Outside the National Conservatism conference back in May, a young American woman spoke to a reporter from Politics Joe: “I think there needs to be more evangelism in this country. I think the UK has a thing or two to learn from the US, and this NatCon conference is a really good way to start with that.” This is one commonly held view of many at the conference on this ‘emerging ideology’. The event itself was organised almost entirely by American conservatives, and attended by conservative writers, journalists and MPs such as Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson.
From the left there was predictable shrilling surrounding the conference, with one man interrupting a speech by Jacob Rees-Mogg to politely tell the audience they were ‘fascists’. To the more sober observer, this conference, whilst a far cry from Nuremberg, was a somewhat-tackier transplantation of American ‘Jesusland’ evangelism to Britain. It represents a politics that is quite alien to our country, even to the Conservative Party it is pitched to, and as such, we’ll soon forget about it. However, NatCon represents an interesting potential reinvention of (small c) conservative politics, which the left must be ready to comprehend and understand if it is to have any hope of defeating it.
So, what is National Conservatism (or NatCon)? On the National Conservatism conference website is a ten principles section, proclaiming values of national independence, anti-globalisation, public religion, free enterprise and immigration controls. Within these points is about a paragraph each of rambling: the impossibility to have society without religion; demagoguery surrounding the perfidious designs of China; crying about abortion. In short, it appears as a ginger group for those to the right of the Conservative Party, offering networking opportunities and discourse among the wider anglophone conservative movement. It is indicative of a populist ‘reframing’ of conservative politics, in a way that appears to recognise some of the failures of neoliberalism.
Answering what seems to be the most important question regarding the conference, for some on the left: Is it fascist? In a word, no. While NatCon may have overlapping interests with some on the hard-right of the Conservative Party, there is not the remotest indication of an overtly ethnonationalist agenda. People sometimes employ a kind of qualitative scale to gauge fascists, such as those crafted by Umberto Eco or Theodor Adorno; some, like the gatecrasher during Rees-Mogg’s speech, will use definitions. Let’s be frank, NatCon does not fulfil any of the criteria for any reasonable ‘fascism test’. There are no broad ideas about a “third way”, “rights for whites” or “great replacement” theories. What we are dealing with is more like a Ted Talks event for people who read the Telegraph, and nothing more sinister than that.
Now, I will disclaim that this does not mean that behind closed doors, some attendees won’t share views that could be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. It does mean, however, that it would be a gross exaggeration to describe NatCon as ‘fascist’. The perennial trap down which the left has unceasingly fallen down, time and time and time again, has been to characterise every new right-wing political movement as the next incarnation of ‘fascism’, rather than the conservative right simply reinventing itself. This lazy error brought discredit to groups like Stand Up To Racism, when they disrupted UKIP events as a way of ‘confronting fascism’.
This comparison of the conservative right to fascists is not only incredibly belittling to the victims of the immense suffering caused by actual fascists who started actual wars and actual genocides– it’s also completely alienating. To the general public, this is perceived as the left ‘crying wolf’ on their political opponents. The real danger this presents is that, if antifascists continually ‘cry wolf’, they’ll be long discredited by the time the real wolves arrive in town. The simple message to the rest of the left is that not everything you don’t like is fascism.
The hackneyed framing of every new right-wing political formation as fascist is ahistorical and histrionic. In terms of political strategy, it also stifles all chance of understanding the allure that the conservative right holds for many, blinding us from the difficult yet necessary consideration of why regular people who reject liberalism look not to the left but the right.
Communists and conservatives share one thing in common that separates them from liberals, which is concern for a certain type of moral bankruptcy in society. Whilst the perception of this bankruptcy and its explanation are vastly different, the concern remains. For communists, the moral bankruptcy that exists in capitalist society is often perceived through looking at the ugly hyperconsumerism of the modern day: people trampling over each other in a frenzied scrums during Black Friday sales; children addicted to scrolling down a ceaseless social media feed, algorithmically tuned to hold their attention by depressing them. It is therefore quite natural that people look at these elements of modern capitalist life with disgust.
For those on the left it may seem impossible to believe that the right also recognises the barbarity, moral degradation and ugliness of modern day capitalism. It was the former Conservative prime minister, Anthony Eden, who said: “We are not a party of unbridled, brutal capitalism, and never have been”. NatCon may understand the decline of capitalism differently to us, in terms of some spiritual crisis, but it nonetheless acknowledges at least some of its failings, and articulates opposition to the hegemonic liberalism of the ruling class. This dissent is often expressed through conservative outrage at perceived liberal ideology in pop cultural products or the unfair and arbitrary way right-wing ideologues can be censored in the media or denied basic services, such as Nigel Farage’s bank account being closed by NatWest, allegedly for his instrumental role in Brexit.
The trite left response to these issues was to chortle something about ‘the will of the free market’ because, as we all know, a vapid Twitter ‘gotcha’ is easier than serious analysis of the positions of our political opponents. Meanwhile, the conservative right have abandoned their trust in the free market, and embraced a scepticism of established capitalist media and institutions.
The NatCons imagine themselves as protecting the religious life of the nation. As the American attendee told Politics Joe, “Britain needs to be more evangelical”. 35.6% of the British population are currently self-described ‘Christians’. But the majority of those are passive, broadly secular members of the Church of England, Church of Scotland or Roman Catholics. In the minds of NatCons, these churches, along with every other public institution, have already been entrapped by ‘woke culture’. The actual number of conservative Christians in Britain, who would sincerely support an increase of public religion, is absolutely tiny. Pitching American-style evangelism would therefore be politically untenable. So why are National Conservatives advocating for a complete shake up of organised religion in the UK?
In many ways the National Conservatives have created barriers for themselves. In some areas of Britain over the last ten years, religions have actually been growing. This is not, however, due to some religious revival among the masses, disenchanted by liberalism. Although few have openly stated it, high levels of immigration from more religious regions of the world has been the main factor in the growth of faith groups in Britain.
At present, the National Conservatives support an assimilationist model of immigration, rather than the post-Blair multiculturality. Along with their insistence on Christianity as the ‘guiding’ faith of the nation, they would appear to be apprehensive—at least for now—about ‘allying’ with conservative Muslim groups, who likely feel the same in turn. The real threat though, is that in twenty, thirty, forty years’ time, the numbers of religious Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus will continue to grow.
A significant minority of the population in Britain would then be politically influenced by their religious beliefs. In these conditions, an enterprising NatCon movement could dispense any special status given to Christianity in particular, and would position themselves, not so much as the voice of Christian conservatives, but as the voice of religious conservatives. This could cultivate a truly significant conservative political project: uniting disparate faith groups around many shared concerns about sex education in schools, abortion, euthanasia and other important social issues. Such a project could also control a bloc vote in local elections and have considerable influence in the Conservative Party itself.
All this is not to say that NatCon is presently a savvy ideological rebrand that the British people will embrace with terrifying efficiency—far from it.
At the conference, many spoke of a time when: “people were allowed to be unashamed of being British”; “we could make the Christian case for the pro-life position”; “we didn’t have low birth rates due to cultural Marxism”. These illustrate a glaring fact that, as alluded to previously, NatCon does not seek to preserve a status quo that it sees as flawed, but rather return to a halcyon age of enshrined morality and faith, the historicity of which is itself debatable. Admittedly, plenty of ordinary Brits hold views in line with the governing Conservative Party (they were voted into power, after all). However, in the political consensus of current year Britain, only a monumentally deluded fool would claim there is public demand for, say, a portrait of King Charles in every living room, or compulsory singing of the national anthem at schools. There is even less demand for turning women’s rights back to pre-1960s conditions, based on religious convictions or opposition to ‘cultural Marxism’.
This is however the hokum Britain that the NatCon conference thinks will entice the population. It is in fact the greatest weakness of NatCon, as whilst it can detect some of the deep societal pains faced by ordinary people, its solutions and visions for changing this country are so laughably mystic, they will likely alienate almost all of the general public, and most of the Conservative-voting people they would seek appeal to.
The political goal of National Conservatism is to realise a mawkish vision of British biscuit-tin nationalism. Imagine the sixty million people across our ancient nations, united by church fetes, coronation chicken and shared aggrievement with ‘woke stuff’. You can almost taste the cucumber sandwiches, just thinking of it. But what of the people of Britain, who toil in her fields, raised her churches, and built this country? The NatCons believe the working class of the country can be placated with inane platitudes about the culture war and nostalgia for a more ‘pure’, backwards public morality that has long been abandoned. On key economic matters, the NatCons become woefully mundane and suffer from their own ideological blindness. They recite the same conservative values of ‘free enterprise’, at a time when half of Tory voters support the nationalisation of the energy sector.
A critical view of globalisation and neoliberalism was also voiced at the conference, though their disposition towards it seems somewhat incoherent. National Conservatives revere the prime minister Margaret Thatcher as a saint of modern conservatism, with one attendee saying the conference had her blessing from “beyond the grave.” Yet these same National Conservatives are upholding someone who advocated Britain’s integration to the European Union, and was instrumental to the state of globalisation today.
In the current stage of capitalism that we find ourselves in, it is not unrealistic that the National Conservative movement could become highly politically influential, even if it is not today. To ordinary people NatCon has understood and expressed many of their own frustrations with neoliberal capitalism. It states values of community, culture and personal freedom and prosperity. Given how isolating capitalism is, it’s not strange for people to be enticed by those who say they would like to restore a society that would provide these to them. Even as communists, these are all things that we appreciate, if not for the same ideological reasons or motivations as the NatCons. We must also ask introspective questions about our own movement, and how we can position ourselves as the champions of prosperity and community, lest we be outmanoeuvred by the right.
With current opinion polls regarding the Conservative government plummeting there is probably a good reason why the right in Britain are wanting to reinvent themselves and start a culture war; it is something the left has been historically weak in. They are talking about the issues they are talking about, because they are comfortable in debates regarding patriotism, or the education system. It is not enough to just deride our opponents as ‘racist, sexist, fascist, etc.‘ It’s not enough to look at this conference and come away with: Oh they are just a gang of racist Tories and Americans. We need substantive, considered counter-arguments to their ideas, and that can only come about by serious engagement with what they say. Anything less, and we might as well cry ‘fascist’ whilst the right win over the working class.
So, what is the role of Communists here? Our role is to provide an alternative to the entire capitalist system, regardless of whether it is managed by liberals or NatCons. We must confront the capitalist class, and fight on economic, class-interest issues. The more we get embroiled into endless, meaningless arguments about identity politics, the less seriously we will be taken. Building the party and reaching out to communities with class-based politics is our only hope. Most people on the right are fairly uneasy about talking about class issues and with good reason. National Conservatives like to LARP as patriots, yet their economic policy would see the working class of this country shafted and abandoned. The case for a socialism that embraces the patriotism of working people, if coherently and confidently put forward, would rob our opponents of their popular appeal , without compromising our communist beliefs. As Chairman Mao once wrote: “Can a communist, who is an internationalist, at the same time be a patriot? We hold that he not only can be but also must be.”
Returning to the NatCon conference: we mustn’t forget the fact that this event was set up, in part, by Americans, trying to import American-style culture war politics to Britain. If American capitalists have such a large interest in bankrolling the spread of culture war to our country, it begs the question: which war do capitalists not want us to fight instead? With some confidence, we can say it’s the class war.
Ben Ughetti is a member of the YCL’s South Yorkshire Branch