Iheard the National Conservatism Conference before I saw it. Rounding a corner in Westminster last Monday morning, I was met with the high-pitched whine of a cheap amplifier turned up too loud. On the mic, the long-time anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray was ululating ‘Why, why, why, Suella?’ to the tune of Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’. He finished with a rhyming couplet about protecting refugees from the home secretary and went on to harangue ‘Tory liars’ and ‘cheats’. In front of him, a thin line of people, all in suits, stood waiting to be admitted to ‘NatCon’. I put my head down and joined the back of the queue.
NatCon began in the United States in the dog days of the Trump presidency, ostensibly as a space for the authoritarian-curious on the American right to plot a new course based on ‘the idea of the nation’. Since then it has spread around the world. The London conference, which took place over three days at the Emmanuel Centre, was the eighth NatCon gathering. Few previous far-right jamborees had boasted such a deep roster of senior British politicians: Michael Gove; Suella Braverman, who proclaimed in her keynote address that ‘white people do not exist in a special state of sin or collective guilt’; Jacob Rees-Mogg, who railed against the state of a country his party has ruled for thirteen years; the backbench MP Miriam Cates, who blamed ‘cultural Marxism’ for declining birth rates.
Before the conference started, journalists and paying punters milled around the foyer. Tom Walker, a 37-year-old online salesman, had made a special trip from Ayrshire. ‘There just aren’t enough events like this,’ he said. He became politically active campaigning for Brexit. In a lull in our conversation he read aloud the Bible inscriptions etched on the ceiling. ‘I’m not terribly religious, but the past, the present and the future should all be taken into account,’ he told me. I was happy to chat. I had time to kill: my online application for a press pass had been turned down, as had others from non-conservative outlets, but I was hoping to talk my way into the auditorium. At the door a frazzled-looking press officer had said if I waited for a quarter of an hour he might be able to help.
There were half a dozen stalls around the edge of the foyer. Staff from the Heritage Foundation in the US were handing out pamphlets on ‘How to speak up about gender identity’. Its president, Kevin Roberts, would later decry ‘the woke industrial complex’ in a speech about the death of ‘global Europe’. On the opposite side of the hall, a man from the Danube Institute gave me back copies of the Hungarian Conservative. He had come straight from a US Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest, where Viktor Orbán had called for Donald Trump to be returned to office. There was an international feel to NatCon London. Young men in sharp suits spoke with Italian and Spanish accents. A Catholic priest was deep in conversation with a twentysomething in a kippah.
Near the Free Speech Union table there was a trio of fustily dressed young Englishmen. One of them had taken time off from his job as a data scientist to attend the conference. He’d heard about it through his church. What was he most looking forward to? ‘The discussions.’ The British media were soon filled with these discussions. There were reports of wild-eyed Tory MPs warning about the dangers of a new religion mixing ‘Marxism, narcissism and paganism’, a realisation of the ‘dystopian fantasy of John Lennon’. Talk of ‘white culture’ under threat lit up social media. Commentators wondered if a radical right-wing vision of politics defined by ‘faith, family and flag’ was taking root in the UK. By then, I was long gone. The press officer came back, asked who I was writing for and told me there was ‘definitely’ no room.
NatCon is the brainchild of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a think tank and campaign group based in Washington DC dedicated to ‘strengthening the principles of national conservatism’. What this means in practice can be hard to pin down. The foundation’s chairman is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American former aide to Benjamin Netanyahu who preaches ‘strong’ national institutions, ‘traditional’ social forms and a war on ‘woke’. Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is often held up as the ur-text of post-liberal thought. Yet many of national conservatism’s intellectual lodestars, such as the Ohio senator J.D. Vance (who appeared remotely in London, extolling the virtues of guns and coal), are better known for their fiery denunciations of liberal opponents than their detailed policy proposals. Online the National Conservative movement can appear diffuse and fissiparous, united principally in its hatred of what the organisers of NatCon London call ‘a powerful new Marxism’ and ‘political theories grounded in race’.
Last June, a cadre of leading National Conservatives put together a manifesto. It can be read as a rejection of the fusionism developed at the National Review in the 1950s under the editorship of William Buckley, which ultimately saw Reagan – and Thatcher – take power by combining neoliberal capitalism with social conservatism. The ten National Conservative principles stipulate that ‘the free market cannot be absolute’ and that the Bible ‘should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilisation’. Migration must be severely restricted, and ‘sometimes’ outlawed completely. Imperialism should be rejected ‘in its various contemporary forms’ (historical imperialism gets a free pass). Among the signatories were the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Michael Anton, a Machiavelli scholar who worked on the communications staff for Trump’s National Security Council, and Charlie Kirk, a star of conservative talk radio and founder of the Trumpist student movement Turning Point.
On the eve of NatCon London, an English conservative commentator told me that the National Conservative worldview was ‘far too American’ to gain traction in the UK. ‘National Conservatism is just an imported name. The fact that Michael Gove feels so comfortable appearing at NatCon shows that it doesn’t really mean anything here.’ Some Tories disagree. Among the faithful is Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, a former political secretary to Boris Johnson, leader-writer at the Daily Telegraph and co-founder (with Miriam Cates) of the New Social Covenant Unit, a right-wing think tank. Ahead of NatCon, Kruger outlined his vision in the New Statesman. Britain, he asserted, is ruled by faceless ‘powers that be’ who are ‘not on the side of the British people, but instead serve the abstractions of “human rights”, “international law”, or other signals of middle-class virtue’. Kruger, an evangelical Christian, warned of ‘a new religion’ in which ‘everything is reduced to nothing, destroying the foundations of a civilisation that was built with care and sacrifice over centuries.’
Salvation will only come, in Kruger’s view, when the Tories deliver an ‘authentic, anti-establishment, “national” conservatism’, though he praised the ‘runaway success’ of the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis. Nationalism’s transnationalism isn’t new but cross-border connections have been supercharged in the digital age. NatCon is a global franchise: as well as official conferences in Florida, Brussels, Washington DC and elsewhere, there have been aligned gatherings in Brazil and Mexico. For many on the ultraconservative circuit, Orbán is the exemplar. The Hungarian prime minister was a guest of honour when the conference rolled into Rome in 2020. Last September, Blake Masters – an unsuccessful Republican Senate candidate in Arizona funded by Thiel – told a private session at NatCon Miami that ‘Libertarianism doesn’t work. Totalitarian leftism doesn’t work either.’ The conservative commentator Rod Dreher tweeted: ‘Sounds like he is absorbing the Viktor Orbán lesson.’
Among the speakers at NatCon London was Frank Furedi, the former leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party who currently heads the Brussels branch of a private Hungarian college that has received billions of forints from Orbán’s government. He’s called it ‘a chance to fight back in the culture wars’. In December 2019 at a Danube Institute event in Budapest, Tim Montgomerie, once Boris Johnson’s social justice adviser, praised Hungary’s ‘interesting early thinking’ on ‘the limits of liberalism’. The head of the institute is John O’Sullivan, a former Thatcher speechwriter, who was a session chair at NatCon London. In March 2022, shortly before Orbán won another victory in an electoral system under which opposition parties are routinely denied media coverage, the Danube Institute paid for Kruger to travel to Budapest for an academic conference on ‘the post-liberal turn and the future of British conservatism’.
Such interlocking networks of think tanks and quasi-public institutions have been a feature of conservative politics in the US since the Koch Brothers’ consigliere Richard Fink built their sprawling influence empire in the 1980s. What has changed is the ideological focus: the neoliberalism of the American Enterprise Institute is out; the Heritage Foundation’s traditionalism is in. Where there is influence, there is money, though exactly who is funding NatCon isn’t immediately apparent. The London conference was organised by the UK branch of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which was established as recently as March this year, according to documents filed with Companies House. Thiel’s name has been mentioned as a NatCon funder in the US, but otherwise information is scant.
The post-Covid IRS has been massively delayed in releasing US not-for-profit tax records, but documents show that the Edmund Burke Foundation in DC received just under a million dollars in grants in 2019, including $400,000 from the evangelical National Christian Foundation, which has been accused of bankrolling organisations labelled as ‘hate groups’ by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. The Edmund Burke Foundation also received money from a private foundation that has contributed heavily to Donors Trust, a ‘dark money’ fund – most of its donors are anonymous – which funnelled tens of millions of dollars to conservatives who support Donald Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud in 2020. Thomas Klingenstein, a NatCon regular, gave $100,000; he is chair of the Claremont Institute, the Californian think tank known as ‘the nerve centre of the American right’.
Britain does not have the same culture of political funding as the US, but its right-wing ecosystem has grown in recent years. Alongside traditional conservative newspapers – Daily Telegraph writers peppered the NatCon London line-up – GB News has provided a broadcast arm. Ofcom has received more than 4500 complaints about GB News since it launched in June 2021 and has rejected most of them, though it did find the channel in breach of broadcasting rules for a segment in which a guest claimed that the Covid vaccine roll-out was ‘mass murder’ comparable to the actions of ‘doctors in pre-Nazi Germany’. The channel’s inflammatory content is popular on social media. Millions viewed a clip of Calvin Robinson, a deacon in the Free Church of England and one-time Brexit Party candidate, asking whether it is ‘appropriate for a heathen prime minister to be reading a gospel reading’ after Rishi Sunak read the epistle at the coronation. Robinson was originally listed on the NatCon schedule but announced in late April that he wouldn’t be speaking. Another GB News regular, the historian David Starkey, did appear, telling the audience that anti-racist campaigners ‘only care about the symbolic destruction of white culture’. GB News has recorded huge losses but its owners seem unconcerned. Its payroll features several Tory MPs on decent salaries, including the party’s deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, who pockets £100,000 a year to host a Friday night show. Anderson also spoke at NatCon.
At the ‘gala dinner’, Douglas Murray (whose latest book is The War on the West) insisted that Britons should not be prevented from loving their nation just ‘because the Germans mucked up twice in a century’. The soi-disant anti-elitist tribune Matthew Goodwin – who ate pages of his own book on Sky News after losing a bet he had made about Labour’s 2017 general election performance – claimed that over the last fifty years ‘the left’ had successfully prioritised ‘the interests of big business and the urban graduate minority over the interests of the wider national community’. Goodwin is a fellow at Legatum (which also funds GB News). Eric Kaufmann, who spoke ‘in defence of particularistic nationalism’, has a berth at Policy Exchange. The think tanks on Tufton Street – which have long dreamed of a post-Brexit Anglosphere – are notoriously coy about their corporate donors, but last year openDemocracy revealed that between them Policy Exchange, Legatum, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the TaxPayers’ Alliance have raised $9 million from US donors since 2012.
The British and American right differ in the weight they place on ideological purity. With a limited cast of characters – and an even smaller pool of funders – British conservatives can ill afford to divide their world into neoliberals and traditionalists. At NatCon London, the tirades about woke universities and pronouns often obscured political differences, but they can’t conceal them completely. Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and the former Brexit negotiator David Frost like to shake their fists at the modern world, but they are avowed free-marketeers. American national conservatives, by contrast, are committed mercantilists. But coherence is a second-order concern. The backers of NatCon London will no doubt have seen it as a success. The last time the circus came to town, in 2019, the backbencher Daniel Kawczynski was the only Conservative MP on the bill. This time there were cabinet ministers, TV cameras and three days of media attention.
Where all this leaves the Conservative Party is more uncertain. The party has long been a ‘big tent’, unified by the desire to win elections. But now even that elemental glue is coming unstuck. Sunak parrots culture-war talking points, most frequently around trans rights and refugees, but lacks a discernible political philosophy. Liz Truss failed to outlast a lettuce in Downing Street but is now touring the world touting her zombie Thatcherism, supported by a hard core of backbench MPs and a gaggle of heterodox Conservative donors. (Jeremy Hosking, who funds the Critic, gave her £50,000 before her recent trip to Taiwan.) The Conservative peer Peter Cruddas, meanwhile, is bankrolling the Conservative Democratic Organisation, whose only purpose seems to be to reinstate Boris Johnson as prime minister. Cruddas was ennobled by Johnson – against official advice – after donating more than £3 million to the Tories. He says he won’t donate under Sunak.
Many Conservative MPs privately worry about the party’s rightward shift but, in an echo of the Republicans under Trump, there is little sign of public opposition. By my count only the whipless Matt Hancock has criticised NatCon on the record. The One Nation Group is moribund. Once vocal ‘wet’ backbenchers have been bought off with junior ministerial portfolios. There are no such constraints on their radical counterparts. The second morning of NatCon opened with John Hayes railing against ‘desiccated, hollowed out, sugar-free conservatism deemed to be just about acceptable by our liberal masters’. Hayes is a close ally of Suella Braverman and the leader of the Common Sense Group, a collection of ‘anti-woke’ Tory MPs with a fondness for Catholic social teaching and conspiracy theories. In February, one of its members, Nick Fletcher, stood up in the Commons to denounce the ‘fifteen-minute-city’ – a mundane planning initiative to increase the livability of urban space – as an ‘international socialist concept’.
The electoral space in Britain for national conservatism looks narrow. Religion doesn’t feature much in public life. Attitudes to divorce and abortion are more liberal than in most other countries (although US-funded anti-abortion groups have become more influential in Britain in recent years). Reform – the Brexit Party minus Nigel Farage – only won a handful of seats in May’s local elections on a platform of unabashed right-wing populism. A generation of Britons, locked out of home ownership, are not following their parents in drifting rightward as they age. Yet if the last decade has taught us anything it’s that, as David Cameron discovered, the ‘fruitcakes’, ‘loonies’ and ‘closet racists’ can win. Extreme rhetoric can embolden extreme actions, too: in the week of NatCon a teenager in Newcastle was found guilty of planning a far-right attack. In a note submitted in evidence, he wrote of wanting to ‘accelerate the coming collapse and racial war’ in Britain.
Journalists who made it inside the Emmanuel Centre auditorium commented on how sparsely attended some sessions were, and how hard it was to find Conservative Party members among the Oxbridge-educated young men who lined the pews. Yet these might have been the opening scenes of the next Tory leadership battle. Sunak survived heavy losses in the recent local elections but will almost certainly step down if, as widely expected, the Tories lose the next general election. The NatCon favourite Suella Braverman is already making a public pitch to replace him. In opposition for the first time in fifteen years, it isn’t hard to envisage Tory MPs, not to mention the party’s geriatric membership, indulging their nativist fantasies. They wouldn’t need to be popular, merely lucky, to win a first-past-the-post election five years down the road. And once in office they would inherit a Westminster system that has few checks and balances on executive power.
The night before NatCon started I phoned a Conservative donor I have known for a few years. He said the conference was a bagatelle. Three days later he phoned me. He had been watching on social media and had spoken with Tory MPs. ‘I was wrong,’ he said. ‘The tectonic plates are shifting. Market liberals like me are on the way out.’
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