Britain and the new National Conservatism
The orgy of propaganda we’re experiencing hopes to inculcate you with a sense of reflexive impotence and a (backwards) vision of Britain as a single unitary and ancient nation. While the Monarchy v Republican public debate can seem like a performative act, a sort of Punch and Judy of anger and debasement, the Coronation should be seen in the context of a wider emergent political movement.
‘National Conservatism’ (NatCon) is a mixture of authoritarianism, nostalgia and an insistence that immigration is an existential threat to Britain’s ‘soul’. In its founding ‘statement of principles’ it declares itself committed to the State, the Rule of law, Christianity as a Public Religion and the Traditional Family. It calls for much more ‘restrictive policies’ on immigration which “may sometimes include a moratorium on all immigration”. They write:
“We see the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring a proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice. We are conservatives because we see such virtues as essential to sustaining our civilization. We see such a restoration as the prerequisite for recovering and maintaining our freedom, security, and prosperity.”
The writer John Harris has called it a new “Orbánism”. He warns:
“The plain fact that high-ranking members of the government – as well as Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and the leading Brexiter David Frost – are more than happy to be associated with all this might seem concerning, to say the least. But the intersection between national conservatism and the Tory mainstream is actually well advanced.”
Although this is a new phenomenon it has long antecedents. Harris writes: “…its long history as an enduring facet of the Tories’ collective soul; and its recent spectacular revival, triggered by our exit from the EU, supported by networks of influencers in both the old and the new media, and now centred on Braverman’s Home Office. In a British context, you might think of NatCon as the spirit of that old Tory ghoul, Enoch Powell, revived and updated for the age of Brexit and Twitter, and now running rampant.”
Just as we think that the Tories are running out of steam and heading for political oblivion, he warns they could in fact be salvaged by their own record of failure. This particular brand of toxicity thrives on all of the conditions the Conservatives have created in the past thirteen years: social division and the exhaustion, stress and paranoia that comes with it; and the feelings of precarity and powerlessness that often feed hard-right populism.
But while Harris is one of the few journalists to identify this new Powellism, and to point out that while Enoch Powell was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, someone uttering the same speech today is made Home Secretary, there are one or two other aspects of this new National Conservatism not covered by Harris that are worth exploring.
Foxes, Snakes and Tigers
The first is the constitutional context this has within Britain. This renewed politics of the far-right is a manifestation of British Nationalism and the new Muscular Unionism that has emerged since 2018. So it is no surprise to find David Frost, Danial Hannan, Douglas Murray and Nigel Biggar among the speakers. Frost of course has been the most recent to express a new form of British nationalism when he wrote: “There is now a huge political opportunity, but it is one that must be seized. It won’t just drop into the Government’s hands. Scottish nationalism hasn’t disappeared. The Government has scotched the snake, not killed it.”
Once a Fox, now a Snake.
In a passage that rewards close reading Frost writes in the Telegraph:
“Of course, Gordon Brown and a few others are still going around arguing that transforming the UK into a skeletal federal state, with all real powers held in the regions, will stave off dissolution. But I strongly suspect that even Keir Starmer doesn’t really believe him. It’s very obvious that riding the tiger of Scottish nationalism has nearly seen the UK dismembered and gobbled up.
So now: do something different. Not only must no more powers be devolved to Scotland, it’s time to reverse the process. Devolution was designed in a different world – a world in which many powers theoretically devolved to Scotland were actually held at EU level and could not be exercised in practice. Brexit changed that, but rather than using the opportunity to rationalise things, a complex programme of “common frameworks” was established, making the UK Government a supplicant to the devolved administrations to maintain common rules across the country.
Boris Johnson and a few of us, against much internal opposition, devised what became the UK Internal Market Act in 2020, giving Westminster the power to spend in devolved areas and to require goods to flow freely across the UK. But it has not been used assertively as it should have been – and of course the Windsor Framework has now introduced new and unwelcome complications in this whole area.”
Where to start?
Well the confused metaphors of Foxes, Snakes and Tigers continue, but Frost is right about one thing, Starmer isn’t going to introduce Gordon Brown’s federalism and the centralising impulse lies strong in both Tories and Labour. But this is a senior Conservative figure, prominent within the new National Conservatism movement advocating ‘rolling-back’ devolution. Second of all it’s clear that Scotland – and the other devolved nations – have replaced the EU as the threat to ‘the UK Govt’ (for which read England). The UK is a “supplicant to the devolved administrations”. Brexit must be re-done and done again, this time liberating the, er, UK, from, er, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Finally the Internal Market needs to be used more ‘assertively’, he’s effectively arguing for direct rule bypassing elected parliaments by a government that Scotland has utterly rejected. This is what National Conservatism looks like within Britain.
Getting into his tirade now Frost continues: “Time to stop. Devolution was about enabling powers to be exercised closer to the people in a more practical and accountable way. Instead, it has resulted in the creation of closed-shop fiefdoms, effective one-party states, a tinpot amateurish one in Wales and a seriously dangerous one in Scotland.”
The powers that he is hoping to strip Scotland of are quite specific: “In particular, Scotland does not need to be an independent actor on the world stage; it should not be able to legislate to disrupt free trade within the UK; and it does not need to have most tax-raising powers currently available to it.”
He ends on a National Conservative crescendo: “Speak for Britain. And start rebuilding our nation.”
History is being re-written (and un-written) before our very eyes. Britain as a single unitary nation with a single culture and an indivisible set of internal policies is being created.
The second aspect that is worth examining is the paranoia that feeds much of the National Conservatism agenda, and how this plays very differently north and south of the border. This takes three forms, all elements of paranoid politics: the feeling of extreme threat by immigration; the culture war as an obsession; and the need to recreate a Christian State dominated by ‘traditional family values.’
The speaker list for the National Conservative conference in London is like a Who’s Who of British and American far-right. The keynote speakers are Suella Braverman, Michael Gove, Douglas Murray and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Others are alumni of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Edmund Burke Institute. The list includes Melanie Phillips, Darren Grimes, Matthew Goodwin, Toby Young, Emma Webb and a sprinkling of oddball columnists and presenters from GB News, Unherd, the Telegraph, Spiked, the Spectator and across Britain’s burgeoning reactionary media landscape.
Great to see Frank Furedi at a conference which states: “We see national conservatism as the best path forward for a democratic world confronted by a rising China abroad and a powerful new Marxism at home.” More Killing Marxism than Living Marxism, but hey [and, surely not the first time Furedi and Richard Dearlove have shared a gig?]
Some of this agenda is hard to disentangle. As Harris notes: “Relatively recently, the arguments Tory high-ups used when they were making the case for new restrictions mostly focused on questions about resources: crudely put, whether an already strained state and social fabric could cope with large numbers of new arrivals. Now, their case has as much to do with things that are usually summed up in the word “values”, thinly concealing a tangle of ideas about culture and nationhood that appear to have much more sinister echoes.
Last week, the Home Office minister Robert Jenrick gave a speech at the Policy Exchange thinktank, scattered with sentiments apparently copied straight from NatCon texts. Conservatives, he said, “should not shy away from their belief that the nation has a right to preserve itself”, nor from the insistence that “excessive, uncontrolled migration threatens to cannibalise the compassion of the British public”. As usual, such words as “excessive”, “uncontrolled” and “illegal” were mere fig leaves: as far as his message to the public was concerned, the intention was seemingly to frame all immigration as a threat to social stability and the integrity of the UK as a national community.”
So the language and terms of the immigration narrative are changing and morphing. This idea of “threat” is a constant, it was a key driver of Brexit-racism, propelled Priti Patel and Suella Braverman into the highest office, sustained Nigel Farage and, arguably is the dominant form of English politics today. The “threat” morphs between attacks on ‘our’ ‘sovereignty’, Turkey joining the EU, ‘immigrants’ crossing the channel, the Great Reset, and often has a sexual and racial component. The idea that ‘whites’ will become a minority in America is a mainstay of Trumpism.
National Conservatives argue that they want “a world of independent nations”, societies centred on the traditional family (“built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman” and resisting “ever more radical forms of sexual licence and experimentation”), and a big official role for Christianity (“which should be honoured by the state and other institutions both public and private”).
It’s in this context the swirling mass of fear and loathing feeds into the bizarre Coronation spectacle in which the idea of Christian Nationalism, Unionism and Ancient Tradition are combined in revanchist glory. The narratives are clear. Kate is presented as a porcelain-pure brood mare, pleasantly silent and suitably obedient in sharp contrast to her loathsome sister-in-law. The Coronation is the apogee of this idea of Britain as an ancient and exceptional place. The frenzy around this has a very precise relationship to the actual state of post-Brexit Britain. Tom Holland – in a distilled diatribe of religious glee explains the anointing ceremony:
“The inspiration for this, older than England, older than the house of Wessex, older than Christianity itself, was to be found in the Old Testament: “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.” This same verse, chanted at Edgar’s coronation and famously put to music by Handel, will be sung as well during Saturday’s service. Charles III will share in a ritual that originally marked out the kings of Israel – Saul and David and Solomon – as the adopted ones of God.”
Justified and Ancient
It’s tempting to think everyone’s lost their minds. Or to succumb and go with the flow. But as we can see these strands of British Nationalism: the National Conservative movement, the renewed Muscular Unionism and the spectacle of Monarchism are giving voice to the most reactionary forces.
But while these forces seem ascendant and even omnipotent they mask a deeper truth about the State We’re In. The desperation in the demands for loyalty is a thing to behold. The Homage of the People (yes they’re just making shit up now) reads: “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to your majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”
This longing for exceptionalism whilst being distinctly unexceptional has been building for years and this replacement of Empire Abroad for Empire Within Britain itself has been creeping up in Tory rhetoric for a while, here’s Penny:
Important continuity in the territorial offices. Congratulations to all three. pic.twitter.com/HqL6HerWwd
— Penny Mordaunt (@PennyMordaunt) September 15, 2021
This ‘National Conservatism’ lands very differently in Scotland than in England. Scotland needs – indeed pleaded for – the opportunity to hold a different immigration policy. The need for creating new myths about Britain is precisely a side-effect of England’s post-Brexit identity crisis – and the mirrored threats it feels from immigration and devolution – both conceived as existential threats to an entity that doesn’t exist. Weird isn’t it?