Peter Walker Deputy political editor
Tue, 9 May 2023 at 7:00 am BST
Most voters will most likely never have heard of national conservatism, let alone that its conference is in London next week. But this is a movement that could help shape the future of the Tory party – and thus UK politics – for years to come.
The three-day event in Westminster, beginning on 15 May, is only the eighth conference for the group usually shortened to “NatCon” – the nation state-eulogising offshoot of a rightwing US thinktank, which since 2016 has held get-togethers at a rotating list of international venues.
In what some observers see as a sign of the Conservative party’s possible future direction, among the nearly 50 speakers at this year’s conference – a who’s who of the global populist-leaning right – are a string of senior Tories, among them Suella Braverman, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost.
Supporters of the movement see its arrival in the UK as a philosophical shot in the arm for post-Brexit, family-oriented conservatism, in some way a more sophisticated domestic variant of the Tea Party movement that reshaped the US Republicans a decade ago.
But some Tory MPs worry that the combination of Liz Truss-style low taxes and a focus on defiantly traditional social values could be an electoral cul-de-sac for a party already struggling to engage with a younger, increasingly liberal-minded UK.
Either way, the conference is proving a draw for some Conservatives. As well as Braverman, the home secretary, Gove, the communities secretary, and Frost, the Brexit negotiator turned Tory peer, other speakers include culture warrior MPs such as Miriam Cates, Danny Kruger and John Hayes.
The ideas they float are likely to offer a preview of the sort of leadership challenge that could be offered by the likes of Braverman in a post-Rishi Sunak era, as well as by the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, (though she is not attending). Both are former leadership contenders.
Rees-Mogg said he viewed the idea of national conservatism as “a national political ideology by its nature in contradistinction to liberalism or socialism, which since their beginnings have had internationalist ambitions and have attempted to impose similar or identical structures on different nations”.
He added: “A clear area of commonality is that the democratic nation state is the basic legitimate polity and that the liberty of the individual is an essential aspect of conservatism which cannot be subordinated for the convenience of the collective.”
One key aspect of this, as arguably exemplified by Rees-Mogg and Frost, is a low-tax, low-regulation model of the state, still popular in Tory party circles even after the damage done by Truss’s catastrophic 48 days in office.
The other element is a focus on cultural issues, with a definite nod towards the sort of aggressive populism exemplified by Donald Trump and the hard-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán.
Among other speakers in London are JD Vance, the Trump-endorsed Ohio senator, and Rod Dreher, a US writer who is a noted Orbán supporter and now lives in Budapest, as well as a cohort of UK semi-bedfellows such as Douglas Murray and Toby Young.
Some Conservatives sympathetic to the NatCon cause give private and cautious support for ideas expressed by Orbán and by Giorgia Meloni, the far-right Italian leader, such as their push for higher domestic birthrates and greatly curbed immigration, while noting the limited UK voter support for overtly bullish populism.
One Tory supporter said there was a need for the party to push back robustly against “deliberate and insidious attack on traditional social forms, families, neighbourhoods and cultural inheritance in particular nations”. These included, they said, “transgressive” ideas on gender and “the teaching of deliberately anti-British history and literature in the context of trying to right the wrongs of the past”.
“I think it is unwitting rather than malignant, but we do have a genuine problem of the infiltration of British schools and universities by essentially extreme social and political ideologies,” they argued. “I don’t think we are immune to the difficulties that the Americans face, but we need to have a British approach to it.
“It’s definitely marginal, but it’s the margins where it needs to stay or be expelled from. Some of this might be beyond the comfort zone of the centre of our party, but I think it’s perfectly right to be talking about it, because the country is.”
Others in the party are notably less enamoured. “We’re definitely going to see one of these people try to become leader if we lose an election,” one minister said. “Some of them genuinely believe in it, and others will just go along with what they see as popular with party members. Either way, it would be an electoral disaster.”
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London who has written a book about the Conservatives’ post-Brexit drift towards populism, said a further move in this direction seemed expected.
“I think it’s extremely likely that after the next election, should the Conservatives lose, they will go further along the path taking them from being a mainstream centre-right party to an ersatz populist radical-right outfit,” he said.
Whether this would appeal to voters remained to be seen, Bale said. “There’s a lot more electoral potential in culture wars than there is in neoliberal Thatcherite economics, in the sense that there’s a larger slice of the electorate that will be more attracted by culturally conservative policies.
“But I still think that ultimately, it is a dead end for the Conservative party, because this is a country that is becoming socially more liberal over time.”
For all the media coverage of culture war issues, Bale said, voters rarely cite them as among their most pressing concerns – with one exception: “Immigration is the only one that could have some sort of traction. But even here there’s a danger the Conservatives are going to run out of road, because with policies like Rwanda they have probably reached the limit of what most people would regard as fair and reasonable.”