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.

National Paranoia

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:

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?

Comments (18)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Gods don’t exist in nature*, being merely a figment of human imagination. Therefore to base policy, history or oaths on the words of a novel is frankly absurd, and an insult to intelligence. I certainly won’t be citing any oath.

    That humanity has devolved to such nonsense does not bode well for our future existence as a species.

    *We don’t see dolphins praying, nor penguins on the path to Mecca, nor wolves at a shrine, or bees at a baptism, etc

  2. Bill says:

    I do wonder if ‘national conservatism’ is just this centuries name for last centuries ‘national socialism. The tories in office have successfully inculcated hatred as a way of life. The vilification of certain groups of people, immigrants work shy fiddlers of the dole, any one who is ‘woke’. etc etc.
    I am truly in despair of the rising tide of authoritarian behaviour, from the national government legislating against the right to peacefully protest, to local councils legislating against the clothes that may be worn in public.

    On top of all of this we now have a gathering of the fascists to plan further hateful measures. Yes Lineker was right, it does smack of the Thirties. Of course one should remember that Mosley’s black shirts were quite active in Britain. Are we seeing a return to that situation again? I worry that that is so.

    Immigrants in Manston Camp, surely a concentration camp in fact if not in name. The language of Braverman and Jenrick, an indication of what is to come? Or am I just a stupid old codger ranting against the light?


    1. Ann Rayner says:

      I agree, Bill. as I was reading this nonsense the parallels with National Socialism in Germany in the 30s were very striking.
      I think we shuld be very afraid at this movement and do whatever we can to thwart it for the sake of our preserving our Scottish Identity.

  3. James Mills says:

    If this new National Conservatism claims ”Christianity …should be honoured by the State and other institutions both Public and Private ” , how is it ”honoured” by having a man who drove a Royal coach and horses through his Marriage Vows as ”Defender of the Faith ” ?

  4. Alan C says:

    Scotland needs to disassociate it’s self from the toxic tories, sooner rather than later. The SNP are not going to act on the mandate they keep being given, so what now? I read John Harris’ column and frankly it scared me.

  5. Andy says:

    Thankyou Mike. This is a useful article. Setting aside the authenticity and coherence of ‘NatCon’, the involvement of the usual suspects (of US ‘think’ tanks and therefore US private donor funding) means this is simply more US vomit being funnelled into the UK and is therefore, like Murdoch, foreign intervention in the UK for nameless and faceless actors. You are 100% right when you say : ‘this replacement of Empire Abroad for Empire Within Britain’.

  6. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I am somewhat surprised that Labour has not sent representatives to this conference.

  7. John Wood says:

    So if the Labour Party manage to defeat the Conservatives can we expect ‘National Conservatism’ to become ‘National Socialism’? This is all actually quite terrifying. Whichever of these two rules us it’s all just ‘designer fascism’. The British Establishment is running scared and when that happens it turns very nasty indeed.

    We need to fight back

  8. SleepingDog says:

    On unity and social division, I have recently read two critical books on the British military — The Changing of the Guard: The British Army since 9/11 by Simon Akam (2021), and Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-military Life by Joe Glenton (2021) — both of which underline the divisiveness of this royalist institution.

    Akam describes how Mike Martin realises “the army is not in fact a single organisation at all, but rather an awkwardly organised collection of warring tribes, inadequately co-ordinated and often fighting each other.” pp511–2

    Glenton writes about the ‘hierarchies of contempt’ where in British military conditioning the greatest hatred is reserved for one’s own civilians, then other military arms or units (apparently Nazi formations are much more popular than either in some units).

    The British military, like the British Empire, is divided in many different ways (ranks, arms, units, combat/support etc) all of which are exploited grounds for hostility. Mutinies must be quarantinable and one set of troops used to suppress another, I guess, in a continuation of imperial divide and rule. When British unionists/royalists talk of ‘unity’, it seems they really mean subjugation to unaccountable central authority.

    Incidentally, the “scotch’d the snake” quote comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I reckon could be staged as a popular uprising:

    1. SleepingDog says:

      Talking of Macbeth, the recent Almeida production shown last night on BBC4 went quite the other way and boldly eliminated a class of characters — essential workers — leaving the lower classes represented by murderers and the play top-heavy with upper-class angst. Perhaps that is the National Conservative way, failing to understand the systems, structures and vital role of thinking, feeling, agency-possessing labour in our society.

  9. Devine says:

    The Alt-Right more or less control vast regions of the media, that is obvious from reversing Voltaire’s observation of rulership and criticising: if you want to know who rules over you simply observe those who are being continually criticised. The Gary Lineker attack as though what he said was remotely controversial. Now we are in a situation where these extremists are openly voicing opinions that would have been proscribed thirty or forty years ago: banning the right to strike; gunboating migrants; threats of war with France printed as headlines in national newspapers; abolishing devolution- “Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. 100% success rate.” Lee Anderson. The list is endless.
    And I think much of this is a spinoff from the contempt the Tories have for the public in general: Bojo’s endless lying during partygate and his barefaced lying to the Queen; failures in declaring private interests, cash for favours, the covid scandals, etc and yet under Sunak they are beginning to reduce Labours lead in the polls, despite various scandals such as failing to tell MPs his wife owned shares in a childcare firm boosted by the Budget. They view the English tory voting public as morons and this view is evidenced in the open contempt they demonstrate through their atavistic behaviour. I think maybe it was Vaclav Havel who said that modern humanity is cursed with a sort of amnesia due to the glut of images he is exposed to in his over mediated culture- they forget what happened a few weeks ago, months ago, never mind years ago- is this why people lose the capacity to criticise- how can we criticise what we cannot remember? For example, how have people forgotten Charles rendezvous to meet his auld Arab muckers and bringing back bags full of hard cash- where his bags checked at customs?
    Now we’ve to swear allegiance to this huckster.
    These people are clearly in the ascendancy. If it wasn’t so how then could they be so deep into this process of channeling the demonic ghost of Enoch Powell? Who would ever have thought ten or even five years ago that such a policy as sending asylum seekers to Rwanda would ever become reality?
    As for the alt-right revering Christianity- what kind of Christianity is it? Clearly it is nothing like Liberation Theology. Clearly it will have none of the radical spirit of Christian socialism or anarchism, the Diggers or the Levellers or the beautiful humanity of Francis of Assisi…in fact none of the love, compassion or radical forgiveness that is the true spirit of Jesus Christs teachings- the only founder of a major religion who is represented as homeless, destitute, as a threatened refugee, merely as a humble carpenter, a friend to the outcast, the poor, the sick and the socially reviled…the absolute opposite of what those on the right hold up as ‘sacred’.
    I just want to finish on something Havel said in the early nineties: “I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going thorough a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble”…what sort of future being is emerging and rising from that burning rubble is hard to see…is some power worshipping apocalyptic beast that will consume the earth…or is it a phoenix like angel fired from a multitudes flaming prayers of a better world to come?

  10. H Scott says:

    Another dimension to this is an increasing rehabilitation of Western imperialism; within the UK, British imperialism in particular.

    1. Hi H Scott – yes I try and cover that in the article – Scotland NI and Wales are replacing the EU as the ‘threat’ to be conquered and subdued.

  11. Duncan Sutherland says:

    An impressive analysis.

    However, on the subject of immigration I would merely point out that the phenomenon of illegal immigration in Europe is at this moment in fact developing rapidly into something which from any ideological perspective will soon unavoidably be understood as a large-scale cascading problem of seemingly infinite complexity which will need to be addressed urgently and imaginatively by all governmental administrations at all levels.

    Take a look at what is happening at Lampedusa right now, where migrant-receiving facilities are constantly being overwhelmed, and off the coast of Malta, where migrant-carrying vessels in distress are routinely being ignored by the authorities because they cannot and/or will not cope with the vast numbers of people whom they would otherwise have to rescue and accommodate.

    Facts are chiels that winna ding. They need to be acknowledged and confronted realistically, taking account of the limited resources which are available.

    The Tories will exploit this situation for their own purposes, of course, but there is still a problem to be addressed, a problem which is already out of control and which is becoming more and more challenging as more and more flimsy vessels set out for Europe from the coast of North Africa as climate change and conflict push desperate people to abandon their own countries in exponentially increasing numbers.

    An SNP MP suggests that Scotland should have independence so that it can be kind to immigrants. Laudable, but exceptional kindness would become a pull factor, which would draw vast numbers of migrants to Scotland, from where they would mostly cross over the border into England. The UK will never allow it, whether governed by the Tories or Labour.

    1. John says:

      You may be correct about what is happening in the south of Europe I cannot correctly comment. GB is in a unique position being an island which makes access far more difficult for immigrants. Scotland is even further for migrants to travel so this one reason why Scotland is even less appealing to migrants.
      The numbers of migrants/asylum seekers crossing the channel are still a relatively small number not the ‘invasion’ as outlined by Tory ministers although I am sure all would agree people risking their life in such a manner is something that everyone should strive to avoid. There is no easy solution to this problem as roots are deep and complex but in UK ‘s example problems have been excacerbated by Brexit therefore cutting ourselves off from countries whose cooperation is required to help manage this problem and the cutting back on any legal routes for migrants. The overall issue and situation of migrants in UK has been made much worse by failure of UK government to process these people within an acceptable time frame – this is a failure of the Westminster government with, as so many failures, lack of resources at the root of the problem.
      The UK government has no intention of putting in hard yards to more effectively deal with migration as they want it to be seen as a problem. Hence they are more interested in proposing ‘radical’, populist, headline catching policies which will prove ineffective for short term and stoke their culture wars agenda against people who may oppose these policies purely for perceived political gain.
      The other facts that you do not mention in your comments are the demographic time bomb slowly exploding in all UK (and Western) countries with an increasing older population having to be supported by a decreasing younger population. Increased immigration will be required to help finance and maintain the services in all UK countries unless we have some sort of baby boom in near future.

      1. John says:

        I should have added that the ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan was an election tactic used by Liberal party to help win elections in Australia. The Tory Party is being advised by Lynton Crosby and Tony Abbott both of whom were members of Aussie liberal party who were deeply involved in implementing this policy.
        It is a deeply cynical approach which aims to appeal to worst instincts of electorate.

  12. Wul says:

    I’ve seen “Nat-C” used as an abbreviation for this repugnant movement. Seems appropriate.

    “If the cap fits…” ?

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, or, indeed, crown. I suppose one difference is that some German authorities have apologised and a public debate on past wrongs held:ältigung
      although they are still struggling with treating non-Europeans equally (see Herero and Namaqua genocide from their earlier imperial era).

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