National Conservatism part one
Down among the dumpsters
Last Wednesday was the last day of the National Conservatism conference. The public benches were as full as they had been all week, but the press benches were almost empty. The big Tory beasts had done their turns leaving only Lord Frost to make his pitch, and in no known dimension was that likely to be interesting. So the hacks had gone and everyone else was freer to be themselves.
That included the sound team for the venue who demonstrated a keen sense of the inappropriate by playing us in with Louis Armstrong’s version of On The Sunny Side of the Street.
Grab your coat
Grab your hat, baby
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
On the sunny side of the street
The first person to speak – a woman in her early 20s called Zewditu Gebroyohanes, chair of the session entitled History and Heritage – showed from her earliest words that she had ripped her coat, sat on her hat and directed her feet to an alley full of dumpsters. ‘We have seen”, she declared “a war on our heritage!” It was a war being fought by the National Trust and the Tate (but not the V&A, to which the government recently appointed her as a trustee), but “if we give up on our heritage, we give up on our nation!” With that happy thought she introduced her panel.
They were Dr David Starkey who requires less than no introduction, a slightly plaintive theologian turned historian called Nigel Biggar, Ofr Haivry an Israeli man associated with The Burke Foundation which organised the event, and a young woman called Emma Webb.
Starkey, as ever, played Starkey. Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory (both of which he seems to think are political parties) “want to destroy the entire Western tradition [applause]. They do not care about black lives, they only care about the symbolic destruction of white culture!” Nigel Biggar more temperately took aim at the decolonising “epidemic” and compared the statue-removers of academe with the temple destroyers of Islamic State. Mr Haivry, was opposed to Tony Blair’s past and Keir Starmer’s proposed future reform of the Lords but never quite got round to explaining why on its foundation Israel had not itself opted for a hereditary second chamber. Or should that be Heroditary?
Now allow me a little time with Emma Webb. Ms Webb is that new hybrid - an opportunity-seizing wet-behind-the-ears product of the nexus of American money, well-funded but fringe quasi-political organisations, right-wing news channels and social media. Her Twitter bio lists her affiliations as writer and broadcaster on GBNews, a fellow of the New Culture Forum, an advisor to Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and as having something to do with “theology and political philosophy” at the Common Sense Society. She appears regularly on morning and daytime TV shows.
Ms Webb was cross with Charles’s crowning for not being traditional enough:
Over the weekend I made the big mistake of watching the coronations of George VI and the Queen and the decline is frankly devastating. A decline in execution, in style, in reverence. By contrast Charles's coronation felt like crumbs - glorious for sure but apologetic. Watching those images I will be honest I felt sad - as I'm sure many of you do and it's a sadness that dare not speak its name. Why is it so hard for us even as conservatives and as traditionalists to face that sadness fully? It is because it's raw and painful it's painful to stop for a moment and fully recognise the scale of our self-inflicted loss, to recognise that the generations who came before us have thrown away our precious inheritance and that those around us are vandalising what little is left and so with dread we might wonder what might get served up at the next coronation.
Who did they think they were talking to?
I quote this at length because it struck me as being so odd. Insofar as there were any Britons who sat through the coronation and thought “Why am I feeling raw and pained at the lack of tradition in this?” they were probably all in the chamber at the Emmanuel Centre. And yet come to address this collection of highly atypical and often extreme people were some of the Conservative party’s leading figures (plus Lord Frost). Suella Braverman made a perfectly formed pre-released leadership-contender’s speech, complete with a “my journey” story and empty peroration. Jacob Rees Mogg turned up to invoke 1215 and 2019 in more or less the same sentence, along with St Thomas Aquinas (who got nearly as many mentions as Douglas Murray during the three days, but rather fewer than Roger Scruton). Lord Hannan arrived to tell the assembled that Brexit was a great success and that free markets were wonderful, neither of which they believed. And Michael Gove was interviewed on stage and delivered no discernible message whatsoever.
Why were they there? Why did they all claim some form of relationship with National Conservatism? Who did they think they were talking to? You can glean some clues from coverage of the conference by Conservative commentators. Frost himself, writing for the Telegraph following his contribution to the event argued with typical modesty that “the conference gathered together almost anyone who is anyone in the conservative intellectual world today. We had serious discussions about family policy, history and heritage, foreign policy, economics and much more – yes, including religion.” Then he added,
I don’t find any of these ideas to be unconservative, still less imports from the badlands of US Republicanism. Indeed my experience is that they are widely shared not only within the Conservative Party’s membership but very broadly within the country, even if many people fear admitting it publicly lest the demons of cancel culture descend upon them. National conservatism… can be an important part of conservatism for post-Brexit Britain – helping us govern our nation in a tried and tested conservative way. The Conservative Party should embrace it, and draw strength from it, not push it aside.
Did Frost, I wonder, stay on for the speech that followed his? The one from Times columnist Melanie Phillips, which drew the biggest ovation of the entire three days? The one where she lambasted the Conservative party from top to bottom (writer’s note, can you lambaste a bottom? Even if you’re not Katherine Birbalsingh?) But more on the speeches from Ms Phillips and Professor Matthew Goodwin and the philosophy of National Conservatism-made-flesh in the next post.
Over at the Conservative Home website Boris Johnson’s jolly and complacent biographer Andrew Gimson noted that the conference had “tended more towards pessimism than rebellion” (again, he missed Melanie’s call to action) but concluded that the conference “did show a large number of people, many of them young, thinking about the problems, and wondering what part a rehabilitated, reinvigorated, Christian conservatism inspired by Burke and Disraeli might have to play”. Perhaps, reflected Gimson, it would be like Baldwin’s and then Churchill’s moves to “win the battle of ideas” against the socialists.
Sebastians 2 Women 0
Well no. Gimson was also not present for the session that, for me, revealed most tellingly what National Conservatism really is. Showed indeed what is unique about it. Panel VII was the post-prandial God and Country session and the place was full. On stage were five people, four of whom I had never heard of before signing up for this conference.. The chair was a man called Peter Whittle, founder of the New Culture Forum of which you’ll recall Emma Webb says she is a Fellow. Two leaders of right-wing fringe parties (including Laurence Fox) spoke at their last big event which is pretty much all you need to know.
Sebastians outnumbered women on the panel by two to zero, and where there’s a Sebastian there’s usually a Catholic. All four panellists were white. This was slightly unrepresentative of the event as a whole because by my reckoning only about 80% of conference attendees were male and a meagre 98% were white. Pretty much like a Times leader conference in fact.
The first billed speaker was Rod Dreher, an American who moved from his native Louisiana to Budapest in 2020 because he approved of the Christian nationalism of Viktor Orban. Alas Dreher had broken his clavicle and his speech was to be read for him by a Father Daniel French, the Anglican vicar of Salcombe, a parish where he tends to the troubled souls of second-home owners. And this is where the disturbing fun began.
Father French had some words to say for himself before sharing Dreher’s. And I honestly think they may constitute the most bizarre contribution to a public discussion that I have ever heard. French began by talking about the problems of communicating the urgency of Britain’s moral situation to the parents of children about to be christened. “This”, he said, “is the way to get to them. I say, where are you going to go with your child in 2020 when they say everyone else has a chip implanted in their brain and they want one? What will you say when aged 8 your child says, ‘mum and dad, why can’t I be a different sex?’. What are you going to say when, aged 10, they identify as a cat? When at 13 they say that women have penises? When at 15 they say they’re into polyamory? When at 16 they tell you that they’ve reported you?”
Dreher’s own argument was that “the 21st century will be for Christianity what the 4th century was for Roman paganism” and that the Church needed to go underground to survive the coming Dark Ages. It counselled finally that “our [presumably now overground] arks be broad lest they sink in the deluge of modernity”.
The next speaker, one of the Sebastians (this one an infant theologian surnamed Milbank who was recently the “Head of Blue Labour, Cambridge”) wanted to hail the unique contribution of Britain in first accepting Christianity and then taking it back into the world via its empire. Now, however, “Britishness is being put to the sword” and “it feels as though the world has flooded back into Britain”. Despite that, he concluded, “we must learn to love and trust one another again”.
Father Benedict Kielty was less emollient. “Orcs” he said, had cut down a cherry orchard near his mother’s house in Kent recently, and this was a metaphor for, well everything really. Echoing Milbank’s “Britain is a Christian nation or it is nothing at all”, Kielty argued that “If we don’t do God, we don’t do England!” What we had right now, he said, was a “new paganism, empty and joyless” whereas only religion properly valued “every human from conception to death”. Which was the sole reference to limiting abortion that I heard, but which received a lot of applause from the floor.
And what about the Church of England? Pshaw! “What was the church doing during covid?” he demanded. “We got directions on hand-wiping and pew-cleaning!” These attempts to save elderly parishioners’ lives instead of their souls were clearly terrible in his opinion and the audience agreed. During questions Kielty later clarified that the universal love he wished to spread around could not come from a broad church but a militant one, wielding “the iron fist in the velvet glove!” More applause.
This Dominican desire to love people by burning them was soon outdone. The worst came last with a second Sebastian – Morello, a Catholic traditionalist (hates Francis, likes Benedict) and self-describing as a philosopher “trained by Sir Roger Scruton”. The author of Conservatism and Grace was high on the former and low on the latter.
His contempt for the creatures of modernity was absolute, from the “Blue Hairs” (this is apparently what “social justice warrior” protesters are dubbed), to the “counterfeit” festivals of the LGBTQ community, such as Pride, which have replaced good authentic saints’ days, like St Swithins (my example). We live in “Satan’s Principality”, a godless realm created by progressives who prefer the atomised individual to the fulfilled human being. The Muslims in the West, he said, “have found a total spiritual wasteland and they are filling it!”
His evidence and his ire became increasingly contemporary and specific. For some reason he branched off into an attack on the authorities for the handling of the pandemic “for which by the way”, he said somewhat ominously “there has yet to be a proper reckoning!” Applause. The direction of his discontent soon became clear. “The police had morphed into roaming thugs!” The population had been forced to take “experimental drugs” (ie covid vaccines). And no one was prepared ot admit the scale of damage caused by the vaccine!
At this point someone from the back made their first and last contribution to the conference and loudly muttered “liar”. I’m afraid it was me. I had failed properly to learn to love and trust again. But now I had drained National Conservatism and in the final session only the wind-up merchants (Toby Young and Darren Grimes) were left to wind up. So I got up from the hardest seat I have ever sat upon and left.
Next episode in a few hours…
But that’s far from all. The next post will look at who actually ARE the National Conservatives, will remind readers of Engelbert Dollfuss, and wonder whether there might be such a thing as being “fascist adjacent”. See you then.
By God you're on top form in this one Mr. Aa. 'Pretty much like a Times leader conference in fact...' must have been a joy to write... Tx
Tremendous - thanks for taking one for the team - looking forward to part 2... have these sort of gatherings happened forever but never hit the mainstream or are these horrors just better organised?