What I Saw when I Snuck In to the British National Conservatism ConferenceRoundup
tags: far right, British history, fascism, National Conservatism
Seth Thévoz is a political, cultural and social historian, whose specialisms include the history of British political finance. He has been shortlisted for the Whitfield Prize for the best book on British or Irish history by a first-time author, and (alongside his openDemocracy colleagues) for a British Journalism Award for Best Investigation.
While the National Conservatism conference has been making headlines – for reasons ranging from admissions of gerrymandering to calls for delegates to breed – it’s been quite publicity-shy with journalists. openDemocracy was one of at least three left-leaning outlets whose application to cover the conference was refused.
But I managed to blag my way in anyway.
And once inside, I saw no shortage of whackadoodlery. ‘Deep State’ conspiracy theories were alive and well, as a man in a crumpled linen suit rose to his feet, to declare: “One of the reasons Liz Truss was removed as prime minister was that her government was going to move against the Net-Zero agenda!” He offered no supporting evidence.
What I found more interesting was the feel of the place. Over 300 delegates, packed into a plush, wood-panelled hall in Westminster. The mood was angry, but comfortable. These were normally shy conservatives, glad to be among like minds, where they could speak freely.
For a ‘national’ conservatism conference in Britain, it was more Trump rally than Sunak conference. The crowd was almost entirely male, and younger than might be expected. In fact, as a 38-year-old, I couldn’t find anyone my own age – it looked like about 80% were under 30, and the other 20% over 50. One man next to me had dragged along his clearly bored girlfriend, who audibly harrumphed through several speeches.
Standard dress was blazers, tweeds, waistcoats, Union Jack bow ties, and summer dresses. In fact, there were more neckties than I’ve seen anywhere since the pandemic. This wasn’t a political convention, it was the Chap Olympiad.
Immigration was the hottest topic – a guaranteed crowd-pleaser every time. In fact, delegates seemed inordinately interested in it, with “Ooooohs” and “Hear, hears” at every mention.
Someone who worked for the far-right YouTube channel Triggernometry complained, “The left doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigration! That’s what’s happened to people I know, particularly [in] London.” Mentions of London, or big cities, were often accompanied by a hiss.
Another barn-storming topic was gun ownership. When recently elected Trump-backed Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio mentioned that he attended a raffle event where the prize was an AR-15 assault rifle, a prolonged ripple of applause broke out.