Why So Many Conservatives Feel Like Losers

Despite all of its victories, the populist right can’t stop moping.

An illustration of a tissue box stuffed with the British flag
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

As I arrived for the first day of the National Conservatism Conference in London, a protester outside shouted directions to me: “Up the stairs—turn far right.”

That description, unsurprisingly, would have offended many of the speakers gathered this week at the Emmanuel Centre, a 10-minute walk from Big Ben. One of them, the journalist Melanie Phillips, published an article after the conference’s first day headlined: “National Conservatism is not a fascist plot.” Good to have that cleared up. Instead, according to the conference’s organizers, it is about a form of conservatism “inextricably tied to the idea of the nation … an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”

NatCon draws an international group of nationalists (I know) who have also organized events in the United States—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been a speaker—as well as in Brussels and Rome. Their favored politicians include Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and their politics are socially conservative, anti-immigration, authoritarian, and heavily invested in an idealized version of “the West.” The most reliable applause line in London was to imply that the left has parted company with reality over gender, as in this quip by Home Secretary Suella Braverman: “100 percent of women do not have a penis.” (Hearty applause.)

The conference takes place at a piquant moment for Britain. The Conservative Party has been in power here since 2010, and seven years ago, the populist right surprised itself by winning the referendum on membership in the European Union. Brexit should have been a moment of great victory for members of this faction, but their mellow was harshed by years of chaotic stasis amid negotiations over the exit deal. From 2010 to 2016, the Tories had a single leader, David Cameron; since Brexit, they have cycled through four. The conventional wisdom is that the party will lose the next election—not on cultural grounds, but on economic ones. Inflation is high, public services are faltering, the young are locked out of buying houses, energy prices are eye-watering, and wage growth has been sluggish since the 2008 financial crisis.

One response to this challenge might be a conference focused on discussing how to promote economic growth, how to build houses in the face of NIMBY opposition, and how much immigration is acceptable to keep the price of goods and services low. Instead, NatCon was a safe space for people who had won a true populist triumph, in the shape of Brexit—and yet still felt like losers. “Why are so many people in Britain today so utterly disillusioned and despondent at the state of the country?” asked Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, in a typically doomy speech. “Why do so many of us walk around with a palpable sense that something has gone fundamentally wrong, as though we are trapped in a car with the doors locked being driven to some nightmarish destination?”

Goodwin then segued into 10 minutes of pure populist beat poetry, shifting from the “glaring cultural problem” caused by immigration, through his parents’ divorce teaching him the value of marriage, and on to the assertion that “our schools have become a Wild West” because they teach children that there are 72 genders. As I wrote in my notebook, riffing on Molly Ivins: This probably sounded better in the original Hungarian.

The first day of the conference was dominated by one subject: babies. In the opening session, Miriam Cates, a Conservative member of Parliament, identified low birth rates as the biggest problem facing the West, attributing the phenomenon both to concrete policy challenges and a liberal individualism that she deemed “completely powerless to resist a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls.”

Over the next two days, speakers offered a lot of this sort of thing—what George W. Bush might have described as “some weird shit.” Cates’s fellow Tory Danny Kruger devoted part of his speech to condemning a “new religion” of “Marxism and narcissism and paganism.” The historian David Starkey claimed that critical race theorists “do not care about Black lives, they only care about the symbolic destruction of white culture.” I began to keep score of how many speakers asserted that Britain had been through a cultural revolution, the evidence for which was that students are quite left-wing and annoying. Over and over, this was attributed to “indoctrination.”

Cates was followed by Yoram Hazony, the Israeli philosopher widely credited with coining the term national conservatism. (He has done his bit to avert babygeddon by having nine children.) Now, carping sorts might say that any phrase beginning with national and ending with -ism carries unfortunate echoes of the 1930s, and in branding terms should therefore be avoided as a political slogan, along with, say, “We make the trains run on time” or “Work makes you free.” Silence, peon: At NatCon’s invite-only dinner, the British commentator Douglas Murray had a different take. Nationalism is unfairly maligned; the real problem was those rascally Teutons taking everything too far as usual. “I see no reason why every other country in the world should be prevented from feeling pride in itself because the Germans mucked up twice in a century,” he said in a clip released by the official NatCon Twitter feed.

Undeterred by outside criticism, Hazony played the hits, attacking “woke neo-Marxism” and ending with an exhortation that we should all have more children and become more religious. He was in happy company because the next speaker was Jacob Rees-Mogg (six children, the last of whom is named Sixtus). Rees-Mogg, a devout Catholic, started playing a caricature of an English toff in early life and has not stopped yet. His speech took in Saint Thomas Aquinas, Charlemagne, the Treaty of Westphalia, habeas corpus, Edward the Confessor, and occasional snatches of Latin. “Are DeSantis speeches like this?” texted a friend on the other side of the hall. “Slightly less about Aquinas and the French monarchy,” I replied. “Slightly more about Disney.”

This was history as an aesthetic rather than an academic discipline or even a private passion. When Rees-Mogg tried to write a serious book on history, The Victorians, it was almost universally panned, even by fellow anti-woke writers. Still, posing as a pop historian worked for Boris Johnson—whose references were always the most obvious ones you could imagine, such as Shakespeare and Winston Churchill—so I suppose there’s a market for it.

The highlight of Rees-Mogg’s speech came when he attacked his own Conservative Party for insisting before the recent local elections that voters needed to present identification at polling stations. Widespread electoral fraud is simply not an issue in Britain, and so this felt like an extra hurdle imposed on the type of people (students, poor people, racial minorities) who might otherwise vote for Labour. Not so, offered Rees-Mogg in his aristocratic drawl. “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections,” he said. “We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters, and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”

For a moment I warmed to Rees-Mogg; it was awfully decent of him to confess to an antidemocratic plot so early in the proceedings.

At lunchtime, I was greeted by a colleague in the subterranean press room. “Hello,” he boomed. “I just popped out to father some children.”

Looking at the program, I noticed that one panel had two men named Sebastian and no women. The audience in the hall was perhaps four-fifths male. Both of these awkward facts underlined a problem with all these paeans to natalism: Most women don’t want to hear them. In countries where women have access to education and the job market, the birth rate falls. In Britain, the demographic that could solve the baby drought, those under 45, is struggling to buy houses after decades of soaring prices, and also declining to vote for right-wing parties. What does national conservatism have to offer these people? They can’t put a crib in a makeshift shelter built from remaindered copies of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. In one of the best speeches of the conference—because it was daringly tethered to empirical reality—the Substack author Ed West observed that “the world’s most effective form of contraception is the London housing market.”

Returning to the hall, we all took our seats early for the afternoon’s main event, the biggest draw of the conference: Suella Braverman. The home secretary is the darling of the Conservative ultra-right, and their best hope of winning the party leadership if Prime Minister Rishi Sunak loses the next election.

Her speech was interrupted by a protest against the government’s migration policy—Braverman wants to deport some of those seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda, which will process their claims instead. (The policy has been framed as a response to high numbers of migrants trying to get to Britain in small boats across the English Channel.) First, one protester was dragged out shouting, “We welcome you, unless you come in a boat, unless you are brown.” The audience settled down, Braverman prepared to restart her speech, and then another protester stood up. I hoped this would last for some time, as it would undoubtedly be more interesting than the speech.

Sadly, that was not to be. “Anyone else?” Braverman offered, brightly. Her speech came in two halves. The first was devoted to an immigrant success story: Her Indian father was displaced from Kenya in the 1960s, around the same time that her mother traveled from Mauritius to Scotland to work as a nurse. This hardworking, loving couple raised a child who would go on to be home secretary, and wasn’t it a real tribute to Britain that it recognized and rewarded her brilliance? The second half of the speech was devoted to explaining why other immigrants should be kept out.

In fairness, her speech galloped around some other issues: grooming gangs that sexually exploit children, Britain’s role in abolishing slavery, women’s aforementioned lack of penises, the left’s perfidy in decolonizing the curriculum and tearing down statues. “White people do not exist in a special state of sin or guilt,” said Braverman. “Ha, that’s what she thinks,” I whispered to the person sitting next to me. “Some of us were raised Catholic.”

And then came one perfect line to encapsulate the difference between national conservatism and the other, more milquetoast, strains. “Conservatism,” said Braverman, “is order or it is nothing.”

After Braverman’s speech, people began to drift away, a migratory herd of navy blazers heading for the exits. I hung around for J. D. Vance, the senator from Ohio who once said Donald Trump might be “America’s Hitler” before trying to pretend he didn’t mean that in a bad way. Vance is too much of a big shot to travel to London for a conference, and so he Zoomed in from what looked like an empty house. I found this intensely distracting: Was he a Zen monk? Had he just moved in? Had he just broken in?

Vance quickly identified a reason national conservatism might struggle to prosper in Britain: This country has a large and successful party of the center-right that the public has repeatedly voted into office. If you want lower taxes, you don’t have to sign up for hard-core natalism too. “You only really have two viable political movements that can contest each other and govern the country,” Vance told the crowd. “And you have on the one side, a political movement that’s dedicated to open borders, that’s sort of ashamed of traditional British culture, and I think is very much of the view that people who live outside major metropolitan areas are to be scorned and looked down on.”

Get ready for it: “And then, of course, on the other side you have the Labour Party.”

The delegates loved it. This was a crowd primed to agree that mainstream Tories were traitors to the conservative cause, and that Sunak—a Brexiteer, a religiously observant Hindu, a hard-liner against drugs—was a wet liberal in disguise. Anger and dismay at the ruling Conservative Party was a repeated theme of the conference, and it squared the obvious contradiction of right-wingers complaining about their marginalization in a country that has been governed by the right for 13 years. “You know, as I do, that the solution is to be found in conservatism,” the Conservative member of Parliament John Hayes said. “But not in the desiccated, hollowed-out, sugar-free conservatism deemed to be just about acceptable by our liberal masters.” This movement cannot ever admit that it has won, because that would involve taking responsibility. Far better to dwell forever in the arcadia of the culture war, a perpetual-motion machine of grievance.

Speaking of which, by the second day I realized that none of the many socially conservative speakers had mentioned homosexuality, which would have been a staple of a similar conference in 1990, or even in 2000. Sorry, gay men, your time as the biggest threat to Western civilization is over; childless women like me are the problem now. Abortion was also absent because it is a settled issue in Britain. Even the punch lines about transgender issues were curiously muted; instead of bloodcurdling Republican invocations of “child mutilation,” we mostly got weary eye rolls about the disputed existence of biological sex.

That tonal difference between the U.S. and Britain was striking, and I think indicative of the two countries’ relative appetites for nationalism. Above all else, British people are suspicious of enthusiasm. This has proved a great defense against fanatics. (In the 1930s, P. G. Wodehouse caricatured Oswald Mosley’s fascists as the “Black Shorts,” while Nancy Mitford wrote an entire novel mocking her sisters’ eager embrace of Hitler.) Too many of the NatCon speakers came off like someone who would harangue you at a party about their pet cause, oblivious to your glazed eyes. Watching Matthew Goodwin work himself into a lather about the fall of civilization made me want to give him a cup of tea and a reassuring biscuit. And Britons like children, sure. But nine? Who likes children that much? To me, the two wittiest and most self-deprecating speakers, Tim Stanley and Ed West, were also the most intellectually interesting; the former criticized the “regrettable miserablism in Conservatism.” Stanley had earlier silenced the hall by asking what John 10:11 said. The answer is “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep,” according to the King James Version. But a roomful of people suffused with love for “Judeo-Christian values” turned out to be hazy on their Bible verses.

Eventually, the point of the meeting became clear. This wasn’t a political conference so much as a group-therapy session. Here were people who were obviously, startlingly correct about the evils of the modern world, and yet they weren’t being listened to. There must be some mistake.

In that context, the endless, conspiratorial references to the “elite” began to make sense. The elite is not NatCon chair Christopher DeMuth, who attended Harvard before serving in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. It is not the conference’s British organizer, James Orr, a divinity professor at Cambridge University. It is not Douglas Murray or Father Marcus Walker, who said the prayer before the conference’s private dinner, though both were at Oxford University at the same time I was. It is not Danny Kruger, who told delegates that conservatives had to fight the “intelligentsia, the globalized elite, whose loyalties are to everyone and no one,” and who went to the same boarding school as Prince William. It is not Charlemagne, either, even if he was a literal emperor. The elite is students. The elite is the “woke mind virus.” The elite is a great shadowy Them composed of anyone an inch closer to the political center than the national conservatives are. The elite is whoever is stopping you from getting whatever you want without having to make any compromises.

Throughout the conference, delegates kept returning to one question: Can national conservatism succeed in Britain? The answer has to be no. Just look at Brexit, that great populist triumph now dismissed even by its proponents as an unfulfilled dream, a mere shadow of what they were promised. Whatever happens next, I confidently predict we will discover that true national conservatism has never been tried.