National Conservatism – a liberal response
The National Conservative movement has grown as part of a post-liberal approach to the centre-right that began in America and has subsequently begun to migrate over here to the UK. Following the implosion of Liz Truss last year, it certainly feels as if much of the political energy as those on the centre-right contemplate the post-Sunak world is currently with this nascent National Conservative movement. This impressive Conference is just another element of that intellectual force taking shape.
How should those who are more liberally minded respond to this challenge? Personally, I am intrigued by much of the National Conservative agenda. They remain broadly in favour of a market economy, but with important caveats. They are socially conservative rather than liberal. And finally, they are much more nationally conscious.
It is this last issue that feels most relevant to liberals. On the crucial issue of institutions, and particularly national institutions (including national borders), it feels like liberals are at a crossroads. While some liberals deride nationalism and prefer instead cosmopolitan values, historically this has not always been the case. Liberalism as a political force was born as the twin with nationalism in the 19th century. From Germany to Greece, political liberals thought that a civic nationalism was inextricably linked to liberal values and vice versa. They believed as much in effective national institutions as the free hand of the market and saw the two working together.
Indeed, so fundamental was a national identity seen to liberty that JS Mill once commented that “free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities”, while that other great empirical British liberal, Adam Smith, saw an individual’s love of one’s country as an inevitable and useful part of social interaction. While both saw the dangers in aggressive xenophobia, they certainly did not see nationalism per se as a bad thing but a good one, and one that which was necessary for liberal success and functioning human affairs.
I would argue the history of the 20th century, with the disasters of central planning and dysfunctional markets in many weak post-colonial nations fundamentally strengthens those liberals who believe that a functioning national identity is a necessary part of a free society. In the modern world it is particularly important to liberals who are hostile to identity politics as a modern replacement for the collective identity provided by a functioning nation state. This battle is probably one of the most important that will come over the next decade or so, and it feels like a key distinction between “liberal” (in the American sense) progressives and classical liberals.
In the social sphere, the National Conservative agenda is too religiously motivated to fully migrate in the form in which it was originally conceived (check out these principles that motivated it and see why this is a very American and religiously motivated movement). It is in parts a post-liberal movement that seeks to impose a new set of values on the public (ironically while attacking progressive ‘woke’ politics for being too censorious and authoritarian). Many of us would like to see a renewed liberalism instead of trying to turn the clock back to an imagined past and dictating to people how to live their lives.
Fortunately, the British people are far too socially liberal for the National Conservatives to succeed in any push-around social conservatism, as polling entitled How Britain Became Socially Liberal shows – and these trends are only accelerating in terms of continued rapid secularisation and with shifting attitudes to sex, relationships and drugs in a more liberal direction. Indeed, the fact that the National Conservative movement is behind Donald Trump even in America (currently in legal trouble over hiding payments to an escort/porn star for services rendered) shows they probably realise even in the more religious USA this aspect of National Conservatism is not going anywhere.
However, there is perhaps an overlap around cultural conservativism for both classical liberals and National Conservatism. The social conservatism of the Conference unhelpfully obscures this common ground area of cultural conservativism, a belief in shared history and celebrating national culture. Hostility to National Conservatives trying to shore up the disintegrating social conservatism of the public does not preclude agreeing with academic Nigel Biggar for example. You do not have to be a National Conservative to agree that the progressive onslaught against British history and deliberate attempts to highlight the bad but ignore the good are likely to result in a more fractious, divided and ultimately economically and socially weakened society.
This leaves the last aspect of the economy, where the National Conservatives are typical of modern conservatives in that they “support the market in general but it needs more regulation/taxation/control…”
I’ve lost count of the amount of times that politicians seem to express a similar sentiment. If the state was 5 or even 10% of GDP with a light regulatory touch this concern that we need a bit more government might make sense, but with taxes at the highest they have been in decades and a vast regulatory blob expanding on an almost daily basis, it is hard to see how the solution is yet more government.
It is in fact a major irony that the National Conservatives are hostile to the new progressive ruling elite, but they plan to give more powers to exactly this group. If you think that the problem is that progressive elites are in charge of too much of our society, it is hard to see why an industrial strategy that puts even more economic and policy levers in the hands of bureaucrats, politicians and quangos is going to solve our problems. But even here they are going to do liberals a service by forcing them to stop living in a libertarian dreamworld and instead think seriously about what a more effective and smaller state actually looks like. By being less interested in how we can get the state to say, 25-30%% of GDP with a light touch regulatory economy, we instead now have a state that bounces between 40% and 50% of GDP with a vast regulatory burden.
Regardless of how you feel about National Conservativism and its goals, this is an impressive Conference that is at least trying to grapple with big ideas. In a world of dreary technocratic decline, even a national liberal such as myself welcomes the challenge and debate this will bring. After all, liberals have always welcomed the challenge of debate and free thinking ideas and I look forward to attending the Conference in a few weeks.
For more on the conference, go to: https://nationalconservatism.org/natcon-uk-2023/