Salvo 05.24.2023 15 minutes

Burkean Nationalism

Statue of Edmund Burke outside Trinity College, Dublin

The fight isn’t about the Left versus the Right; it’s the Left versus the West.

Editors’ Note

The following is adapted from keynote remarks to the National Conservatism U.K. Conference, held on May 16, 2023.

National Conservatism was first born in England, and in the Brexit referendum of 2016, it won its greatest victory since the end of the Cold War.

Like the election of Donald Trump in the United States that same year, Brexit lifted the hopes and expanded the horizons of a more nationalist conservatism across the West. Unfortunately, Tories here, like the Republican Party back home, failed to harness that momentum and translate it into a reimagined governing agenda.

The lack of a clear, comprehensive policy program is always a challenge for a political coalition. For right-of-center parties in this era, it is a death wish.

The other side does not have this problem. They have a vision and an agenda and an obsession with imposing it on the world without the votes of legislatures or the consent of the governed.

The New Left—greedy, woke, elitist, and globalist—has foresworn every principle their ideological predecessors once espoused: democracy, equality, diversity, justice. It abjures religion—and Christianity especially—as well as the nation-state, political accountability, and even objective Truth. Their goal is not to win political contests but to end them altogether, to sweep away dissent and any subversive institution that dares facilitate it.

Today, in the context of leftist control of globalist corporations and entities like the United Nations and European Union, the nation itself has become the most subversive and dangerous institution of them all. National borders, identity, and sovereignty are seen not as beloved inheritances but benighted obstacles: just so many Chesterton Fences impeding the march of Progress.

Properly considered, then, this New Left is not in competition with the Right. It is at war with the West—with the moral, intellectual, and social foundations on which our entire civilization rests.

Which is why it reserves a singular hatred for the kind of conservatism represented by Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, Brexit, Viktor Orban, and this conference. The institution of the nation is the source and reservoir of the power globalists need to achieve their goals, and the one most resistant to elite capture. Unlike corporations, governments, and even churches, nations have no C-suites to cajole or HR departments to bully. They have cultures, loyalties, and loves prior to mere policy—and in these, the power to defeat globalist ambitions.

National Conservatism is derided—and sometimes hailed—as something new, novel, unfamiliar. Its enemies call it frightening, and too many of its adherents fashion it “edgy.” It is neither. The emergence of nationalism and populism on the Right is a re-emergence. It is a rebirth of the principles western conservatives deemphasized over the last three decades, to their nations’ peril and global elites’ advantage.

Progressives prefer an establishment conservatism, whose leaders secretly but desperately crave elite approbation. Or even a blinkered libertarianism, susceptible to the materialism that is the Left’s home turf. A conservatism of the nation, on the other hand—undergirded by the spiritual bonds and patriotism-of-place of individuals, families, and communities—cannot be tolerated because it cannot be bought.

Contrary to false framing, conservatism since the Cold War has gone adrift not because it went mainstream but because it left the mainstream. Conservative parties detached themselves from the “permanent things” they were formed to conserve. Somewhere along the way, conservative leaders forgot that markets, globalization, individualism, GDP growth, and foreign alliances were means not ends.

The Left suffers no such confusion. From their headquarters in Brussels, Washington, London, New York, Beijing, and Silicon Valley, they understand all of the above as tools. As weapons. As legions under their command, arrayed in line-of-battle against the institutions and people who still defend family, faith, and flag.

Facing this new gathering storm, conservatism cannot rely on the faulty navigation instruments that led the last generation of leaders into it. We must turn to older, truer, more authentic guides, starting with the first and greatest conservative, Edmund Burke.

For a Burkean re-evaluation of the last several decades can help conservatives in the U.K., in the U.S., and around the world identify yesterday’s missteps and, more importantly, today’s opportunities.

Pretended Citizens 

Critics of national or populist conservatism on the Right usually decry its departures from the agendas of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And frankly, some National Conservatives mistakenly wear this shallow analysis as a badge of honor. In fact, it is National Conservatism—and not the corporatist, secular, neo-liberal establishment—that bears the standard of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 21st century.

We should not hide this fact, but celebrate it.

Reaganism and Thatcherism’s supply-side tax cuts, deregulation, freer trade, defense spending, and NATO leadership did indeed rescue stagflated Western economies and win the Cold War. National Conservatives should not gainsay these accomplishments—we share them.

But that victory—what one historian called the “End of History”—gave Western elites unprecedented political capital and flexibility to spend it. Which they did, on:

The European Union. De-industrialization and outsourcing. Iraq and Afghanistan. The degradation of marriage and the nuclear family. The financial crisis and Great Recession. The rise of China and corporate subservience to Beijing. The retreat from religious observance and heightening of racial and ethnic tensions. Immigration crises on multiple continents. The addiction, pornography, and social isolation driving an unprecedented mental health crisis. The Great Awokening and normalization of anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-democratic, cultural totalitarianism in western newsrooms, classrooms, and bureaucracies. Then the Covid-19 debacle.

These are not distinct, discrete phenomena, but myriad symptoms of ruling-class contempt of everyday working families and the institutions that prioritize their rights and interests over elites’ privilege. Things like democracy, the rule of law, free speech, religious devotion, marriage and family, ordered liberty, property rights, and yes, the real free market, as opposed to the altar of corporatism that Big Government Globalists idolize. But more than anything else, the ruling class despises nationhood.

That’s why globalist elites in every nation skirt accountability. Through treaties—ratified or not—international bodies, courts, and unelected bureaucracies, woke elites don’t so much lead or govern Western nations as they occupy them. Their agenda chastises rather than represents their nations’ views, and re-programs rather than reflects their people’s values.

Thus did yesterday’s fruitful one-nation conservatism beget today’s sterile No-Nation Globalism.

It does not matter that they might coincidentally share the nationalities of the people they would rule. Just as it did not in 1790, when Edmund Burke wrote of French Revolutionaries: 

these pretended citizens treat France exactly like a country of conquest. Acting as conquerors…[they pursue] The policy of…barbarous victors, who condemn a subdued people and insult their feelings…to destroy all vestiges of the ancient country, in religion, in polity, in laws, and in manners; to confound all territorial limits.

One would be hard pressed to better describe the soft, secular, elitist totalitarianism of the E.U., U.N., and Woke Industrial Complex today. They openly, proudly, even violently attack people’s natural human affinities—our families and values. Our language and faith. Our history and heroes. Our literature. Even our humor!—as illegitimate rivals to their authority. To globalist elites, Burke’s little platoons are terrorist sleeper cells.

To Burke, of course, they were the fundamental units of the commonweal, the love of which in every nation was the headwater of social solidarity, patriotism, and even international harmony. For it was Burke the national conservative who supported both Indian and American independence from London, while the city’s most credentialed, moralizing elites profiteered from imperialist oppression.

It should come as no surprise that their successors in Europe’s halls of power today passionately condemn Vladimir Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty…even as they coolly plot a far more aggressive and ambitious imperial project.

All of this is, of course, frustrating to National Conservatives. But more importantly, it is ridiculous. Temperamentally gloomy conservatives must not succumb to a desperate—and false—sense of elites’ inevitable triumph. The haughty despotism assumed in elite institutions is less the stuff of Orwell’s Big Brother than of Wodehouse’s Roderick Spode. Like a schoolyard bully or Instagram mean-girl, globalists’ intimidating strength is influence, not actual authority. All the supposed power they wield in fact resides in the very nations they pretend to have transcended.

One-Nation Burkeanism

However cowed their establishments and atrophied their democratic muscles, nations possess this power still.

That is precisely what the Brexit vote, Trump’s election, and Orban’s enduring popularity show, and why elite tantrums about them in Europe and America were so spluttering and absurd. Their pretense as superior, external, independent overlords can be convincing sometimes. But they are ultimately just children playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes.

Leaving the European Union and formally detaching itself from E.U. elites’ masquerade ball was precisely the right thing for the United Kingdom to do. But as a great Tory once said, “wars are not won by evacuations.”

The question since 2016 has not been whether the British people have the power to navigate the twenty-first century as an independent nation-state. Clearly they do. Nor is the question whether global corporate, political, and cultural elites will let them, because in the real world they have almost no say in the matter.

Rather, the question is whether the Conservative Party—like the Republican Party in the U.S.—can follow through on their 2016 victories and build a new governing majority out of a new, one-nation conservatism.

I hope by now it goes without saying that the missing piece is not stylistic. Too many elected conservatives and Republicans treat nationalism and populism as costumes for partisan theatrics. On Twitter and television, they rage about immigration and Big Tech censorship. But behind closed doors, they “cling, bitterly” to their secular, corporatist donor service platform. This is no more than what the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “boob bait for bubba”—tough sounding rhetoric meant to placate populists and distract them from elitist policy.

Woke elites on both sides of the Atlantic feign terror at this bumptious, grifting performance art. But it is not nationalism or populism; it’s a parody of both that ultimately only empowers the establishment Right and institutional woke Left.

The nationalism and populism that elites truly fear—the conservatism that the Conservative Party should embrace—is not insecure, furious, and divisive. It is confident, humble, thoughtful, cheerful, winsome, and—most terrifying of all—unifying. Call it “One-Nation Burkeanism.”

The fundamental principles of One-Nation Burkeanism are very simply that the United Kingdom belongs to her people, period. That her political, corporate, spiritual, and civic institutions should serve them, and not the other way around.

That her culture and history are a treasured patrimony British children have a God-given right to inherit.

That those same children are a God-given gift British parents have a right to raise.

That the religion of Britain’s heroes and saints is true.

That religious freedom is prior to governmental authority.

And that Britain’s success will be determined specifically by things economists and scientists cannot measure: the strength of our marriages, the happiness of our children, the flourishing of our communities, the dignity of our work, the vibrancy of our faith, and the restored confidence of every Briton that they are all in this together.

The policy program that follows these principles should be as obvious to us in this moment as Lady Thatcher and President Reagan’s were in theirs.

A Burkean Agenda

So far, however—whether owing to a failure of imagination or a triumph of donor-service—the One-Nation Burkean policy agenda needed on both sides of the Atlantic remains a work in progress.

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s plan to cut taxes and regulations was attacked at the time, including by many National Conservatives, for being inapt. The fairer critique is that it was incomplete. Coming out of Covid-19, a jolt of adrenaline to the U.K. economy’s animal spirits was perfectly appropriate.

What the plan lacked were complementary and long overdue reforms directly benefiting the working class “conservatives of the heart” that won the Brexit fight and Tories their majority.

Markets should, of course, generate wealth—and conservatives today should, as Burke did, profoundly endorse the restoration of truly free markets, disentangled from the rotten fruit cultivated by the corporatists and bureaucrats. Conservatives need to remember that what we are railing against is not free markets and free exchange, but the crony corporatism perfected in places like Brussels, Washington, and yes, London.

Our policy programs should be bold in this regard, re-unifying the nation-state, the free market, and the interests of everyday people whose aspirations and work have always been the backbone of our movement. That is what tighter immigration laws—especially restrictions on lower-skilled migrants—can do. That is what increased production and refinement of domestic energy can do. That is what bilateral trade agreements—starting with the United States—can do.

One-Nation Burkeanism will produce higher wages as well as higher profits. It will focus on expanding ownership, not global supply chains. On the costs of family formation even more than global business formation. On lower rents—through free enterprise—rather than only lower tax rates. On incentivizing the investment of social capital, not just financial capital. And most of all, for the sake of our nations’ futures, it must embrace making the economy as welcoming to those who choose to be one-income families in the twenty-first century as we did for two-income families in the twentieth.

Burke’s little platoons, the family above all, are the most important asset in the portfolio of any nation that intends to remain free. Policy must treat them accordingly—as a unique and indispensable class of social, political, economic, and spiritual investment, not merely as a sub-category of consumer spending or brief for some new Directorate General in Belgium.

Policy can achieve these aims, and indeed only can in the context of the cooperative competition of an entrepreneurial economy. Abandoning free enterprise to help workers is like defunding police departments to help underprivileged neighborhoods or abandoning religion to free souls from the ravages of sin. One-Nation Burkeanism should not seek to shelter workers and families from the storms of global capitalism, but make them the storm that sinks and splinters globalist institutions once and for all.

Truly United in True Diversity

The great irony of the E.U. is that it was created in part to end European elites’ imperialist ambitions. But the fact is, it can still fulfill that destiny—just not in the way Brussels thinks. Today, the E.U. embodies the cultural chauvinism, spiritual decadence, strategic incompetence, and tyrannical ambition that have hurled the continent into chaos for millennia.

Its systematic assault on member nations’ sovereignty—to say nothing of their diverse cultures, identities, and faith—is already tearing Europe apart and pushing it toward the brink. They think, because they rule by pen and microphone, they are kinder and gentler than their gauche, martinet predecessors who led armies and navies.

They are not. They are as imperialistic, ambitious, megalomaniacal, and authoritarian as any of the bullies they hope to succeed. The only good news is that they are weaker than those who failed before them.

Nations possess power the E.U. and globalist elites never will. Just as in 1790, 1979, and countless dark hours in between, principled conservatism can answer this new moment. A One-Nation Burkean Conservative Party—nationalist, populist, communitarian, and principled—can not only succeed where the post-Cold War Left and establishment have failed. It can show the U.K.’s sister nations across Europe how to follow its lead: to reclaim their usurped rights, reunify their fractured nations, and revive their decadent cultures.

But that begins with us, as we conclude this conference later today, committing that our work to rebuild our nations won’t merely be focused on policy and politics. As important as those are, they are merely small parts to the larger issue—one Burke, were he here with us today, would remind us of: we must, in the words of my friend Yoram Hazony, live conservative lives.

So to my British friends, from this American friend, let me close by saying what nearly all Americans believe but too infrequently say: thank you. Thank you for nurturing the culture and philosophy and worldview we inherited from you, and now have the privilege of sharing custody of with you. Thank you for your heroism in battle every single time it has mattered. And thank you, somewhat preemptively, for what I know you are capable of doing—rising to the occasion now, to confront our shared challenges, to revitalize this great land to whom Americans and so many across the world owe immense gratitude. God bless you, and God bless Britain!

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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