Traditional Britain Group Conference 2013

Preserving the substance of a nation: the role of a traditional conservative counter-establishment

The Traditional Britain Group describes itself as a traditional conservative organization that is concerned with radical thinking. I want to outline each of these elements for you today and then to consider where their combination might lead us.

Let us begin with conservatism. In defining what it is to be conservative, I want to turn to the definition proposed by Michael Oakeshott in his 1991 essay “On being conservative”. He says, “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbound, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of the more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty and promise.”

At the root of this definition of conservatism is an extremely guarded attitude to change, precisely because change has unpredictable, and sometimes unmeasurable effects. We should therefore be very careful not to assume that where we propose change we can predict its outcome. Indeed one of our chief criticisms of the Left is that its commitment to an agenda of constant, radical change is both destructive and ill-thought-out. It is against the natural order of things, and indeed seeks to subvert and destroy that natural order by promoting its opposites.

And yet this definition of conservatism also brings about problems. Let us imagine that the Conservative Party adopted the Oakshottian approach in the coming election. If they are then asked “What will you do if we vote for you?” their response might be “We will take such measures as are necessary to preserve and protect the enduring traditions and way of life of the English people. Other than that, we will do nothing.” I would vote for them, but I do not think they would win. And that this is such a long way away from the present position of the Conservative Party should serve as a warning to us that all is not as it should be.

It is because the Left has forced an agenda of perpetual change upon our political system that the Conservative Party and other parties with conservative roots have felt compelled to abandon this traditional conservative definition of the purpose and nature of government and instead commit themselves to relentless action regardless of the legitimacy and need for such. During the 1980s, neoconservatism developed as the outcome of an attempt to apply Left-wing models of ideology and change to core conservative ideas. Because ideology and traditional conservatism are opposed, what this produces is a hybrid of limited conservative principle and a Leftist commitment to so-called progress and constant change. Neoconservatism wins a popular mandate by accepting the Left’s rules and playing the Left’s game, but it is a complete misconstrual of conservatism, because constant change can never bring about conservative ends. If a conservative government were to behave in a truly conservative way, the first thing it would do on gaining power would be to reverse much of the legislation of the past twenty years and secure our immediate withdrawal from the European Union. We should be clear that if we do not find that the present-day Conservative Party is advocating that this is what should happen, we must conclude that it is because it is no longer conservative in any true sense of that word.

The reality is that the Conservative Party today is a mixture of several strands – of which the most prominent are neoconservative and centrist (that is to say left-wing) conservative. These are in what appears to be a permanent ascendancy, despite some dissonance with both the Parliamentary party and the grass roots. They are in the ascendancy for one reason and one reason only – because to engage with modern politics involves both the acceptance of change and a commitment to continuous change, which is incompatible with traditional conservatism, and it is by nature ideological. It has become impossible for anyone in mainstream politics to say that he or she is reactionary or traditionalist, or that if given power they will reverse the measures of the previous government. They must instead embrace the ideology of change and in doing so, they will cease to profess the substance of traditional conservatism and retain only, at best, its style.

Even though I have identified these ideological strands in the make-up of the present-day Conservative Party, it does not follow that the Party today is ideologically-driven in the same way as the politics of thirty years ago. Under the late Baroness Thatcher, and indeed under the Leader of the Opposition Lord Kinnock, it was abundantly clear what the two main parties stood for. Each had an openly-stated position on the major issues that was the product of clear, if not always consistent, thought, and that could be seen as the outcome of underlying core principles. It was not difficult to know what it was to be conservative during those years. Yet now, if we ask what the Conservative Party stands for, it is almost impossible to know in direct terms. Even those who thought we knew it well find that on a number of issues it is entirely a stranger to us. Who would have thought that it would be a Conservative Prime Minister who would describe as his proudest achievement the destruction of marriage? And indeed, on this and numerous other issues, the positions of the Conservative and Labour Parties are essentially interchangeable. They both support egalitarianism. They both allow the United States to dictate our foreign policy. They both support mass immigration and multiculturalism. They will not reverse a single piece of legislation passed by the previous government, however much they claimed to oppose it at the time.

There is one very simple reason why this is so: it is because the major issues are being decided not at Westminster but instead in Brussels and for that matter in Washington. Britain is reaping the harvest of its international ambitions. It has a seat at the top tables but it has discovered that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The real powers that be, and in particular the European Union, have a very clear ideology that we are now being forced to implement. This ideology is explicitly socialist and it is committed to the destruction of the nation state. It prevents Britain from maintaining control of her borders and it forces upon us the loss of our independence. Every aspect of public and increasingly of private life, from our courts to our armed forces to our businesses to our increasingly circumscribed freedom of speech is subject to European Union directives. A very significant amount of Parliamentary time and money is devoted to the implementation of European law into our nation’s system. And none of this has any significant mandate from the British people.

Is there an alternative for Britain? Can we step back from the brink and regain our identity and control over our country once more? We are told that to do so would be to become “little England”, to become irrelevant on the international stage, to condemn ourselves to second class status. I want to say to you today that to be British is never to be second-class. If the choice is between a globalist outlook in which others pull the strings or the destiny of our island race in which we provide for ourselves and are the masters of our fate, I would certainly choose the latter. Let us look at how we might get there.

The first and most obvious difficulty we face is that our politics has become the problem. Our political class does very well indeed out of Brussels. It is also increasingly divorced from the mainstream of the society it claims to represent. Gone are the days when it was expected that a Member of Parliament would have proved him or herself in the real world before entering politics. These days, the pathway into politics promotes politics itself as a career, leading to the concept of the “professional politician”. Doubtless in a few years’ time there will be a Politicians’ Academy designed to give its members spurious letters after their name in a bid to give them equal status with the other professions. That will be the logical continuation of a process that has already all but eliminated individual judgement from politics and rendered the MP effectively a party placeman, subordinate not to the historic institution that is the British nation and its culture but instead the artificial collective that is pan-European socialism. Certainly there are occasional Parliamentary rebels, but their rebellion is within carefully-chosen limits and rarely if ever at the cost of their careers.

Our politics operates within a system that has been defined as the Overton Window. The Overton Window is a concept that describes those ideas that are acceptable in politics today. To be outside the window is to be outside the limits of what our establishment considers acceptable or is prepared to discuss. To illustrate this clearly, I want to quote from “Whatever Happened to Reason” by Roger Scruton. Professor Scruton tells us, “”If you study the opinions that prevail in modern academies, you will discover that they are of two kinds: those that emerge from the constant questioning of traditional values, and those that emerge from the attempt to prevent any questioning of the liberal alternatives. All of the following beliefs are effectively forbidden on the normal American campus: (1) The belief in the superiority of Western culture; (2) The belief that there might be morally relevant distinctions between sexes, cultures, and religions; (3) The belief in good taste, whether in literature, music, art, friendship, or behaviour; and (4) The belief in traditional sexual mores. You can entertain those beliefs, but it is dangerous to confess to them, still more dangerous to defend them, lest you be held guilty of “hate speech”—in other words, of judging some group of human beings adversely. Yet the hostility to these beliefs is not founded on reason and is never subjected to rational justification. The postmodern university has not defeated reason but replaced it with a new kind of faith—a faith without authority and without transcendence, a faith all the more tenacious in that it does not recognize itself as such.”

Scruton, who is surely our most distinguished conservative thinker today, is talking about the American universities, but his remarks are equally applicable both to our universities and to our public life in general. And what is significant is that the ideas that form the modern taboos that he describes were historically part of our mainstream. Specifically, they are conservative ideas, advanced by generations of significant conservative politicians and thinkers. This clearly exposes, then, that what the modern establishment has done is explicitly political. The establishment, including the Conservative Party, has accepted the agenda and ideology of the Left and has abandoned, indeed declared war on, its own heritage and ideas. They have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage, and they have done it in the pursuit of short-term power and personal gain. They have made their party into one to which the likes of the late Enoch Powell would not give the time of day.

Some would say that we should now aim to turn the clock back and that a change of government can achieve this. True reactionary reversion is almost unknown in politics, and will almost invariably be achieved at the cost of much bloodshed. Indeed the only example that comes to mind in modern times is the Iranian revolution of 1979. Much more common is a change of style that attempts to fool us into believing that we have seen a change of substance, but that really represents a compromise between two extremes. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 is one such example of this false continuity. We must accept that when change occurs, it is not easily reversible. This proves that the conservative is entirely right to regard change with suspicion and to fear losing what we have managed to maintain, because that is exactly what change brings about. We in Britain have not succeeded hitherto in turning the clock back in public life, and I suggest it is unlikely that we can easily succeed in doing so in the future.

What of UKIP? So far as a traditionalist or reactionary conservatism is concerned, UKIP has at various points shown a willingness to embrace some of the positions that are outside the Overton Window and to bridge the wide gap that now exists between the views of the people and the political class.

However, the seeking of political power involves a long series of compromises, and the first series of compromises is usually that which is required to make life easier for those who would like to become our elected representatives. Those who look to UKIP for their career prospects want ultimately to fit in, not to stand out. They as much as anyone else in politics want to be appointed to quangos and non-executive directorships, to make the gradual transition from green leather benches to red leather benches, and to regain the place many see as rightly theirs as part of the governing class.

I suspect a number of them look to the elected representatives of the British National Party – some of whom have had great difficulty in their professional and personal lives as a result of their political activity – as a grim warning, and fear that they, too, will face ostracization and opprobrium unless their party becomes “acceptable”. It is difficult to imagine Nick Griffin being offered the rewards of elder statesmanship as time goes by, however electorally successful he or his party may be.

Indeed, the recent treatment of Greece’s Golden Dawn is a reminder that being democratically elected means nothing if your ideas do not fit within the Overton Window. The state is ultimately the monopolist of power, and those who stand against it, including those who attempt to infiltrate it, will find that it is prepared to destroy anything that constitutes serious opposition.

The question is then how much the individual is prepared to risk in a conflict that is likely to be destructive to him or herself, and whose gains are likely to be limited and may be purely temporary. It is not surprising that some would-be politicians look at the task ahead and decide that it is not worth the sacrifice. After all, those who play the game enrich themselves and others in the process. They are held up as the success stories of this world. If they are troubled by the occasional pang of conscience it is easily dismissed as dyspepsia.

The reality, though, is that the political system can never act as an agent for its own self-destruction. To be part of that system is to accept its metacontext. It is to accept a situation where some degree of change is possible, and that this may even bring about an element of beneficial result, but the only change that is permitted is that which does not fundamentally threaten the system itself. The state exists to perpetuate itself. Dismantling its ideology and its power is contrary to the vested interests of both politicians themselves and of the vast hordes of public sector and state-extension private sector employees whose future depends on continued state extension.

When the state eventually faces significant and fundamental change, it will come from outside the political class, not from within it. It may well be that a UKIP or even a Conservative-led government would withdraw the UK from membership of the European Union. But the most likely result of that on present showing would simply be that we would be exchanging foreign-made legislation for a very similar set of equally undesirable home-made legislation, as likely as not heavily influenced by exactly the same ideology and vested interests as the European Union currently promotes. In truth, politics is the last element in fundamental social change that must begin at the grass roots if it is to succeed. To try to implement such change from the top down is to embrace tyranny, since it involves rule without the prerequisite of widespread consent. It may well be that, recognizing that this change is far from imminent, UKIP are simply politicians accepting political reality, which is hardly an unfamiliar spectacle.

Our politics may be the most visible problem in the fabric of our society, but it is not the only one. Over many years, our institutions have been systematically captured by the ideology of the Left. They have all become, to a greater or lesser extent, infected by the change agenda. They are expected to move forwards, to embrace progress, to be modern and to be interconnected with other institutions that share these values. It is anathema to be old-fashioned, to resist change, to conserve, or to be independent or critical of developments in other parallel institutions. Most institutions adapt to the status quo and do not challenge it. Indeed, they judge their success by their ability to adapt and to respond to popular taste. In doing this, institutions are required to sign up to an ideological agenda. In theory, it could be that this agenda might be neoconservative. But here is the central problem. Neoconservatism is a deeply incomplete philosophy. When the Left accuse neoconservatives of philistinism and a disregard for culture, they are right. Neoconservatives have confined their attention to areas where they believe they are on safe ground – defence, economics, foreign and home affairs. They have created a yawning chasm where their cultural values should be, which is why both Tony Blair and David Cameron are correctly classified as neoconservatives even though they have led different parties. But there is no vacuum. Instead, the chasm has been very ably filled by the Left, which has created a hegemony in certain areas of our society that is seemingly unbreakable. It is now common to hear politicians of the Conservative Party embracing the cultural values of the Left. Fundamentally culture is not important to them except as relaxation, as aural wallpaper or as a shared experience with their peers. They do not realize that unless the Right can advance its own cultural values and successfully combat those of the Left, it will never offer a complete solution to the problems of this country.

As soon as we start to talk in depth about the cultural values of the Right, we are faced with the relentless onslaught against those values that began among Marxist thinkers and has become a key element of the post-1945 consensus. For Leftists such as Adorno and Horkheimer, Rightist culture was a symptom of what they, in the Left’s favourite quasi-psychoanalytic jargon, called the “authoritarian personality”. They convinced many that there was a direct line between Rightist culture and Nazism, and they ensured that any who associated with that culture could conveniently be dismissed with the label “far-right”. Their cultural struggle required that traditional conservatism could only be defeated by setting a directly opposing force against it in a culture war. This process also declared war on the cultural values of the White working class where those values supported Traditionalism. Teenage rebellion was not invented by the Left, but it was the Left who would cynically exploit it and ally it to the agenda of constant change, and ensure that pop music and pop culture became the repository for Leftist values. Youth became the focus for the Left because it was the group in society most susceptible to being sold change as a way of life. Meanwhile, the idea of a hierarchical society was remorselessly attacked by the Left both culturally and economically, resulting in the ascent of shallow materialism and the deification of fashion and the modern. Traditional morality and social views became the new taboos; opposition to them, notably in the recent promotion of homosexual civil marriage, has become an essential badge of the political elite.

Today, the Leftist hegemony is reinforced by an audit culture that claims to provide accountability but actually serves as a means of control. Genuine independence is impossible under such a system because all the truly significant decision-making is centralized and takes place far above the level of those at the coalface; frequently in the implementation of some European Union socialist diktat. Our schools and universities exemplify this climate. When I tell people that English universities used to regulate themselves, and that separation from the control of government was a key element of their independence, I receive looks of amazement. The professions have been key driving forces in audit culture. The purpose of a profession is to act as a gatekeeper; not so much to keep people in as to keep undesirables out. The result is ever-growing layers of standardization, accreditation and assessment. The culture of professional management tends to uphold the view that centralization and systemization is preferable to a traditionalist, human-scale way of doing things. Any organization that embraces professionalism will suppress its traditionalist and individualist elements, and rather than resisting it, will adapt to the prevailing system.

A major reason why people have accepted this regulatory culture is because they have been systematically intellectually disempowered. Gone are the days of the rounded education, the gentleman amateur and the Renaissance man as concepts at the heart of our society. The encouragement of micro-specialism is the Left’s way of reinforcing the role of the expert. In academia, post-war structures such as peer review, scientific method and departmental collegiality mean that a hegemony is reinforced and that those who would challenge it are firmly excluded. The global warming fiasco exemplifies this very clearly. Entire areas, such as sociology and cultural studies, have emerged that consist almost entirely of the study of Left-wing thought, and the ascent of postmodernism has ensured the dominance of the Left across the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, those who educate themselves on a topic find that their opinion is discredited as supposedly unqualified, not because of any deficiency in their expertise, but because they speak from outside the academy. A certain amount of dissent is, of course, tolerated within the establishment – just as it was in the Soviet Union. But if anyone transgresses too far against the sacred cows of political correctness, he or she is hung out to dry and the establishment closes ranks. Some choose to be Rightist dissidents within Leftist institutions and are granted some degree of toleration in consequence. But this is a lonely and often bitter calling. Roger Scruton has talked eloquently about the decade he spent within mainstream English academia. His dissidence achieved little in the way of change; in the end it simply wore him down.

Because the Left has comprehensively captured our institutions, we cannot simply expect a change of government to bring about improvement. Nor can we adhere to a nation that may call itself by an old name while completely changing its substance. In place of a political adherence to the nation as it stands, we must substitute adherence to the core values that support the nation as traditional conservatives understand it. If we do not, then we fall into the very trap that the Left has set for us, and find ourselves supporting the remnants of style rather than substance.

In the culture war we need, first of all, to acknowledge that we have not so much lost as failed to put up much of a fight to begin with. Now, we would need a revolution in the prevailing culture of this country before we could see genuine results. We need, in short, to rebuild our nation from the ground up, not the top down. Most public sector employees are so ideologically committed to a Leftist agenda that they will bring this country to a halt with a general strike before they will accept the defeat of their ideology. Unfortunately, we cannot simply dispense with them; if we do we will be in a position where we cannot govern. The European Union will not go away without exacting as heavy a price as it can for our withdrawal. And although there are worthy traditionalist conservatives in several political parties, politics is about power, and there is no prospect that a traditionalist conservative government will be formed in the foreseeable future. In fact, electoral politics is the icing on the cake in terms of what needs to be done in this country. Unless there is a fundamental appeal to hearts and minds that leads to the widespread embrace of traditional conservatism among the populace, it will not have the broad platform that it needs to build a power base. And the reality is that change from within is a near impossibility. The Left has secured such a stranglehold not only on our institutions but their supporting, multi-layered framework that a fundamental reversion in their character would require complete control of both institutions and framework to succeed. So we are back at the grass roots, and it is there that the counter-establishment must start.

There is a parallel in the position that the Catholic Church has found herself in since the modernist disasters of the First and Second Vatican Councils. In both cases, these events have prompted resistance groups which have, in the case of those reacting to the First Vatican Council with whom I myself have association, lasted for well over a century now. Bishop Richard Williamson, who represents the resistance to the Second Vatican Council, has said “It seems that, today, God wants a loose network of independent pockets of Catholic Resistance, gathered around the Mass, freely contacting one another, but with no structure of false obedience.” Let us widen his reference to those whose adherence is to Tradition, of whatever religious background, and then we have a model for a counter-establishment; one that does not enter into the inevitable fissuring of large institutions but that instead centres each nexus upon a central and perhaps specialized principle, working co-operatively with others when necessary, but concentrating upon a local and grass roots cultural restoration that can establish the proper foundations upon which a return to order can be built.

We should be aware that it is hard to build traditionalist conservative institutions that will last. The law and its myriad regulations enforce Leftist principle and restrict what can be done. Moreover, the democracy and openness that is forced on our institutions by law is a gift to those who would destroy those institutions. The Left for years has practised entryism. Neoconservatives have done the same more recently. Unless there is not only a large caucus of traditional conservatives but a continual supply of new people with a similar commitment to these ideas, and a means of excluding those who do not share them, the institution will be diluted and in time will be absorbed into the mainstream. We must learn from the Left. For one hundred and fifty years, institutions such as the unions, the co-operative movement and the working mens’ clubs sustained and supported the Left. Thousands of men and women, their names now forgotten, pounded the pavements in the cause of socialism, propagating their creed in the workplace, at leisure, in homes and schools. From these actions, each on its own barely significant, grew the present inculcation of the Left into the fabric of our society.

We on the Right had no such support network. We too often disdained proselytization among the masses, and were too often divided among ourselves. It is only through the life and values of a community that we can allow the individual to experience what would otherwise be an intellectual abstraction. We need to use what opportunities remain to us within the law to organize and to work together with common aims to preserve and restore traditional conservative values, through institutions such as the Traditional Britain Group and through building others that will nurture and promote the culture of the Right both locally and nationally for generations to come. Above all, we need those who have wealth to establish permanent foundations that will embody and perpetuate the ideals they believe in, and we need to ensure that Traditionalists have large families and strong support networks.

I have already offered a definition of conservatism. It is also important that we should define what we mean by traditionalism in this context. Tradition is not simply a collection of yesterday’s bad habits. Nor is it the enshrining of yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems. Rather, it is the discovery and enshrining of the perennial principles that lie behind conservatism. It is a return to a set of values that would have been familiar to our distant ancestors, that are part of the warp and weft of British history. It is indigenous to the British because it is part of our folk memory; it is literally in our genes. It is, perhaps, most visible as a disposition rather than a doctrine. It is a form of thought, of making decisions, that is the outcome of a settled and mature temperament seeking continuity not only between past and present, but between past and future. I have only to say these things for it to be obvious that this genuine traditionalism is at the very heart of true conservatism.

Importantly, traditionalism is becoming a subject of growing interest for a number of able writers and thinkers across Europe and in the United States. These developments suggest that there is the possibility that there may one day be a form of genuine European integration on the basis of our shared origins and common culture, rather than the false integration offered by the European Union.

Strategically, we need to assert our rights as vociferously as do many minority groups in this country. We must do so without shame, without apology and without fearing the inevitable condemnation both of the Left and of neoconservatives. The mainstream media are largely creatures of the Left or of the Quisling Right. The internet has proved a godsend largely because its reach is out of all proportion to its costs. I am greatly encouraged by the spread of Traditionalist ideas on the internet and by the number of young people who, perhaps in response to being force-fed a constant diet of socialism and egalitarianism, are discovering those ideas and actively debating them. At the end of the day, the rebuilding of our nation starts with its most fundamental units: its individuals and families. It begins with the reinforcement of inner principle that leads to knowledge and the development of consciousness – as Julius Evola terms it, inner awakening. Only when we are able to work these ideas out in ourselves to the point where we ourselves are living a free life can we then begin the essential process of passing those values on to others. Our mission is one of resistance, and our planning must be for the long term – towards an ultimate aim that is beyond the lives of many of us, and that will live on in others. There will eventually come a point where the present society will show its weakness openly and where public dissent will spill over. What will be needed then will be those who can channel that dissent and provide solutions to it that have at their root the most fundamental values of our civilization. That will be our moment, and we must be ready for it.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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