Illustration by Michael Rea, photography by Sara Morris

Flag, faith and failure: three days with the National Conservatives

The movement’s London conference exposed a dark undercurrent to the modern right. Are these so-called patriots the future—or an embarrassing sideshow?
June 14, 2023

The Tories are in trouble. Despite fairly persistent (and sometimes perverse) attempts by the pundit class to suggest that Rishi Sunak has given the party grounds for hope at the next general election, the polls and the recent council elections offer no such solace. As I write, the most recent poll average puts Labour 15 points ahead and there is growing talk of a landslide.

In this situation, you start looking for the cavalry. Some Tories, including members of something called the “Conservative Democratic Organisation”, are persuaded that the return of Boris Johnson is the fillip that the party needs. Attending a gathering of this campaign group in Bournemouth in May, former home secretary Priti Patel described the former prime minister as a “vote-­winning political giant”. More Conservatives, however, took heart from an event being held the following week an orb’s throw from Westminster Abbey. 

There, in the large, semi-circular, banked auditorium of the Emmanuel Centre—Bible quotes on the walls and benches hard enough to scourge the most sinful backside—the National Conservatives were having their London conference. In the Daily Telegraph three weeks earlier, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost (formerly chief Brexit negotiator, now Conservative peer) had penned a joint column welcoming the event. They also announced they would “both be speaking, alongside a wide range of conservative scholars, commentators and other politicians, including two current Cabinet ministers.” 

And why? “Because we are excited to contribute to the development of a movement that can bring new life to our conservative traditions in Britain and new energy for the challenges ahead.” Alas, they wrote, the British people seemed to be lapsing back into social democratic ways of thinking, but Frost and Rees-Mogg believed that “the NatCon conference and British conservatism more broadly will help us turn the tide.” 

It was perhaps a sign of Conservative desperation that any of their senior figures turned up at all. In 2019—unnoticed by virtually everyone—the National Conservatives’ previous London event had attracted nobody more exalted than Daniel Hannan (before his ennoblement by Boris Johnson) and the pro-Saudi MP for Shrewsbury, Daniel Kawczynski. 

The two cabinet members referred to in the Telegraph article were the home secretary Suella Braverman and Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up. In addition to them and the Frost-Moggs, one other Tory peer and four Conservative MPs took part. But what about the “movement” whose conference they were addressing? Was it the rather ideologically amorphous gathering that was being suggested, where broadly open-minded though sometimes eccentric folk on the right would debate their differing outlooks in an atmosphere of constructive good faith?

There were Bible quotes on the walls and benches hard enough to scourge the most sinful backside

Well, no. I sat through most of the three-day event, including the appearances of the Frost-Moggs and Braverman. I gave Gove’s onstage interview a miss because my instinct was that he would be maddeningly Delphic and would tease the conference by amiably refusing to engage with its main themes—and so he did. And it’s certainly the case that Rees-Mogg, Frost and even Braverman—who gave a why-I-should-be-leader speech—spoke as though they were busy pros appearing somewhere altogether less revolutionary and exciting—the Welsh Conservative conference, perhaps. And the audience quietly loathed them, because National Conservatism is something else altogether. 

Today’s National Conservatism movement is the invention of, above anyone else, Yoram Hazony, a far-right Israeli political philosopher and Bible scholar. Hazony admired the fervour (though not the violent ethics) of the neo-fascist American founder of the ultranationalist Kach movement, the late rabbi Meir Kahane. Hazony’s belief is that the whole land of Israel, including the occupied West Bank, was bequeathed to the Jews by God and is theirs by right. 

The urtext of the National Conservative movement is his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, which embodies the idea of a metaphysical relationship between people, deity and land.

In 2019, Hazony set up a body called the Edmund Burke Foundation (EBF) with the objective of spreading the ideas in his book more widely. The Cause IQ website, which provides information about US non-profits, shows the EBF to have received significant sums from the Jewish Philanthropy Fund (whose president is Hazony himself) and the Thomas D Klingenstein Fund. Klingenstein is also heavily involved in the Claremont Institute—a pro-Trump “thinktank” whose stated mission is to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.”

Since the EBF was established, its main role has been to hold National Conservatism conferences in the United States, Belgium and Italy, as well as the UK. Addresses have been given by, among others, Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, Giorgia Meloni (before she became prime minister of Italy) and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Such names give lie to any suggestion that these conferences are just arbitrary get-­togethers of folk on the right. The notion that National Conservatism merely implies a vaguely traditionalist attachment to the nation—a political version of the National Trust—does not survive much scrutiny. Not, of course, that it has received much scrutiny. 

Sinister or comic? Jacob Rees-Mogg was one of several senior Tory party figures to attend May’s NatCon conference. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images Sinister or comic? Jacob Rees-Mogg was one of several senior Tory party figures to attend May’s NatCon conference. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

There is definitely an ideology here. Last year the EBF issued a “Statement of Principles”, published in the American Conservative and European Conservative magazines. The vast majority of signatories were American. They included the tech multibillionaire Peter Thiel, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and Michael Anton, a former spokesman for Trump’s security council (who attempted to define “the Trump Doctrine”, whatever that was). Eight of the 72 signatories appeared on stage in London in late May, some as speakers and others to chair sessions. A committee of nine men drafted the principles. Foremost among them was Yoram Hazony. 

The signatories, the statement begins, “are citizens of Western nations who have watched with alarm as the traditional beliefs, institutions, and liberties underpinning life in the countries we love have been progressively undermined and overthrown.” (They are a wordy bunch, the NatCons.) This process must be reversed by “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.”

A set of principles—ordered by 10 themes—is then affirmed to help this proper public orientation on its way. The first is based on the idea that the nation state is the only true claimant on the loyalty and affiliation of citizens. The second amounts to a claim that supranational bodies (other than “defensive alliances” and trade agreements) are works of the globalising devil and should be renounced. The third sees a recommendation that bodies—including the judiciary—that interfere with the rights of national legislatures should have their powers drastically reduced. And that “in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.” Lawlessness, of course, has a precise definition. Immorality and dissolution do not. Do I hear the Taliban morality police laughing into their beards? 

Number four asserts that “The Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and non-believers alike.” It goes on, “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” Time for the UK to welcome back compulsory school prayers and sabbath observance.

In number seven (headed “Public Research”) the authors recommend getting stuck into those institutions that have the wrong ideas. “Most universities,” they argue, “are at this point partisan and globalist in orientation and vehemently opposed to nationalist and conservative ideas. Such institutions do not deserve taxpayer support unless they rededicate themselves to the national interest. Education policy should serve manifest national needs.” I think readers are entitled to any chill they may be feeling here.

Number eight, “Family and Children”, regrets “the disintegration of the family”, which is down in significant part to “ever more radical forms of sexual licence and experimentation”, but which can be reversed by recreating the “economic and cultural conditions that foster stable family and congregational life and child-raising”. 

In nine, the authors call for “much more restrictive policies” on immigration, “until [western] countries summon the wit to establish more balanced, productive, and assimilationist policies. Restrictive policies may sometimes include a moratorium on immigration.”

The word “democracy” and the phrase “human rights” appear virtually nowhere in these principles. And this may be no accident. National Conservatism does not espouse either of these concepts per se, since it believes in no universal standard. It quietly conceives of situations where the mystical national-religious entity trumps mere democracy (again, think of the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank). Quite how it deals with problems such as the national right of the God-fearing Iranian regime to develop nuclear weapons, I never did find out. 

Four people who had signed the statement were on the London event’s nine-strong organising committee, which will have decided how to divide up the sessions and who to invite. This was a full three-day jamboree requiring many appearances and the net obviously had to be cast wide. And so the schedule included panel sessions (with questions), plenary sessions (without) and the occasional address. There were the in-and-out Tory bigwigs, several pro-Trump Americans from well-heeled thinktanks, a trio of employees of organisations funded by the Hungarian government, a scattering of normal people on the political right, numerous representatives of myriad institutes and pressure groups on the communitarian right (so many of the speakers sat on the boards or were fellows of each other’s organisations that I contemplated creating a diagram, before realising that no one sane would look at it), and a minor constellation of dim controversialists familiar from right-wing talk-shows, such as Darren Grimes, Toby Young and Laura Dodsworth.

It seemed fair to surmise from the invitations (and also from their own speeches) that right-wing Americans and Israelis have a rather off-kilter idea of what kind of country Britain actually is. 

But then, it has to be said that the picture of the nation created by the British speakers was unrecognisable. Miriam Cates, the Conservative MP and co-founder of the New Social Covenant Unit (on whose advisory board sit three other speakers), inhabits a Britain where cultural Marxism “is systematically destroying our children’s souls”. Her fellow covenanting Tory MP, Danny Kruger, believes there is a whole generation out there who have been radicalised “in the name of a new ideology, a new religion—a mix of Marxism and narcissism and paganism, self-worship and nature-worship all wrapped up in revolution.” 

The go-to controversial headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh seemed to think that in all schools other than her own the pupils are in charge, and recounted with horror a story about being part of a group of teachers who couldn’t make it beyond the first verse of the national anthem. Misguided teachers are also, according to professor Frank Furedi, “turning schools into clinics”, pathologising and medicalising childhood experience rather than letting young people just get on with being normally unhappy. 

Stand up and be counted: Katherine Birbalsingh, a public champion of radically conservative ideas, expected her audience to show the same commitment. Photo: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock
Stand up and be counted: Katherine Birbalsingh, a public champion of radically conservative ideas, expected her audience to show the same commitment. Photo: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock

In large swathes of the nation the normal decencies of life are supposedly openly shunned. In his address, titled “Faith, Family, Flag, Freedom”, James Orr, the dashing corporate ­lawyer-turned-religious philosopher and UK chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, stated that his “f” words were “guaranteed to induce fainting fits from Hampstead to Hackney”. Which, of course, they’re just not. 

Birbalsingh also suggested that when the England men’s football team played in the World Cup it could have been seen as somehow unacceptable for people to openly support the national side. Um, again no. David Goodhart of the thinktank Policy Exchange said that, during such tournaments, when he put on an England football shirt and went out carrying a Daunt Books tote bag, he got odd looks from his neighbours. His implication seemed to be that they were confused that he could possibly be both patriotic and a lover of literature. I live a couple of streets away from him (in Hampstead). That’s not the reason.

On and on it went. With a few exceptions, the speakers described a country that didn’t exist and a younger generation of whom they appeared terrified. In fact, they were so pessimistic about the youth that it was mildly surprising that one of their big concerns (and actually a valid one) was the combination of falling birth rates and an ageing population. Cates made it the centrepiece of her speech—never mind nuclear war or climate change, “There is one critical outcome that liberal individualism has completely failed to deliver and that is babies.”

The MP for Penistone beating the drum for enhanced reproduction is a conjunction to be enjoyed. How she had missed the fact that societies with little liberalism and less individualism are also experiencing very low birth rates is rather puzzling. The facts sit there in all the literature. Besides, if you think “individualism” in choosing how many babies an individual woman should bear is the problem, what on earth do you imagine the solution to be? Boosting tax incentives for married couples or (horror of horrors for right-wing, market-orientated Conservatives) taking the limit off child benefits certainly won’t cut it.

Cates perceived the danger, misidentified the causes and consequently suggested remedies that would struggle to find the remotest purchase among the voters of Britain. Others present (possibly including the five awful men who took part in the “bring back old-time religion” panel) might secretly have believed that the answer was to ban contraception and abortion, lower the age of consent and reverse a century of expectation of advances in female employment. But despite the slighting description by one speaker of the pill as the “first transhumanist technology” and the significant presence of anti-abortion Catholics in the hall, no one quite had the stomach for that fight. 

As for the attendees in general, they were surprisingly young, overwhelmingly male and almost entirely white. Birbalsingh clearly identified them as being mostly privately educated or as those who sent their children to private schools. In a peroration that seemed deranged in person (and ­double-deranged on video), she demanded of them, “How much do you love your country? How much do you love the values that you claim to defend? Do you love them enough to tweet under your own name? Do you love them enough to change your child’s school to one that is less woke and ignore the impact on your social status? Do you love them enough to do more than simply chat to your friends who already agree with you at dinner parties? For heaven’s sake, man, stand up and be counted!” They loved it. Next, the cane, if they were lucky.

The speakers described a country that didn’t exist and a younger generation of whom they were terrified

They were likely—as were most of the speakers—to be pro-religion (though anti the archbishop and the current pope), anti-anti-racism, very anti-immigration and very, very anti neo-Marxist-woke-progressive-liberalism. They thought (I’m generalising here, but for a reason) that the coronation hadn’t been traditional enough, that the climate doesn’t need saving, that the decolonising head of Kew Gardens should be hung in his own hothouse and that no one but them had any proper sense of the country’s history and traditions. Which was sweet, considering how many of the audience weren’t themselves British. They were cross about social distancing during the pandemic, and applauded the anti-vax theologian Sebastian Morello when he noted that there had not yet been a “reckoning” over how “experimental drugs” (that is, Covid-19 vaccines) had been forced upon the British people. 

In sum, the NatCons were eminently mockable and, in their appetite for assertions over evidence, probably deserved mockery. For me, the event reached its apex of absurdity in the address given by Frank Furedi, professor emeritus of sociology at Kent University. Furedi is now executive director of the Brussels branch of a propaganda outfit (sorry, “forum for debate”) funded by the Hungarian government of the right-wing Christian nationalist Viktor Orbán. Decades ago, Furedi was the guru of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a splinter from a split in a sect that was once expelled from the International Socialists, and whose house journal was Living Marxism

The RCP disbanded in 1997 and the comrades recoalesced around what was called LM magazine, which became finally Spiked Online in 2001. Somehow their political journey took the RCPers from the extreme left to the extreme right, via Brexit. But once, Furedi was your man for calling out racism, denouncing the Thatcher regime and kibitzing for an IRA victory in Northern Ireland.

Furedi’s Leninist claim at NatCon that “we are on the right side of history!” was followed by an admission that he used to be on the radical left. But, he said, “The difference between me, as a far-left activist, and Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s was actually far, far smaller than the difference between us and the other side of the culture war.” In which case, the “other side” had better watch out. In 1984, Furedi’s outfit came close to supporting the right of the Provisionals to try and kill Thatcher in Brighton. As late as 2009, Spiked Online wrote: “Twenty-five years after that bomb blew the sleepy Tories out of their hotel in Brighton, where are the explosive politics that could blow our society out of its sloth?” A bigger difference than that?

Rather than mocking the NatCons, should the left and centre be scared? On the continent and in America, “ethnonationalism” continues to attract significant support and, on occasion, find a place (albeit a minority one) in government. Is it really so impossible to imagine the same set of propositions rolled up in a bundle and presented in a way that would make waves here either in the form of a new party, or by taking over the oldest one? 

If there was a proper schism at the conference it concerned the free market. It was a gulf most obviously existing between the Tory grandees, who praised the free market, and just about everyone else. Around the halfway point of his address, Hazony himself had enthused about Britain’s “300 years of protectionism”. Danny Kruger then surprisingly argued that Marx had been right to argue that capitalism “causes all that is holy to be profaned” and that the gloomy philosopher John Gray had also been right in the 1980s when, in Kruger’s words, “he said Thatcherism would eat itself—that the free market depends on social institutions and habits that the free market itself undermines.” 

Kruger’s formulation—left on economics, right on culture—represented the novelty of the whole event. So much so that in the Times a fortnight later the moderate Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein wrote that he feared the potency of such a “uniting [of] two populist preoccupations,” and that it could appeal within his party and beyond. “The Tory party was the party of protection for decades,” he wrote, continuing: “An explicit (as opposed to accidental) high-tax, anti-free trade, anti-business Tory stance may be hard to imagine right now, but it certainly isn’t impossible.”

For me, it was telling that the two most politically coherent speeches were not given by politicians. The first was from Matthew Goodwin, the politics professor turned political entrepreneur. Goodwin is a clever man whose study of the far right seems to have induced a form of Stockholm syndrome, one in which the hostage and the kidnapper both expect to profit. “After 13 years of Conservative government,” he told the assembly, “we’re left with more mass immigration, more London-centric economics, more rampant hyper globalisation, more institutions which only represent the values of the new elite.” The Conservative party is now “a party that no longer really knows what it is or what it’s doing and a party which I think has never really invested in the people who invested in it.” 

Fallen idol? National Conservatives repudiate many of the free market ideas of Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Bettmann / Getty images Fallen idol? National Conservatives repudiate many of the free market ideas of Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Bettmann / Getty images

But by far the largest standing ovation of the event was afforded to the commentator Melanie Phillips. She gave an address that stimulated every receptor in the auditorium, including an even more robust assault on the Conservative party for having indulged a “fetish” for the free market under Thatcher, permitted mass migration, tolerated the dismantling of ancient institutions and values and stood by while “the left” marched through the citadels of culture. She finished with a rallying cry that got the crowd off the benches and onto their feet: “There are silent millions waiting impatiently for a political class that will conserve all these things and defend the nation against those who would destroy it. The political prize is there for the taking. All that’s needed is the courage to win it!” There was prolonged and stormy applause.

Should I feel a tiny shiver of terror scuttle down my spine, contemplating words like these? Or should I be reassured by the fact that many of the more extreme speeches were given by people who have not themselves had to appeal to the electorate? The members of the audience, for their part, didn’t look like they had worn out their shoe leather on the streets of Hartlepool or St Albans either, seeking to convert Labour or Liberal Democrat voters to the populist cause. 

There is nothing in the polling, long or short term, that suggests a possible plurality for a populist party of the right. For example, barely a week after NatCon London, a major piece of research carried out for the soft Tory thinktank Onward showed that “millennials” (25- to 40-year-olds) are maintaining their liberal attitudes as they age. To quote from the Onward report:

Only 15 per cent of Millennials chose immigration as one of the most pressing issues facing the country. This figure rises to 25 per cent for the general population and 36 per cent of Baby Boomers. Not only does the topic of immigration have lower salience among Millennials, but they are also less worried about its impact. Only 14 per cent say they are worried about ‘immigration and its impact on the country/my local community’, compared to 20 per cent of all people.

Culture war issues simply do not rate highly with them. This is despite the terrible own goal of the way in which the left has dealt with the issue of trans rights—making it a battle with people who have been one of the most important components of the progressive wing of politics. 

These results conform to the patterns seen in other major studies over the past half decade. The unique sets of propositions of National Conservatism—more religion, a hatred of modernity, more censoriousness, more flag-waving, fewer foreigners and the hailing of Brexit as the greatest moment in our postwar history—have rapidly diminishing purchase on the people of this country. Put plainly, the British are not who Melanie Phillips thinks they are. Nor can a victory be achieved against the choices of a voting majority in the same way it can in the US, where the electoral college system warps election outcomes.

There is a caveat here. Even in Britain it is occasionally possible—as Jeremy Corbyn proved—to take over a major political party by coming from one of the extremes. And you can influence one from the outside, as Nigel Farage did, if your constituency is vocal enough. But, generally, the safer way to power is to find a sweet spot that accords with the preoccupations, needs and values of the voters and then try to work with that. Crucial, too, is the fact that beyond pressing questions on housing, the cost of living and health and social care lie the great issues of the near future, which are completely unsusceptible to backward-facing ideologies. Reactionary populists have no plausible answers to the challenges posed by AI, climate change, an ageing population and growing interdependence.

If I can see this, the reader may be thinking, why can’t the senior Conservatives who spoke at the conference and praised its themes in print? There are two main possibilities: delusion, or planning for the afterlife. The delusion is that the trick that was pulled off in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election—the supposed “realignment” of British politics into ordinary, “Red Wall” voters versus the woke elite—can be repeated at the next election in 2024. After 14 years of a government whose policies are seen as having signally failed, banging on about the advantages of Brexit and the ethnonationalist state seems to all but the most ideologically committed like a losing strategy. Getting ready to battle for the leadership of the party in the wake of defeat—as Braverman is transparently trying to do—is a more plausible reading. 

From the outside it looks simple. The polls obstinately indicate a major defeat for the Conservatives at the next election. At which point, the party will face a crisis of identity that its distinctly non-mass membership will have to resolve. The National Conservatives have helped direct them firmly towards the path not to be taken.