My impressions from the National Conservatism conference
The National Conservatism conference took place earlier this month, and for a week or so dominated much of the political coverage. Its organisers can count it as a media triumph. In terms of setting out a coherent and politically winning agenda, it was less successful. However, it was intellectually alive and focused on the present in a way that the modern free-market, centre-right, liberal and/or conservative side of politics rarely feels. There were multiple interesting strands. What united them was a rejection of politics in recent years, and a feeling that the Conservative Party, which claimed to speak to many of these strands, had failed to deliver.
The first strand was the importance of the democratic nation state. This was the only unifying element of the conference. The delegates rejected the idea of internationalism, supranationalism, and the withering away of democratic nation states into some NGO-led concoction of rules imposed onto countries for their own good over the heads of a helpless and useless national ruling class. There was also a great deal of awareness that the structure of modern government increasingly mitigates against this. One speaker, Radomir Tylecote, referred to this as opposing ‘Cosmetic Democracy’, where national democracies are simply rubber-stamping decisions made behind closed doors in international forums or the result of negotiations between stakeholders and the official quangocracy.
The speakers stressed the cultural heritage of the UK and the West, including the traditions of liberty and free speech and thought as being things worth preserving in themselves, and attacked those who denigrate the West and nations like the UK as being particularly wicked in the grand scope of history. Given that modern liberalism was born with the (Western) nation state alongside the modern, if flawed, version of democracy both in practical and ideological terms, this was a welcome development for those of us who are both liberals and patriotic. Smith, Hume, Mill, the empirical liberals of the British tradition were all nationalists who identified the nation state as fundamental while rejecting xenophobic jingoism. Moreover, given that societies with higher levels of trust and a shared national identity tend to be stronger economically and less socially stressful places to live, and which allows freedom from state authoritarianism, this was an argument that has been neglected for too long.
The great irony then was that the second strand of the conference was a religious and social conservatism deeply alien to British and English sensibilities. With no irony at a Conference that was about national identity, we had a series of speeches that were lifted from an American “moral majority” conference in the 1980s. The belief that without a strong social and religious conservatism we are all doomed emanated from many speakers. In addition, we were left in no illusion that the idea that we should control our bodies was an illusion promoted by evil corporates ready to prey on our weaknesses, and so instead of the current group of nanny bureaucrats and NGOs controlling our lives, a different, better group of people would be on hand to restrict our freedoms and tell us how to live.
There was a great deal of concern over the UK’s fertility rate coupled with the effects of the 1960s sexual revolution. There were the obligatory references to Hungary which has seen fertility rise from 1.3 to 1.6 since Orban took over in 2010 (so roughly the same as the UK), and ignoring that nearby Slovakia and Czechia have seen rates rise from 1.4 to 1.6 and 1.5 to 1.8 over the same period – the economic boom in Central Europe has had more impact than Orban’s authoritarianism. More widely and unhelpfully for the speakers railing against the evils of the pill and sexual liberation, the developed world societies which have most retained social conservatism around sex and sexuality are the East Asian economies. The fertility rates of these countries, as the birth rate outside of marriage, is extremely low – among the lowest in the world in fact. And it has been for decades. It turns out that importing many speakers’ vision of the 1950s into the modern world would not bring about the baby boom so obviously desired.
|Mid 2010s unmarried births as a % of all births and fertility rate in East Asia|
|Unmarried births||Fertility rate|
Of course, as some speakers suggested, if countries do simply limit access to modern contraception, then the fertility rate might rise as women have unwanted pregnancies that they cannot terminate. But the idea government should restrict access to the pill or abortion is both philosophically objectionable and a political non-starter. Just 3% of the British public think using contraception is morally unacceptable. Meanwhile, we at the IEA can stop worrying about wider economic policy as we were told by one speaker that economic growth was basically about fertility, which seems odd given the highest fertility is found in Niger, Somalia and Chad, none of which are known as particular economic powerhouses.
There tragedy is there are good arguments to be made about making the welfare state less hostile to families (which one speaker did allude to, arguing we should allow people to take childcare support in the form of parental leave or grandparents rather than highly regulated childcare arrangements). Support for families should come in whatever form best suits that family, not a single Whitehall led vision. (In this the debate resembles vouchers for education policy.) Yet making this case would have raised the concept of people and families having individual choice, a concept many speakers were clearly uncomfortable with. You could not help feeling that the pro-natalism was a byproduct of a desire for a (very un-English) social and religious awakening rather than the goal in itself.
This fundamentalist streak did a great deal of damage to the arguments that woke ideology is real and divisive, a point which was made by many speakers. Part of the reason the woke are spreading yet meeting with resistance is that the English dislike fundamentalism. This makes it easier for the woke to push their agenda forward under the guise of civility and decency, while often overreaching by shoving identity politics into the heart of every social and economic activity. An anti-woke counter offensive which seems like a rival fundamentalism will be unable to halt the spread of the woke blob.
The third and final thread running through the conference was the economic debate, which appeared disparate and confused at first glance. Within the course of a few hours the audience could hear calls from the platform for free trade and protectionism, for a bigger state and a smaller state, for more regulation and for less regulation, for a greater trust in individuals and for a reduction in power for individuals. The conference was not mildly ambivalent but completely schizophrenic on economics.
Yet what united all the economic discussions from Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Lord Frost to JD Vance, Juliet Samuels, Sherelle Jacobs and Matthew Goodwin was a recognition that the UK economy is no longer capable of generating notably rising living standards in its current form. While each speaker had different solutions, The “Global Britain Brexit” strategy that is the Government’s current approach was friendless in its current form. All of the speakers called for a major economic reform agenda, bordering on a revolution, if Britain was to recover its mojo. While the exact form of that reform agenda was unclear, no one doubted its necessity. The Sunak approach of arguing that economically speaking, things were a bit choppy but fundamentally alright found not a single friend. As a listening liberal much of the calls for a bigger state were misguided, but what could not be doubted is that there is a scope for economic radicalism that liberals could turn to their advantage if they could find a language that resonated in the 2020s rather than repeating talking points from decades ago.
More widely than just economics, this call for revolution was in fact the great unifying theme of the conference. Which is ironic for a National Conservativism conference. Because it was clear that far from conserving things as they are, the delegates and speakers were united in one thing – a desire for radical change. As the Conservative Party melts down in the polls, the likely result on the centre-right, including among free marketeers, is a growing belief that radical change is not only desirable but necessary. The failures of the Truss administration (whether self-inflicted, created by a hostile government blob, or a mix of the two) have given way to the stagnation of the Sunak era, but this approach is also failing. It feels that on the right of politics, there is hunger for a radical agenda of some kind. However, what format this radical agenda takes, as last week’s conference showed, is very much up for grabs. It is an area that liberals urgently need to confront and engage with by grappling with modern problems rather than pretending we are still facing the issues of the 1970s and 1980s.