Home: Opinion

Regressive NatCon vision could resonate in UK amid global uncertainties

Could mass movement of people, economic crisis and climate chaos help a new populist movement take hold in the UK?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 May 2023, 4.02pm
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman will address the national conservatism conference
Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Three apparently unconnected news items this week together throw light on long-term global trends.

First, the early months of this year were the deadliest for six years for refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia, to the extent that the north African country’s morgues are full to overflowing and local authorities are looking to build new cemeteries to cope.

The problem stems from the increased desperation of people, principally from other parts of Africa and the Middle East, trying to escape poverty, often exacerbated by the impact of conflicts and frequently overshadowed by the growing crisis of climate breakdown. It is made worse in Tunisia by the rhetoric of the increasingly autocratic president, Kais Saied, condemning immigration for damaging Tunisia’s social coherence and changing the country’s identity.

This is similar enough to outpourings of politicians of the right across Europe and North America – from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Suella Braverman and Donald Trump – but in Tunisia it is directly threatening to recent immigrants, increasing pressure on them to head north whatever the dangers of the sea passage.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Second, the Tunisian issue comes at a time when report after report points to the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, a recent example being a report that the worldwide market for private jets is booming.

The global fleet of private jets has more than doubled in the past five years, and last year private flying exceeded its previous peak in 2007, just before the 2008-9 financial crisis. A study from the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies reports that “…approximately 1% of people are responsible for about half of all aviation carbon emissions”.

Finally, while much of England, and rather fewer parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are immersed in coronation hype, the authorities have quietly brought forward legislation to increase police powers to deal with protests, making preventative detention and ‘stop and search’ easier. The coronation will include the large-scale use of real-time facial recognition, with vehicle-mounted cameras able to scan thousands of faces a minute for potential miscreants.

It is a pattern being repeated in different forms in many other states, as the technology of control evolves to higher levels of efficiency.

These individual news items may seem unconnected, but they can be also seen as indicating much more profound trends. The Tunisian refugee issue stems partly from economic marginalisation, partly from consequences of war and partly from the onset of climate breakdown. The surge in private jet use is indicative of increased global economic divisions, and the tightening up of public order laws and the introduction of new technologies of surveillance and control will no doubt ensure that elite communities will continue to feel safe in thoroughly uncertain and worrying times.

In such uncertain and worrying times, the prospect of a populist vision of a renewed and very definitely Great Britain coming into its own and ensuring its security could turn out to be very attractive

There is, meanwhile, a fascinating development on the political front, the birth of national conservatism, or ‘NatCon’, engagingly and appropriately described by John Harris earlier this week.

This movement is still very young. An offshoot of the US-based Edmund Burke Foundation, it has branches in the US, Netherlands and Hungary. Its first gathering was held in London in 2019, with further meetings taking place in Washington, Rome, Orlando and Miami.

It will be staging its next intense session in London on 15-17 May, with addresses by leading UK politicians of the right, including Michael Gove, Suella Braverman, David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The movement’s purpose is clear:

“The National Conservatism Conference brings together public figures, journalists, scholars and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

“We see national conservatism as the best path forward for a democratic world confronted by a rising China abroad and a powerful new Marxism at home. We see the rich tradition of national conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”

In the British context, NatCons are clearly post-Brexit. One of the keynote addresses at the meeting will be given by the head of the US Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts, on the theme ‘The Sun has set on Global Europe’, and the overall emphasis is on the nation rather than the wider international world.

While no doubt located within the tradition of shareholder capitalism and market fundamentalism, there is also a sense of structured populism about the movement. Racism may be firmly denied, but its adherents believe that current trends in immigration must be firmly brought under control, even to the point, as Harris puts it, of “imposing complete moratoriums”.

The NatCon outlook fits in very well with the tenor of the current Tory party, but there are elements that may seem foreign to the UK environment.

A Christian element permeates throughout NatCon thinking. This may seem unusual in the UK context, but bearing in mind the emphasis on Christianity in the current coronation feast, perhaps the organisers are on to something. It may seem like wishful thinking on their part, but maybe it is not. An entire session of the conference is devoted to religion, including presentations by Rod Drerer, author of ‘The Benedict Option, and the Catholic priest and noted conservative writer, Bernard Kiely.

In the ordinary way, the evolution of national conservatism may be seen as just one more representation of changing conservatism writ large – interesting but not especially notable. But look at it in the context of the trends discussed in this column: the mass movement of people in response to poverty and conflict, in the shadow of climate breakdown and amid a global system of greater economic divisions.

In such uncertain and worrying times, the prospect of a populist vision of a renewed and very definitely Great Britain coming into its own and ensuring its security could turn out to be very attractive. And the NatCons could be seen as bringing suitable political, cultural and even religious messages for a newly self-confident state.

Given the recent local election results in England, the Conservatives will face an uphill struggle to win the general election next year. If defeated, Sunak is unlikely to survive, so we can be confident that some of the participants in next week’s NatCon conference will be looking to post-election Britain and the prospect of a future prime minister Braverman setting the UK on the path to national conservatism.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData