NatCon: Conservatism in crisis?

The NatCon conference is timely because many Tories are thinking about a post-election repositioning. Whether it will hold any weight among voters remains to be seen.

Right-Wing Watch

Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives suffered a humiliating loss of more than 1,000 seats in last week’s local elections, undermining the PM’s attempts to revive the party’s fortunes. Unlike party chairman Greg Hands who attempted – unsuccessfully – to put a positive spin on the disastrous results, the Tory press haven’t been so forgiving. ‘Sunak faces party backlash after hundreds of Tory councillors lose their seats,’ splashed the Telegraph

Amid the unease, right-wing Conservative fringe groups, born fundamentally out of disquiet over the party’s current form, are ramping up campaigning projects about the future of Conservatism.

Today, May 13, an ‘all-star’ right-wing line-up from the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) is heading to Bournemouth to talk at the group’s ‘Take Control Conference’ and Black Tie Gala. Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Nadine Dorries, are among the ‘like-minded patriots’ congregating in the coastal town, who, in the CDO’s words, ‘want to save our party and our country.’

Formed late last year by Brexiteers and Boris Johnson loyalists to ‘restore democracy’ after Sunak was appointed leader of the party, the launching of the CDO was something of a declaration that the Tory civil war was far from over.

As the PM faces pressure after dire local election losses, the CDO suggested that Sunak should face a confirmatory vote of members and that no one should rule out a comeback for the former prime minister. David Campbell Bannerman, chair of the CDO, told Times Radio that he “blames Rishi because he brought down Boris” and claimed Conservative MPs would act out of “self-preservation” to replace the prime minister.

But the CDO is not the only new right-wing populist movement emerging from a disorientated and discontented Tory party, and hastily throwing high-profile conferences in the aftermath of the local elections’ wipe-out.  

On Monday, National Conservatism UK – or NatCon as the initiative’s organisers have shortened it to – are to hold a two-day political conference. Speakers limited almost entirely to the right will assemble in central London.  

The NatCon movement promises to renew the conservative tradition, apparently rooted in nationalism, Christianity, and economic growth. It is being organised by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a group led by American and Israeli right-wingers, including Israeli writer Yoram Hazony, labelled as one of the American right’s most celebrated thinkers. Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian Hungarian leader, has spoken at a previous NatCon conference, as has the populist Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni. Its associates are mainly US Republicans, who say national conservatism is a movement that wants “a world of independent nations,” societies centred on the traditional family, and a big official role for Christianity.

A quick glance at the NatCon UK conference’s website shows a righter than right panel of keynote speakers. The Home Secretary, who was warned about the risks of inflammatory rhetoric long before she referred to asylum seekers as an ‘invasion,’ tops the panel. Sheffield MP Miriam Cates, founder of the New Social Covenant Unit (NSCU), which has strong ties to the Christian right and seems to be straight from the US Heritage Foundation/Republican playbook, is another keynote speaker. As is our old friend Douglas Murray, who might pose as a ‘man of the people’ but is really a prominent neoconservative ideologue, whose cantankerous columns in the right-wing press incite more  hostility towards Britain’s much-loved institutions than respect. Meanwhile, veteran MP Sir John Hayes, chair of the ultra-traditionalist Common Sense Group, hopes to use the platform to extol the importance of family structure.

Perhaps the one anomaly among the speakers, is Michael Gove. Not only does the levelling up minister fail to fit exactly into the culture war stoking rabble of his NatCon peers, but has, over the years,  attempted to set out a Tory plan to occupy the centre ground.

A more likely character to be throwing his support behind this anti-globalist movement is Jacob Rees-Mogg. The former cabinet minister turned GB News presenter, has got a busy few days ahead, as, after speaking in Bournemouth at the CDO conference, he is heading to London to join the NatCon panel, alongside fellow Brexit heavyweight, David Frost.

Writing for the Telegraph last month, the Brexit diehards described NatCon as a movement, which could ‘set us on a path to post-Brexit prosperity.’  They continue that the ‘movement’ may have begun in the US, but convictions like confidence in self-governing, and the preservation of people’s traditions and culture, have long been the ‘organising principle of British conservatism too.’

“Our conservative tradition offers a sure guide that honours Britain’s history, seizes the opportunities we now have as we chart our course and makes us fit for the future. It will take time, but the work will be a marvel when it is done,” they write.

The NatCon conference and the wider movement has attracted plenty of conversation and criticism from commentators of different political leanings.

In a piece on national conservatism for the New Statesman, Andrew Marr describes the changing face of the Tory Party, noting how, “Toryism is endlessly flexible and adaptable, which is why it has lasted so long.” He continues that the tone of national conservatism’s messaging is a ‘defiant Tory revolt against, presumably, whatever bloody useless government’s been in power for the past 13 years.’ 

And it’s hard to disagree with such an argument. The last 13 years has been marked by the chameleon nature of the Tories, not afraid to change their skin to remain in power. Since the early 2010s, David Cameron’s ‘one nation conservatism,’ which dominated the political landscape in Europe at the time, has been slowly side-lined by a harder right. And the revolving door at Downing Street, defined by years of austerity, the Truss-Kwarteng fiasco, and the self-inflicted isolation of leaving the EU, has brought the country to its knees. 

But will the fiercely illiberal social agenda and tinges of authoritarianism that is national conservativism resonate with voters in Britain and thereby pay off for the Tories? Marr is sceptical, noting that Tory strategists might be naturally worried about angry voters to the right, but ‘don’t want Trumpism here.’

Robert Shrimsley, UK chief political commentator and UK editor of the FT, shares similar doubts. Writing how US-style conservatism offers only a dead end for British Tories, Shrimsley observes how the UK is not as polarised as America, and nor does it wish to be. The NatCon conference is timely because many Tories are thinking about a post-election repositioning, but Shrimsley sees the US NatCon model as being a dead end in Britain, because the country is not the superpower that America is. As a consequence, it cannot stand apart and alter global terms of trade without risk to its influence.

Additionally, because the religious right is not a force in British politics, nor is it likely to become one, the movement is less likely to be impactful in the UK. Unlike other countries which have a strong religious identity, and where the NatCon agenda has taken off, Christianity’s grip in the UK has been slipping for decades. The latest census shows that in England and Wales, less than half the population classified themselves as Christian.

Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, asks can National Conservative adapt from America to Britain? Goodman notes how not all of the event’s speakers are in accord. Michael Gove for example, unlike ConHome columnist Daniel Hannan who is also on the speakers’ panel, is not a free trader. “I can’t help wondering of what will emerge from the conference will simply be reheated Thatcherism with a dash of culture war on top,” writes Goodman.

Guardian columnist John Harris on the other hand is concerned that national conservatism is being embraced by the Tories and warns that Labour must not be seduced into cynical copycat policies in pursuit of those missing Labour votes. For Harris, within the Tories’ gradual shift to the right, the intersection between national conservatism and the Tory mainstream is actually well advanced. He argues that the divisive, far-right movement that is being sold as ‘national conservativism’ is basically just a number of high-ranking government members hoping to make political capital out of their own failures.

For Harris, it is concerning that these high-ranking individuals in government and the Tory party, are more than happy to be associated with the NatCon movement. He uses the example of Home Office minister’s Robert Jenrick’s recent speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank, where he spoke of ‘excessive, uncontrolled migration’ threatening ‘to cannibalise the compassion of the British public,’ as being scattered with sentiments apparently copied straight from NatCon texts.

Then of course there are the failings of Brexit. NatCon is bursting with hard-line Brexiteers, as is the CDO. In pinning the Brexit blame game on ‘global’ powers, the movement is, as Harris writes, “adapting the old habit of Tory flag-waving to a zeitgeist full of paranoia and conspiracy theory.” Rees-Mogg and Frost say as much in their Telegraph article on the NatCon Conference when they speak of globalists and socialists putting little weight on British conservative traditions because they think the same ideas and rules can work in every country.

An event that is attracting almost 50 speakers, of which a significant proportion are populist senior Tory ministers, the US-style NatCon model is proving a draw for many Conservatives and is therefore difficult to ignore. Whether it will hold any weight among voters or not, remains to be seen. But what it does show is the tenacity of the Conservative right, who might have had a thrashing in the local elections, but won’t go down without a fight.

And of course, we have been here before. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher combined neo-liberal economic policies with neo- conservative calls for an end to all the terrible liberal ideas set loose in the 1960s. Of course, they pulled in opposite directions with her economic policies requiring less state intervention while her social policies required more. Trying to hold the two together led to more and more authoritarianism which eventually proved to be her undoing. Mind you, she had won three elections by then. Now there’s a depressing thought.

Right wing media watch – Guto Harri attempts to monetise his time at No 10. to the rapture of the right-wing press

The Union Jack bunting was still flapping in the breeze, and the party debris still scattered across the streets, when the right-wing newspapers decided to abandon their slavish and hypocritically adoring reporting of the King and the coronation.

On May 8, the Bank Holiday Monday, the Mail published a story headlined: ‘Exclusive: Boris and Charles’ ‘Rwanda bust-up’: Row erupts as ex-Number 10 media chief claims former PM confronted the then-Prince of Wales over his alleged criticism of deportation plan.’

In a new podcast on his time in No10, Boris Johnson’s former communications director Guto Harri decided to spill the beans on a number of explosive incidents, including an apparent big bust up between Johnson and Charles. 

Harri spoke of a ‘less amicable’ than it was painted meeting between the then prime minister and the future King at last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government summit.  In a ’15-minute showdown,’ Johnson apparently ‘squared up’ to Charles after he branded the government’s Rwanda scheme ‘appalling.’

The right-wing newspaper, which hasn’t exactly held back from advocating the government’s controversial Rwanda deportation policy, citing polls that claim there is public support for the £120m scheme, and doesn’t hold back from smearing Charles for his political views (except when there’s a coronation going on), relished reporting the ‘revelations’ and how they ‘threaten to reopen controversy about the extent to which the new King will interfere with politics.’

‘Psycho’ Sue Gray

But the Johnson/Charles bust up wasn’t the only revelation the Downing Street insider disclosed. The day after the ‘bust up’ exclusive in the Mail, the Telegraph published revelations made by the former communications officer that Boris Johnson ‘thought Sue Gray was psycho.’ The article not only makes reference to Harri’s comments that Johnson thought the Partygate investigator had ‘lacked perspective,’ but that the former PM had been preparing to sack Rishi Sunak as chancellor prior to the collapse of his premiership.’

Sue Gray, like King Charles, has been the target of Tory press derision. I mean, just this week the Daily Mail posed the possibility that Gray may have been an undercover British spy when she ‘ran a pub in the heart of IRA bandit country.’ And that’s of course on top of the insistences by the same newspaper that Gray had REFUSED to speak to a Whitehall probe into her talks with Labour about becoming Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff.

The populist press’s delight in such revelations is to be expected, especially when it involves King Charles (guaranteed to sell newspapers) and Sue Gray (belittles Labour for recruiting her). Nevertheless, it is a reminder of just how willing people within those circles are to dig the dirt in return for a few quid (well probably a bit more) and some publicity. Let’s not forget Guto Harri helped, or least attempted to help, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK restore its reputation after the phone-hacking scandal.  

You are left wondering whether these people have any kind of sense of loyalty or discretion?

Woke bashing of the week – Oxbridge accused of ‘indoctrination and woke fanaticism’

What do Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Liz Truss, Therese Coffey and Jacob Rees-Mogg have in common, apart from being Tories? They all went to Oxford University.

Oxford has a long history of nurturing the political ruling class. According to author and former Oxford student Simon Kuper, these people have ‘honed the art of winning using jokes, rather than facts.’ In his book, ‘Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK,’ Kuper, speaks of how Oxford Tory ‘chums’ came to run the country. To understand them, you have to go back 30 years to Oxford Union in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where ‘you’re rewarded for being funny, not being right,’ he says.

When Boris Johnson left Oxford, he wrote disparagingly of the Union, describing it as ‘nothing but a massage parlour for the egos of the assorted twits, twerps, toffs and misfits that inhabit it’. Perhaps Johnson was still downcast about not being elected president of the Union at the first time of asking? Rather like his path to becoming Prime Minister when you think about it.

Given the university’s reputation as being highly conservative institution which fosters the UK’s political elites, you would think any steps it takes towards progression and diversity might be embraced. But no, sadly, Oxbridge has found itself in the right-wing firing line of late. 

In February, a right-wing think-tank described Oxford as the second-most ‘radical progressive’ university in the UK, following Cambridge. Civitas published their Radical Progressive University Guide as part of a series on new academic realism. According to their findings, the “best and most prestigious” universities tend to be the most progressive. Their results are based on universities’ endorsement of “trigger warnings, white privilege, and anti-racism” along with other factors, such as free speech controversies. 
Universities which have definitions of ‘white privilege’ on their website or conduct anti-racism training are apparently considered to be more radically progressive. 

Surely, we should welcome universities that conduct anti-racism training and have definitions of ‘white privilege’ on their websites, shouldn’t we? Unfortunately, for some it seems to be an opportunity to ramp up culture wars and stoke the ‘anti-woke’ movement.

‘Our two greatest universities are no longer seats of learning but of indoctrination and woke fanaticism,’ was a headline in the Daily Mail this week.

Oliver Riley, the article’s author who is a former Cambridge student, speaks on how a visit to the chamber by academic Kathleen Stock, prompted an ‘outpouring of distress, with the Union forced to offer ‘welfare resources’ to help the little darlings cope.’

Stock has been outspoken in her trans-exclusionary views. She has spoken against single-sex spaces allowing trans women in saying “many trans women are still males with male genitalia, many are sexually attracted to females, and they should not be in places where females undress or sleep, in a completely unrestricted way.”

She also made the headlines for helping found The Lesbian Project, alongside fellow gender-critical activist Julie Bindel. Talking to Pink News about why students at the university are protesting Stock’s appearance there, Amiad Haran Diman, president of Oxford University’s LGBTQ+ society, said: “Our motivation is not to attack the union or Kathleen Stock, because we think they love the attention. The reason we are doing this is for the trans community of Oxford – it’s for our trans siblings so that they know someone is standing up for them.”

But such sensitivities don’t make their way into the Mail. For them, the story is an exemplar of some kind of malevolent indoctrination that marks the end of free speech at Britain’s top institutions.

“Increasingly, everything that once made Oxbridge respected the world over is at risk from this woke fanaticism. Of course, to disagree with ‘gender-critical’ views is fine, but banning speech and debate is not the way to go about it,” Riley continues.

Ironically, articles like this one are likely to make people more determined to fight back against what is essentially a made-up menace rallied by the right.

As for Oxford, it certainly seems to making progressive inroads, having doubled the proportion of new students from disadvantaged backgrounds in five years. That said, it still remains a highly conservative institution that aligns with the interests of privileged groups. But naturally, right-wing circles don’t dwell on socio-economic developments. For them, branding elite universities as hotbeds of left-leaning ‘wokery’ makes great clickbait content that feeds into the fake narrative that suggests a ‘dark shadow’ has fallen on Britain’s best-loved institutions. 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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