May 19, 2023

It’s always interesting when the fiendish plans of undercover socialists are dragged into the light. This week, just such an occasion was unexpectedly provided at the National Conservatism conference. Alongside standard Thatcherite fare about free markets, small states, and level playing fields, a dedicated band of what are sometimes called “Tory socialists” — in other words, communitarian and post-liberal thinkers highly critical of liberal individualism — made the case for their own distinctive vision of the glorious future.

The good news is they want us to have lots and lots of sex. The bad news is they also want us to be heterosexual, married to the person we’re having sex with and avoiding contraception while we do it. Working motherhood, free childcare, and quickie divorces are out. Babies and the “normative family held together by marriage” are in.

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For some liberal conservatives, it apparently all came as a bit of a shock. Meanwhile, for those looking for any excuse to call the Conservative Party “fascist”, it was a field day. Once the stuff on reproduction was judiciously combined with material from migrant-averse Tory speakers such as Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the whole package started to look to many like a cover version of Viktor Orbán’s greatest hits — including to Orbán’s own political director. Not that this would have necessarily dismayed the speakers in question.

As I watched the conference unfold, I started to think that having a name that starts with “National” and ends with “ism” might be the least of National Conservatism’s image problems. When I first read about the event, I vaguely imagined that it would be a mostly cerebral affair, conducted behind closed doors — a thrashing out of disputed intellectual territory, with the aim of forming a shared, reinvigorated vision for the direction of conservatism, currently languishing in near-terminal decline. I didn’t realise it would be done in the full glare of the media and the voting public.

I didn’t anticipate there would be a film of MP Danny Kruger coming across like a slightly sinister vicar, lecturing the British public about what many naively assume are private romantic relationships (“Marriage is not all about you … It’s not just a private arrangement, it’s a public act by which you undertake to live for someone else, for their sake, and the sake of your children, and the sake of wider society!”). I didn’t think they would let Miriam Cates say, out loud and in full view of The Guardian’s deputy political editor, that “cultural Marxism… is systematically destroying our children’s souls”. In short, I didn’t expect them to go full Back to Basics, having barely arrived on the scene. I thought they might take a bit of a run-up first.

Some of the consequent hostile reaction is just opportunist histrionics from enemies seeking political advantage. There’s nothing fascist, or even particularly Right-wing, about policies attempting to stabilise families for the good of children’s welfare, or to redress declining birth rates with an eye to protecting future pensions and the welfare state. It’s perfectly fine to consider how present socioeconomic models, often focused upon treating the sexes equally, badly serve some distinctive needs of mothers and their children. And it’s appropriate to worry about the way in which personal development curricula in schools have been outsourced to companies thronging with sexual libertarians, self-identifying as moral saints. Indeed, if Keir Starmer doesn’t also think critically about these things, he will be missing a vote-winning trick.

Still, like many a gimlet-eyed revolutionary before them, there is a sense that these ideologues are skipping to the end too fast. Immersed in a bubble of like-minded think tanks, podcasts, and blogposts, it is easy to think that certain background assumptions go without saying. But strategically at least, there’s a need to take those you want to persuade on a journey — to meet them where they are, as opposed to where you think they should be.

And though Cates, Kruger and friends prosecute their arguments in the name of “ordinary British people”, many OBPs are much more liberal than they are. After all, Britain has been a highly liberalised society for decades. Unlike those neoliberal thinkers who conceptualise the individual as metaphysically unencumbered and entirely self-made, post-liberals are supposed to understand the powerful effects of socialisation on personality and preference. Cumulative exposure to the policies of Thatcher, Blair, and Cameron has left its formative mark. We’re intensely relaxed about most things, often to the point of inertia. Equally, whereas Cates and Kruger are both devout Christians, most OBPs lack any religious faith to help underpin the communitarian values being argued for.

This means that, in order to win people over to their cause, post-liberals are going to have to be extra savvy. It would help if, along the way, they didn’t provide soundbites that are easily trolled. For instance, it is very unlikely that Cates expected her use of the phrase “cultural Marxism” would be construed as antisemitic — but even so, it sounded conspiratorial, reminiscent of a caricatural McCarthyite talking about reds under the bed. In fact, there’s nothing Marxist about the identity politics embedded in so many of our national institutions and organisations. Some of its principal disseminators are HR professionals, for god’s sake.

The nearest thing to a justification for the claim would involve a reference to the neo-Marxist idea of a “long march through the institutions”, and the goal of infiltrating existing organisations to build alternative anti-capitalist cultures, or “counterinstitutions”, as Herbert Marcuse put it. But if this is what counts as culturally Marxist then, ironically, the National Conservative conference itself qualifies as such — set up by its founder Yoram Hazony to counter the dominant neoliberal, free-marketeer culture within Conservatism.

There’s another thing post-liberals have in common with Marxists, too. Each wants to fundamentally restructure society in far-reaching ways. Post-liberals will likely frame this as going “back” to a better time; Marxists would present it as moving “forward”. Temporal metaphors aside, however, each holds that existing social arrangements are ripe for dismantling. And like Marxists, some post-liberals seem blithe to the potential costs of their revolutionary policies for those whose lives don’t fit their preferred vision of the future.

Most obviously, this issue affects those who are not in so-called “normative families”. There are 3 million lone parent families in the UK currently, while millions more are the offspring of single mothers. And 1.5 million people in England and Wales are not heterosexual, while some lesbians and gay men are also parents. In valorising the traditional nuclear family, post-liberals need to avoid stigmatising those who aren’t in one — particularly if they want to avoid social division, as most say that they do.

It is not that wielding social stigma as a weapon is never useful. When a newly destructive social trend first heaves into view, stigmatising it by means of ridicule or outrage can be an effective defence. But there’s a difference between stigmatising what has yet to take hold, and what is already here. In the second case, there’s an increased responsibility to tread carefully. There’s also a difference between stigmatising a discrete activity unattached to any particular identity group, and stigmatising a behaviour which tends to define an entire group in the public mind. There’s a difference between criticising smartphones for kids and criticising single motherhood, for instance.

Perhaps it will be objected that the post-liberals are not stigmatising anyone at all — they are merely describing existing social patterns, documenting harms, and arguing for better alternatives, with evidence. I agree that they are doing that; but I still think this response would be naïve. For most, it is a short walk from “marriage is a public act for the sake of your children and wider society” to “society should think less of you for being an unmarried parent”. Anyone trying to motivate the masses into a comfortingly principled Fifties mindset also needs to remember what used to happen to single mothers and gay people in the Fifties.

This doesn’t mean that the solution is to helplessly accede to existing progressive cultural forces, which at times looks like they are unconsciously focused on converting everybody in the UK to lesbian single motherhood, including the blokes. Rather, it means reconciling the desire to radically reshape the social fabric with recognising the value and dignity of those groups caught in cultural crossfire. It also involves noticing that in any free society, there will always be such people; and that the further towards the margins they are placed, culturally speaking, the more they will become vulnerable and isolated.

In short, post-liberals need to find a sincerely sympathetic narrative that stops those nearer the edges of their preferred social fabric from becoming outcasts. Fidel Castro once observed that a revolution is a struggle between the future and the past. If they really have to go back in time in order to stabilise a world flying apart under liberalism, then let the new revolutionaries take some liberal tolerance with them as they go.