There's a new divide on the Right that will decide the future of conservatism
This week, I will be speaking at Britain’s first National Conservatism conference. Though classical liberals will disagree with postliberals, and seculars with theocons, all will be defending the idea of conserving the nation. In policy terms, many will endorse slowing the pace of immigration and pushing back against “woke” values in our institutions.
Yet while the majority of the British public endorses these aims, there is a noticeable split on the intellectual Right which is reflected in broader opinion. One group, the national conservatives, places the accent on defending traditions of nationhood and gender. They lean Right on immigration, Brexit and defending national heritage. Comparatively few believe in conspiracy theories. These voters are older than average, with a lower share of university graduates. They are motivated by security.
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A second constituency, anti-authoritarian populists, prioritises freedom from authority, and takes anti-Government positions on lockdowns, green issues and the freedom to say anything, however offensive. They are much more likely than others, including national conservatives, to believe that the world is controlled by a secretive elite. These voters tend to be younger and overrepresented by men, and resemble national conservatives in containing a below-average share of degree holders. They value freedom above all else.
National conservatives are considerably more numerous than anti-authoritarian populists and, critically, there is only a small degree of overlap between the two groups. Barely one in seven national conservatives are also anti-authoritarian populists, while only a quarter of anti-authoritarian populists are national conservatives.
More importantly, a significant share of national conservatives actively oppose the views of anti-authoritarian populists. This helps to explain the limited success of Reform UK, which opposes lockdowns, Net Zero and Government spending, turning off many older national conservatives who supported UKIP, Brexit and the Brexit Party.
In electoral terms, it’s important to recognise that national conservative stances, though highly polarising, attract net positive support among the general public — with the exception of Brexit. Specifically, as this Policy Exchange survey from May 2022 finds, saying the monarchy is a good thing, desiring lower immigration and opposing teaching British pupils that their country is racist have far more enthusiasts than detractors. Support for defending J.K. Rowling, which unites free speech anti-authoritarians with national conservative gender-traditionalists, is likewise high across the board.
The second fascinating aspect of the two populisms is that national conservatism attracts security-minded older voters while anti-authoritarian populism appeals to a younger freedom-seeking group. The chart below shows that on the freedom to say anything (however offensive), and lockdowns, the young are more populist than the old. On the question of whether the Government spends too much time on green issues, there is no difference between Zoomers and Boomers. Rather, the big generational divide is instead over questions that touch on national, ethnic and gender traditions.
The split on the Right between national conservatives and anti-authoritarian populists will shape the future of conservative politics. While the Conservatives and Reform UK compete to attract both groups, too much emphasis on relatively unpopular anti-lockdown, anti-green and low-tax positions may turn off vital components of the national conservative electorate. On the flipside, over-emphasising hard Brexit policies may alienate younger male anti-authoritarian populists who perceive the EU as enabling freedom rather than constraining it.
The sweet spot is to move toward the centre on unpopular issues while leading with popular ones. Culture war questions like defending the speech rights of the likes of J.K. Rowling and preventing schools from indoctrinating pupils in radical race and gender ideas have the potential to bridge this coalition. Reducing immigration is another clear vote-winner.
The bottom line is that parties on the Right which hope to succeed need to focus on immigration and the defence of tradition, tacking to the centre on questions around Covid, green energy, Brexit and reducing the size of Government.