasis on the body national.
Not all the speakers are following the same hymn sheet. Yoram Hazony, who leads the Edmund Burke Foundation, talked up the need for a new protectionism, whereas Jacob Rees-Mogg was championing free trade.
NatCon looks like an attempt to save the old fusion through a new chauvinism. The form and the content are deeply American rather than European, while drawing on the histories and traditions of the continent.
It’s still tied up in US-style Reaganite rhetoric about a nation chosen by God. Much like the 1980s Republican Party, it has a nationalist international agenda, but it’s no longer the struggle against world Communism.
Propagating Christian nationalism was a staple of American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Particularly in Latin America, where successive US governments regarded Evangelical Christianity as an antidote to socialism.
In recent years, American Evangelicals have worked hard to make inroads in Europe in spite of its secularism. Particularly in Eastern European states like Hungary, Italy, and Spain, where neoliberalism and austerity have revived the far right.
But there aren’t so many fervent Christians in the UK today. Quite the contrary, the prevailing culture is more secular and liberal than ever, and religious belief is more common amongst BAME immigrants than downwardly mobile whites.
There is a British national conservative party, but it’s actually not very British or national. It’s the Democratic Unionist Party, God’s party of Ulster loyalism, but it’s a regionalist, sectarian organisation. Furthermore, it’s a party in decline.
So the kind of social paternalism many so-called natcons want is a tough sell in modern Britain. This does not mean NatCon will fail by design because there are plenty of ‘wedge issues’ to exploit for the sake of strategic half-victories.
Most of the speakers have made it clear trans rights and mass immigration are among the major threats they want to tackle. These are the issues that natcons think they can win on in the short term.
If this conference is anything to go by, we can expect more battles on the social and the cultural as the UK continues to decline. A full-blown conservative revolution will not take place, but the national-cultural right isn’t going away.
Photograph courtesy of Number 10. Published under a Creative Commons license.