And the Band Played On: The National Conservatism conference

17 mei 2023 | John Laughland

The National Conservatism conference organised by the US-based Edmund Burke Foundation in London on 15 – 17 May, and which I attended for FVD International, was a fascinating event. Just as FvD’s Simone Kerseboom launches her defence of womanhood in articles and videos, the opening speeches of the conference were devoted to issues which I have never before heard discussed in British Conservative circles: the demographic collapse, the importance of motherhood, the ravages of the sexual revolution and the need to make babies.

Among the many outstanding speakers were Miriam Cates, a newly elected “Red Wall” MP, who spoke on the demographic crisis which she regards as the most pressing political issue of the day; Mary Harrington on transhumanism, transgenderism and reactionary feminism; Louise Perry on the forces ranged against motherhood in today’s Britain and on the virtues of the pre-modern practice of a woman’s 40-day “lying in” after birth; and Ed West on the link between the demographic collapse and inflation.

Until Monday, I thought British conservatives only ever talked about the free market and Brexit.  Now, it seems, many decades late, and hesitantly if brilliantly, these questions are making their way onto the agenda, especially thanks to the superb web site Unherd. The link with the actual Conservative Party and government remains, however, ambiguous: as Mary Harrington and others pointed out, there was a strange convergence of interests between the silly anti-fa protesters outside the conference hall shouting “Tories out” and the conservatives (but not Conservatives) inside it who agreed with them, but for opposite reasons.

When I say “many decades late” I am referring to the issue of abortion, which has been one of the main left-right issues in American politics for two generations, and to the issues of gay marriage, in vitro fertilisation and surrogate motherhood which, like Muslim immigration, have defined French conservatism for, respectively, ten years and two generations.

Abortion was mentioned only in the briefest and glancing terms in London this week, whereas it is at the centre of the politically and constitutionally most momentous decision in American politics for 50 years, the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court last year. Surrogate motherhood, which is illegal in France and which is often assimilated to human trafficking by its conservative opponents there, was not mentioned at all. 

Immigration was discussed, to be sure, especially by the Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Suella Braverman who supposedly embodies a government hard line – even though net immigration into Britain last year, under her watch, was between 700,000 and 1 million.  But never once did anyone suggest that specifically Muslim immigration might pose a problem.  The very timorous British opposition to immigration therefore omits even to mention the one thing which, above all others, defines French or Dutch opposition to immigration.  French or Dutch opponents of immigration could not care less about Poles or Romanians; British ones could not care less about Kurds or Pakistanis.

This is why I say that the British debate on these huge societal issues is hesitant.  It may also be simply too late.  There are, in life, some things that are so broken that they can no longer be fixed - French monarchism comes to mind.  The attack on the family in Britain is more than a century old and indeed it was a prerequisite for Britain’s superpower status.  The British empire, which is the geographically biggest empire in the history of humanity, was made possible because sons were handed over to institutions (boarding schools) at the age of eight.  (Some still are today.)  As in ancient Sparta, the family was broken in order to strengthen the state.  Industrialisation and, more recently, inflation-based casino capitalism (since the 1970s) and the concomitant rise in property prices, have completed the job: as Ed West brilliantly put it, “The most effective contraception method known to man is the London property market.  Youngsters today have cheap luxuries (iPhones) and unaffordable necessities: they will never be able to become property owners.”

People at NatCon talked about the demographic tipping point approaching in the next few years, the point of no return after which population decline becomes irreversible.  But maybe the destruction of the family in Britain has been irreversible for a century.  Certainly, unlike in France, the phenomenon of the large middle-class family does not exist in Britain – the only large families are those who live on social benefits. Louise Perry spoke in favour of “lying in” but this traditional practice is simply not possible given family breakdown and the economic impossibility, in Britain, of extended families living close to each other.

One final remark.  While I found the cultural and philosophical analyses refreshing and the intellectual level unexpectedly high, I was also surprised, negatively, by the absence of any policy proposals.  Yes, the speakers deplored the tax system which penalises marriage.  But they did not mention any of the natalist policies which other countries have implemented in the past or at present.  France had a natalist policy supported by both Left and Right for the whole of the 20th century after the First World War and abandoned only under François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron at the beginning of the 21st; Hungary and Russia have implemented natalist policies today. The famously pragmatic British should perhaps look at these models and examine whether they can work.  Otherwise conservative intellectuals are simply playing “Nearer, my God, to Thee” on the deck of the Titanic.


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