Ghoul Britannia: National Conservatism Comes to Westminster
Amid ongoing political turbulence, the Tory right strikes a Trumpian tone
This week, a collective yawp has gone up from Westminster, as the National Conservatism conference brought together the likes of U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, U.S. Senator J. D. Vance, commentator Douglas Murray, and others to extol the virtues of nationalism.
These figures gathered to praise a particular kind of Britishness and promote policies designed to protect the nation from cosmopolitan, homosexual, Marxist, and “woke” threats.
This isn’t the first conference of this type in a major European capital. But what makes it noteworthy is how the conference integrated extremist commentary with endorsement from government officials with significant influence.
Making the World Safe for Nationalism
A key theme across the conference was the attempt to make nationalism appear not only safe and normal but even good and preferable to alternative expressions of political identity. From the perspective of many of the speakers, the world needs more nationalism and not less.
Part of this project involves sanitizing the most glaring examples of nationalistic excess in modern history. Douglas Murray made this plain when he said that there was no reason that nationalism generally and British nationalism in particular should be maligned just because “the Germans mucked up twice in a century.”
“Mucked up” is an interesting way to describe the two most cataclysmic wars in European history—as if we’re supposed to be comforted by the idea that while German nationalism got people a little too peppery, we can trust that British nationalism isn’t going to send tanks rolling.
Also, are we including the horrors of the Holocaust here? Because if so, describing the murder of six million Jews as the result of Germans getting a little overzealous in their enthusiasm seems like it whitewashes the potential problems with nationalism.
Speaking of tanks, the event also offered opportunities to launder criticism of the West’s ongoing support for Ukraine against Putin’s invasion. Senator J. D. Vance expressed his continued opposition to the U.S. and U.K. aid efforts. Despite the U.K.’s strong overall position in support of Ukraine, this earned Vance approving comments from sitting Tories like Leicestershire MP Andrew Brigden. Little care was given to whether Russian nationalism might also pose a problem.
There was also a consistent theme of normalizing hardline anti-immigrant politics. When Suella Braverman declared that “It is not xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration is unsustainable … it’s not racist for anyone to want to control our borders,” she was also engaging in an attempt to trivialize controversial policy as common sense national defense.
Matthew Goodwin, an academic who rose to prominence on his analysis of right-wing populism and now appears to have gone native, remarked that
Britain is a welcoming, tolerant nation. We are among the least racist societies in the world today, which is why so many want to call it their home. But to say diversity is the basis of who we are is like saying we have no cultural identity of our own.
I’ve argued previously at Arc that a certain subset of right wingers desires a world marked by arch nationalism. They prefer an international order in which nation states opt for a maximalist vision of national interest, vigorously protecting their national borders from immigrants, their domestic markets from suspect foreign goods, and their culture from anything that deviates from a hyper-traditionalist view of society. All of this matches with the NatCon vision on display this week.
What the Nation Requires
Academically, we can talk pretty easily about nationalism in the descriptive sense.
The Andersonian theory of nationalism is about the imaginary potential for felt comradeship across time and space in a given society, largely thanks to early-modern media and linguistic developments.
But the kind of nationalism on offer at the National Conservatism conference is deeply normative.
It does not merely offer a sense of belonging or opportunity for pride and self-actualization. It insists on a pure, essentialist concept of the nation. And it demands certain things from the people. In this case, that means warding off those social ills that would weaken the national body. Immigrants, leftists, homosexuals, transgender people, and other various “wokesters” featured heavily throughout the conference as dangerous threats to the nation.
What is crucial, though, is that this opens up a logic for making private views and decisions public, placing them in the realm of the national interest. The nation has a claim on these issues precisely because national conservatism operates on a unitary theory of the nation in which intellectual, economic, and especially sexual activities must conform to an a priori notion of what makes the nation good, articulated from a viewpoint of preservation. This also smacks of the common good arguments of postliberals like Adrian Vermeule.
It is a fundamentally anti-liberal way of thinking that subsumes individuals in the nation. And the nation’s interests and will are often defined against minority rights and expressions of pluralism.
Douglas Murray gave the game away on this when he proclaimed:
Instead of just talking about minority rights, we can also talk about majority rights. Minority rights are important, but maybe we can give a damn about more than 51 percent of the population as well.
Braverman stated the problem as she sees it quite plainly:
[T]he unexamined drive towards multiculturalism as an end in itself, combined with identity politics, is a recipe for communal disaster. … We have a nation, but, more than that, we have a national character to preserve.
This is a view that says differences are dangerous and national cohesion should always take priority over individual values and beliefs.
Simply put, liberalism cannot be reconciled to nationalism in its most virulent expressions because liberalism is fundamentally concerned with individual rights, human freedom, and the movement of people, goods, and ideas across borders and around the world. The national conservative view casts this as varyingly cosmopolitan, elite, Marxist, or hollowed out.
Or, as Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts warned at the conference, “Progressives want an establishment conservatism or blinkered libertarianism.”
Indeed, philosophically liberal concerns for freedom were presented with either derision or minimization throughout the conference.
What’s more, some minority rights might even pose an active risk. Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes, remarked on the enervating effects of gay marriage and sexual promiscuity upon the nation:
Marriage is not all about you. It's not just a private arrangement. It's a public act by which you undertake to live for someone else, for their sake, and the sake of your children and the sake of wider society.
Goodwin expressed similar sentiments, saying:
If somebody tells you that promoting strong families and doing all that we can to keep them together is not that important, is old fashioned, or is reactionary, then I would put it to you that they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about.
Strong families means, as in Kruger’s understanding, heterosexual and ideally reproductive ones.
Miriam Cates, MP for Penistone and Stockbridge, warned:
None of our philosophical musings or policy proposals will amount to anything unless we address one overarching threat. … It's one critical outcome that liberal individualism has failed to deliver: babies.
This mixture of pro-natalism and hardline nationalism is not really new. It was a feature of the eugenics movements in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century, and I have noted elsewhere how it has re-emerged in strange and ugly ways in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
Returning specifically to Kruger, it’s important to stress the way that the nation side of the nation-state equation overrides all other concerns. He put it this way:
The 21st century so far has failed the people of this country. … It was the great millennial package: globalization, liberalization, modernization. The progressive promise–abandon the nation, abandon the family and the neighborhood, too. Leave those things to sentiment and to the private sphere while the state gets on with public management.
It’s a critique of the current state of inequality and stagnation that might sound compelling until you pick at its implications. After all, what does it mean to not abandon things like “the nation” or “the family” to the private sphere but rather to have the state get on with them?
That is what nearly every speech at the National Conservatism conference was about. The problem, of course, is that this leaves open just about every aspect of personal or cultural expression to the activity of the state in the interest of the nation. And this brings us to education.
Historian David Starkey exhorted the attendees to resist Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter, exclaiming:
Movements like CRT and BLM are not what they pretend to be. They're an attempt at destroying the entire legitimacy of the Western political and cultural tradition.
In a similarly apocalyptic tone, Katherine Birbalsingh spoke at length about schools as a cultural battleground:
Do you have any idea how many schools sing “God Save the King?” Because from where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. I have been shouting for decades about the importance of schools in the fight over values and culture. Culture is everything.
It’s true that there is a sense in which culture is the air we breathe. But sentiments like Birbalsingh’s are more about the need to make the public education system an effective producer of a certain kind of nationalistic culture. Curriculum that fosters too much interrogation of the highly conservative, almost Arhurian sense of British society that she feels best serves the nation ought to be anathema to good citizens.
Despite the occasional paean to freedom during the conference, it’s hard to see how such a view is particularly friendly to pluralism or the robust defense of difference, dissent, and debate that underpins it.
In his speech, Kruger mused that:
It’s a tension within each of us, though, between the desire to belong and the desire to be free. … But while conservatives will always argue about the right balance between freedom and belonging and will always argue about how much government and how much market we need, let’s not argue about which came first. We were not born free. We were born attached..and so conservatism is not a philosophy of liberation. It is grounded in a recognition of our responsibilities to each other.
It’s ultimately impossible to disentangle these shared responsibilities and fantasies about endangered cultural continuity from an instinct to snuff out difference and to dominate minority voices that rise too loudly against a preferred status quo.
That’s the context in which gay couples marrying one another, immigrants arriving on your shores, and any attempt to confront uncomfortable histories of race or empire are greeted as existential threats.
Freedom is good if it fosters the right sort of virtues, but in reality the national interest demands a muscular defense of a particular construction of identity.
An Echo Without An Origin
The version of nationalism these NatCons are offering is in many ways less a trip back to the mid 20th century and more a return to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s a primordial, essentialist conception of the nation, dripping in Romantic ideas. As Kevin Roberston put it, “The emergence of nationalism and populism on the right is a re-emergence & rebirth.”
Kruger spoke of British culture in terms of its ancientness in his speech, talking repeatedly of “the old ways.” Starkey, too, evoked an unspecified moment in the distant past when he said:
Nations are not born free and equal. Some forms of nationalism are poisonous. So we need to take pride and boast about the absolute uniqueness of the Anglo-American tradition.
Starkey’s point evokes another key aspect of Romantic nationalism. Like Murray, who dismissed nationalism’s excesses as a German problem, Starkey suggests there is something essential about “Anglo-American” nationalism that makes it nobler.
It doesn’t take a particularly rigorous look through modern history to see that this is a nonsensical proposition. American nationalism has always contained a white supremacist vein, and American political history is in many ways a story of how we have varyingly indulged, resisted, and engaged with this part of ourselves. Britain has its own troubled histories with the slave trade and imperialism. And, to more directly rebut Starkey and Murray, both countries saw dangerous fascist movements within their borders from the 1920s through 1940s.
This way of talking about the nation is more about the manufacturing of a sense of history that it is about history in itself.
What makes it so weaponizable is the way it is given over to an essentializing approach that focuses on reclaiming a lost purity, some perfectly formed artifact to be uncovered and restored. And it helps explain why bold, confrontational historical analysis is so threatening to them. It disrupts the happy idyll they’ve created. But it is a lie, and it is a lie that can become quite dangerous when it is turned against groups who do not fit into the vision of society on offer.
Our Nationalist Future?
It’s true that the United Kingdom is much less fertile terrain for these kinds of politics than either the United States or some of its Continental neighbors. But it is important that leading Conservative Party figures like Braverman and Gove participated enthusiastically in the event.
And we have to consider another potentiality: the re-election of Donald Trump. A Trumpian resurgence in America would surely empower this faction of the Tories to claim that they are better suited and equipped to engage the transatlantic alliance.
The minority position of these figures within their own party, alongside the current state of the Conservative Party in national polls ahead of a 2024 general election makes it tempting to dismiss this week’s conference as mostly a gathering of fringe weirdos.
But that was the story for a long time in the United States when it came to the GOP’s most extreme and dangerous elements. Even the 2010 Tea Party wave was greeted by some establishment Republicans as a bit of a blip that would ultimately professionalize and cool the hardliners by bringing them into formal institutions of power. And yet now, it’s easier to see the steady march of the Republican Party’s extreme elements from the periphery to total control.
It is worth stressing that Braverman is not some backbencher crank. She is the Home Secretary. Her department is responsible for immigration, border security, counter-terrorism, drug enforcement, and policing in England and Wales, among other operations. And her speech this week is already being received for what it is: a thinly veiled bid for leader of the Conservative Party.
On GB News, Patrick Christys praised Braverman’s attack on multiculturalism and wondered “whether or not Suella Braverman should be handed the keys to Number 10.” The Conservatives just took a beating in local elections, and current polling puts the party on track to enter opposition after the next general election.
What happens here in America will likely have some impact on the viability of Braverman’s wing over the next few years, but commentators should be careful not to dismiss the potential for a hardline, revanchist right to continue influencing politics on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come.