Don't tell Disraeli (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

May 17, 2023   5 mins

It was inevitable that this week’s NatCon conference in London would be met with the usual mix of mockery and outrage. To some, the very concept of national conservatism is anachronistic and ludicrous; to others, it is all-too modern and sinister. The truth, however, is far more prosaic: national conservatism has been an essential part of Toryism for as long as the modern Conservative Party has existed. It remains as necessary as ever for its survival — and yet, it must be much more than what has been on display this week if the Party wants to secure further electoral victories.

According to its leading exponents, national conservatism is simply the opposite of liberal internationalism. It believes nations are distinctive and should seek to protect this distinctiveness instead of pursuing universal ideas such as global free trade, human rights, international law and the like. It believes that conservatism entered into an alliance with liberalism in the Seventies in order to defeat socialism, but took its eye off the ball in the Nineties, allowing liberalism to then triumph. This, in its view, has led to the erosion of national institutions, Western culture and even morality itself. In short, they argue, it is time for conservatives to rediscover conservatism.

The phenomenon of conservatives criticising the failures of conservatism is not new — it is a recurring theme in the Party’s history, flowering whenever there is a feeling of national drift and failure, as there surely is today. In the 1840s, Benjamin Disraeli relentlessly mocked the new-fangled “conservatism” of Robert Peel, who had won power by accepting the Great Reform Act of 1832, even though he had once opposed it. In his great novel, Coningsby, the future prime minister wrote that Peel’s about-turn was an attempt to “construct a party without principles”. It called itself conservative but what did it actually want to conserve? “The prerogatives of the Crown, provided they are not exercised; the independence of the House of Lords, provided it is not asserted; the ecclesiastical estate, provided it is regulated by a commission of layman. Everything, in short, that is established, as long as it is a phrase and not a fact.”

Similarly, in the Seventies, Margaret Thatcher railed against those conservatives who had forgotten their convictions. “For years now in British politics, this word consensus has reared its head,” she said. “I often think that when you’re going for consensus that those who believe as I believe tend to give in to the Left wing and steadily move further and further Left.”

In a sense, both Disraeli and Thatcher identified the same problem inherent in conservatism: without an idea of what it is actually trying to conserve, of the kind of society it believes in, conservatism is little more than an ineffectual brake, unable to stop the drift towards the type of world it ultimately opposes. And yet, a conservatism that retreats into some kind of romantic defence of lost causes does not win power and conserve anything either.

The Conservative Party has spent a fair amount of time out of power, watching as reforms it once opposed were introduced: between 1846 and 1874; 1906 and 1915; 1997 and 2010. Each time, the party was forced to reinvent itself, accepting the reforms of its opponents. Despite his mockery of Peel, Disraeli did exactly this, dragging his party back to power by not only accepting the Great Reform Act he once opposed (as well as the repeal of the Corn Laws) but actually authoring a second major expansion of the franchise himself, having the genius to see how the lower classes might actually prove allies of the conservative cause rather than radical opponents.

Disraeli, as a result, is often criticised as a typical Tory, unmoored from principle. But this caricature seems unfair. Here was a Tory ultra who rebuilt the Conservative Party as an electoral force not simply by accepting electoral reality, but by helping to change that reality. In doing so, he gave the Conservative Party much of its essential character today — and much of that character is what we might call national conservatism or what has also been called Tory democracy.

Almost every Tory leader after Disraeli has been able to paint his or her opponent as divisive, factional, unpatriotic or somehow a bit foreign, even after the moral disaster of appeasement. Disraeli presented his opponents as “Venetian Oligarchs”; Churchill dismissed the party of Attlee as “Labour weaklings”. Thatcher played the patriotic card during the Falklands; David Cameron did the same to Ed Miliband; Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn. Whenever the Conservative Party has been successful, it has built a broad coalition of support among cutting across all classes, uniting all those opposed to radical reform and supportive of those whom they see as the party of order, property and the national interest.

National conservatism has also been the Tory answer to the problem of change ever since Disraeli. “The great question is not whether you should resist change,” he argued, “but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles.” Disraeli described these options as being between a national system and a philosophical system, with the Conservative Party as the party of the former.

What did conservatism amount to beyond this, though? In a Punch cartoon from 1872, Disraeli is asked to define his Conservative programme. He responds: “Ah, yes! Quite so! Tell them that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.” It is impossible to read this and not think of Boris Johnson, 150 years later, yet its sentiment — trust the people — echoes throughout the party’s history.

Just over a decade after that cartoon was published, Lord Randolph Churchill argued that the difference between the two great political parties of England was that the Tory party clinged “with veneration and affection to the institutions of our country” while their radical opponents regarded them “with aversion and distrust”. The Tory Party, he summarised, must always “trust the people” — a motto which would later be adopted by his son, Winston. Even this week, when I asked one Conservative MP who attended NatCon if he could define the essence of conservatism, he replied: “Trust the people.”

The most glaring problem with the national conservatism on display this week is that it’s not entirely clear it still does. National conservatism is not inherently ludicrous or sinister, as its critics argue. It is perfectly reasonable to differentiate between conservatism and liberalism, which are distinct philosophies, and to argue that more conservatism is needed. The problem is that, beyond this analysis, what does British national conservatism amount to? Listening to this week’s speeches, it all feels so inchoate and, ironically, alien from the people.

The convention is a spin-off of similar NatCon events in the US, established by an Israeli-American conservative who believes a return to religious education and scripture is necessary to save Western society. While part of its appeal is that it correctly identifies a latent frustration among voters that national politicians and parties do not seem to like them or their opinions very much, yet they surely risk doing the very same thing themselves.

National conservatism is not going away. But if the Tory Party is to remain a potent force, it will have to evolve into something more than what is on display this week in London. It will, to put it simply, have to answer a centuries-old question: does it trust the people or not?

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.