Energy and Environment

National Conservatism – another liberal response

With a selection of MPs and authors attempting to launch a National Conservative movement in the UK, my colleague Alex Morton, the IEA’s Director of Strategy, wrote an interesting liberal response to their ideology. Alex made several important critiques of National Conservative ideas which I agree with, including their puzzling belief in bigger government, the folly of giving more power to the progressive governing elite they claim to oppose, and the reality that British voters aren’t particularly socially conservative. There are, however, some aspects of the ideology which warrant additional criticism.

Alex wrote: “[National Conservatives] remain broadly in favour of a market economy, but with important caveats.” This certainly is true of some associated with British national conservatism, like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord Frost. However, if their ideals come to dominate the movement, then it won’t really be National Conservative.

In the United States, where the ideology originates and is growing to dominate the political right, there is certainly no broad support for free markets. Important thought leaders like Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and J.D. Vance of Ohio favour industrial strategy and trade protectionism as key linchpins of their ideology. They specifically criticise free markets for damaging traditional American economic institutions to the detriment of their favoured groups (working class and rural Americans).

Where some support for free markets exists, it is always secondary to social concerns with National Conservatives. We have already seen this tendency in British National Conservatives like Miriam Cates, whose support for markets and free speech quickly gives way to backing state intervention to subsidise family units or protect children from online ‘harms’.

Alex also wrote: “In the social sphere, the National Conservative agenda is too religiously motivated to fully migrate in the form in which it was originally conceived”

The National Conservatism attaching itself to the Right in America is bound to be more religious due to the influence of evangelical Christians. However, this does not mean that we can dismiss the social conservatism of US National Conservatives as a specifically American element, which could not survive the journey from America to Britain.

Even in American conservatism, religion no longer plays the role it once did. The core group that National Conservatives appeal to are white working-class voters, and to a lesser extent, male working-class Latino voters. They have been activated by the narrative of being ‘left behind’ by a country which has become more socially progressive and embraced free trade. These voters turned out in droves for Donald Trump, completing a slow realignment away from their Democratic political roots. Religious identity and attendance has declined significantly among this group in the last four decades and they are far less likely than other pro-Trump demographics to be anti-abortion.

So why are American National Conservatives so religious if their main target group is not? The answer is that religion and its socially conservative values act as a signifier for broader opposition against the secular, progressive, and cosmopolitan forces perceived to be tearing America from its traditional roots. It is easy to see how the ideas could be imported into the UK to appeal to our own white working-class voters even without the religious façade.

Alex’s piece also identifies common ground with National Conservatives in supporting the nation state, writing:

“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.”

On the issue of liberal nationalism broadly, as Alex argues, it can be a powerful unifying substitute for the sectional identity politics gripping Western societies. Likewise, some degree of nationalism is appealing compared to the alternative of global or otherwise supranational institutions.

The risk, however, is exposed by national conservatives. Far from the nation state being a structure and shared institution within which a liberal society can exist, they understand that the nation can itself become an effective vehicle for central planning. One which privileges the groups and identities they want to plan society around rather than those favoured by the left-progressives.

The only difference between National Conservative and left-progressives is which groups society should be centrally planned in favour of and why. Just as left-wing progressives have formed a movement of identity politics and victimhood narratives around historically marginalised groups, National Conservative progressives seek to do the same with historically privileged groups whose relative cultural status has declined, like the white working class and nuclear families.

National Conservatives will agree with liberals when we lament the tendency of progressives to reflexively label ideological opponents racist or sexist. However, they are too often happy to label their ideological opponents as classists for supporting more immigration or free trade and are just as eager to pull the sexism card when someone speaks up for transgender rights. Whether it’s working-class people from old industrial communities or trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), the National Conservatives are just as happy to placate the victimhood of their in-groups and insulate them from change as their leftist counterparts.

Consider proposals for Britain to pay reparations to former colonies or countries victimised by the transatlantic slave trade. National Conservatives will join most liberals in arguing that it is profoundly immoral to force individuals with no responsibility for slavery or imperialism to transfer money to those who were never enslaved or colonised. Now imagine applying such logic to regional economic inequality. Indeed, most of the North and the Midlands has lost its core industries and, with it, much of its cultural status. It would, indeed, be profoundly immoral to attribute blame to Londoners and South-easterners who now power the UK economy; or to those entrepreneurs and workers in foreign countries who now do those industrial jobs more cheaply and efficiently. And yet, they so often do. They expect UK immigration and trade policy to artificially promote British workers at the expense of immigrants and workers in foreign industries. They expect successful South-easterners to sacrifice the wealth they create to subsidise less productive parts of the country instead of allowing – and expecting – them to change and evolve.

National Conservatives have more in common with left-wing progressives than they realise. Both exploit victimhood narratives which can lead them, intentionally or not, to hostility to wealth creation, and both hark back an imaginary past. A difference in principle is in the causes and groups they chose to patronise. As liberals, we support growth, reason and dealing with reality.

If National Conservatism successfully establishes itself, it risks doing so as a reactionary, socially conservative mirror image of progressive authoritarianism. Their ideas conflict with free markets and free trade, and ideals like equality under the law and primacy of the individual.

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