By David Warden
In this article, David calls for a mature conversation about serious political ideas and an end to the culture war encouraged by Twitter.
On 15th May, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson tweeted about the National Conservative Conference which took place in London from May 15 - 17, 2023. He explained that:
'...it is a multinational organisation heavily influenced by and attractive to both the American Christian right and the European far right. Its previous conferences have been addressed by Orban and Meloni. Its policy platform includes such gems as equating liberal human rights with Chinese and Russian totalitarianism, that ‘No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment’, that Christianity ‘should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private’, that ‘the traditional family is the source of society’s virtues and deserves greater support from public policy. The traditional family, built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman…’ [etc] If you have the stomach take a browse through their website. It’s not normal that MPs from a centre right governing party should be speaking at this event and I’m mildly shocked that our news media are reporting what they are saying rather than *that they are there at all*!'
Andrew also retweeted a shortened version of this section of MP Danny Kruger's speech at the conference:
'The normative family is one held together by the institution of marriage. It consists of a mother and father who remain committed to each other for the well-being of their children, as well as for the sake of their own parents and themselves. This foundation is seen as the only viable basis for a secure and prosperous society, earning the applause of many. Marriage goes beyond being a personal arrangement; it is a public act. It signifies a commitment to live for someone else, placing their needs above your own. This includes the well-being of your children and the broader society. Therefore, society at large should acknowledge and reward this commitment.'
Andrew described this as 'a grim and exclusive and nasty opinion', and that it is ridiculous to make it the basis of a government ideology in today's diverse and open society. President of Humanists UK, Adam Rutherford, tweeted: 'Big shout out to the single parents, gay parents, foster parents, people who adopt children, and people who separate for good and healthy reasons: you guys are not the basis of a safe society according to Kinder Küche Kirche Kruger.' This is a German phrase meaning 'Children, Kitchen, Church'. It's a slogan that reflects the traditional role of women in society.
Some of those responding to Andrew shortened 'National Conservatism' to 'Nat-Cs' - in other words, that this was a conference for Nazis and fascists. On 17th May Adam Rutherford tweeted:
'The latest from the NAT-C conference of fringe culture warriors and fash-curious attention hounds who are unburdened by fact. Melanie Phillips, Rod 'I ❤️ Orban' Dreher'; Darren 'Crafty Wank' Grimes; and Yoby 'New eugenics' Toung (Oxon). I wonder what the speaker fees are like.' In response to an image of a conference dinner in the Natural History Museum, with a statue of Charles Darwin looking down on speaker Douglas Murray, Adam tweeted this quotation from Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871): ‘As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him… This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.’
OK, so two of our humanist leaders have left us in no doubt about what they thought of the National Conservatism conference: nasty, fascist, and homophobic. I doubt they had the time or inclination to listen to any of the conference speeches. If they had done, they might indeed have found that most of the speakers were 'centre right' (although whether a political position is 'centre right' or 'far right' very much depends on your own political position). They might, for example, have been positively surprised to find that many of the speakers deplored the UK housing crisis which is the theme of this month's edition of our magazine. The aforementioned Danny Kruger MP (son of TV chef and assisted-dying campaigner Prue Leith) said:
'Beyond the defence and support of its citizens and families, the government's role is to construct an economy and civic realm that fosters the development of good individuals. It is important to note that the government cannot single-handedly fix society or ensure social justice. However, it can create an environment that strengthens the conditions for justice and virtue, promoting positive behaviour towards one another. This entails an economy that prioritizes households, where affordable housing is a reality rather than a burden that consumes more than half of a family's income as it does presently. Instead, housing costs should be closer to a third of a family's income, similar to how it used to be. One proposed solution is the Community Land Trust, which involves housing owned in trust for local residents, allowing every village and town to construct the housing they need and benefit from it directly.'
Similarly, journalist Henry George said: 'Falling homeownership and lack of housing are the running sores of British politics... We're seeing the biggest fall in living standards on record after 15 years of stagnant wages, while houses cost an average of nine times our earnings.'
One of the conference speakers, journalist Tim Stanley, apologised for not attending the dinner at the Natural History Museum. He explained:
'I was participating in Ian Dale's radio show... During our conversation, he questioned the wisdom of a movement calling itself the national conservatives and deemed it foolish. I, on the other hand, couldn't understand why that would be a negative thing and asked him to explain his viewpoint. Ian's concern stemmed from the association of the term 'national' with 'national socialism.' In response, I considered the fact that the term 'national conservatives' had been coined by an Israeli [philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony], highlighting the different context and intent behind its usage. I also pondered the implications of waging a war against anything that dared to incorporate the word 'nationalist' into its name, realizing that it would potentially extend to established institutions like the National Trust, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the National Health Service.'
It's not going to be possible, of course, for me to convince Andrew and Adam in this short article that the speeches at the National Conservatism conference were nowhere near as sinister as selective quotations and 'Nat-C' caricatures would suggest. I just wish we could have a grown-up conversation in the humanist community about competing political ideas instead of the straw-manning and hate-generating culture war encouraged by Twitter.
Danny Kruger's speech was not in the least homophobic and at least four of the speakers at the conference were openly gay men. I am enormously grateful to my own parents for sticking together for the sake of our family and I benefited from having a mum and a dad. I do not doubt that two gay men, or two gay women, or a single parent, can do a great job of raising kids. But the love of a mother and the love of a father are precious gifts, and the stability of marriage, buttressed by grandparents, uncles and aunts, has been the bedrock of society and community for countless generations. I do not know what Danny Kruger's stance on gay marriage is. I would certainly wish to make a conservative case myself for the value and stability of marriage for same-sex couples. I should know. I've been in a legally-recognised one for 17 years.
Liberal humanists can become quite hysterical at the mere mention of the word 'national' or 'nationalism'. This is a hangover from the 1930s when a particularly nasty version of nationalism became a demonic force. Yet we forget that it was nationalism that defeated the Nazis. And it is Ukrainian nationalism which is now defending itself against Russian nationalistic imperialism. Andrew Copson can't be completely against nationalism: he displays a Ukrainian flag in his Twitter profile. And I was pleased that he accepted, along with high-profile humanist Stephen Fry, an invitation to attend the Coronation of King Charles.
A nation is simply one of the ways in which we organise democratic human communities. Nations are the individual units of the United Nations. Independent, sovereign nation states are the international norm. They co-operate at the international level through numerous bodies such as the UN, the G7, the WTO, and so on, and they compete against each other in the Olympics, the World Cup, and Eurovision. Demonic nationalism is the exception rather than the rule.
No doubt humanists can find plenty to criticise, but the National Conservatism conference was, judging from the dozen or so speeches which I have listened to on YouTube, defending the nation in a benign way. Some speakers rejected the neoliberalism of the Thatcher and Blair era. At least one criticised capitalism for the way in which it encourages work addiction, consumer addiction, and atomised individualism. Many rejected the kind of economic globalism which has left so many working communities stranded. Most attacked the record of the Tory Party. All wanted to promote the common good and to improve the intergenerational deal for young people.
One of the speakers, Miriam Cates MP, said that we are facing population collapse in the decades ahead because young people are delaying having children and then, in many cases, not having them at all. The causes of this are complex but they include the housing crisis which is exacerbated by rapid mass immigration, student debt, delayed marriage, hedonistic individualism, and the belief that bringing children into the world is the worst thing you can do for the environment. Cates said that a country and a culture which is not producing children is simply giving up on its future.
Some of the speakers at the conference were religious, but the conference was far from theocratic or aggressively Christian. The religious element, to the extent that it was evident at all, is surely one which humanists can partly share: a belief in values, ethics, responsibility, service, and love.
I will concede, though, that Andrew is partly right. YouTube served up a speech by Yoram Hazony to the Miami National Conservatism conference in September 2022 which was aggressively religious. He said that biblical Christianity and biblical Judaism are the only forces strong enough to defeat 'woke neo-Marxism' and, like a later-day John the Baptist, repeatedly called on his audience to 'repent'. Well, I'm no fan of 'woke neo-Marxism' (we can talk about that another day) but there's no point trying to defeat one authoritarian ideology by reviving another. The tradition which we should be defending and conserving is Enlightenment humanism. And that has two poles: liberalism and conservatism between which there should be a conversation – not a war.
I want our humanist leaders to stop waging a culture war against conservatives and encourage dialogue instead. It's perfectly possible to be a 'liberal ethical humanist conservative' – rejecting binary thinking and looking instead for common ground. Every speaker at the UK National Conservatism conference had a vision of the common good. What a pity if humanists simply reject a whole tradition of thought going back to Edmund Burke, David Hume and Adam Smith on the basis of caricatures and partial accounts of what it actually represents. And what a pity if we let religious fanatics dominate it.
A country is a home and a nation is a family. The world can be a family of nations. The impulse to denounce and dismantle nations, especially our own, is a destructive one which can unleash even more destructive forces. Let us, at least, wean ourselves off the worst aspects of Twitter and seek to have mature conversations and debates about serious political ideas, setting aside the prejudice that everyone on the right of the political spectrum is a fascist.
The author is a member of the SDP (Social Democratic Party in the UK) which combines elements of conservatism and social democracy. He describes himself as 'politically non-binary'. As Chair of Dorset Humanists, he encourages informed dialogue across both religious and political divides. Dorset Humanists has hosted debates and discussions on the EU, Socialism and Conservatism, and the Ukraine war.
Further reading and viewing
The Failures of British Conservatism – Professor Matthew Goodwin's speech at the conference
Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics (2023) Matthew Goodwin
Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (2020) David Goodhart
Why Borders Matter (2020) Frank Furedi
The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) Yoram Hazony
Conservatism (2017) Roger Scruton
How to be a Conservative (2014) Roger Scruton