It's easy to dismiss the National Conservatism conference in London last week as a mere spectacle: a party and a political movement in their death throes. Whether it’s Katharine Birbalsingh discovering that people age and “sadly die"; organiser James Orr asserting the real F-words for north Londoners are “flag, faith, family”; or invocations of something called “total biomedical self-mastery”, the conference provided plenty for anyone from centre-right leftwards to jeer about. Polls say that a Labour victory in 2024 is all but inevitable; if the extreme Right that's taken over the Tories since Brexit insists on debasing itself on its way out the door, let them, right?
Wrong. The conference was every bit as sinister as it was ludicrous. There was Miriam Cates MP pontificating on dipping birth rates - an obviously racist fixation that presupposes that immigration cannot, and should not, be an answer to population shortfalls in European countries. There was the news that the Black activists are "jealous" of the Holocaust and want to replace it with slavery, which is a sentence that apparently makes sense on Planet Daivd Starkey.
And then there was the anti-Semitism that seemed to permeate the event - not so much dog whistles as a small brass orchestra: we heard about “globalists” and “cultural marxists”, and, most shockingly, a petulant complaint from Douglas Murray that just because Germany happened to have “mucked up” we shouldn’t delegitimise all nationalism - including, one can’t help but hearing, nationalism of equal ferocity to the German one, but this time done right.
The conference should remove any doubts that antisemitism from the Right is an even more pressing danger than antisemitism from the Left, and should be tackled at least as robustly; not only because it is the Right that has consistently murderous record on that account, but because the attendees of a conference where the Holocaust was shrugged off and antisemitic codewords were freely bandied about included people already in power - Cabinet ministers, no less.
When Jeremy Corbyn attempted, and failed, to eradicate the stain of antisemitism from his opposition party, he was roundly criticised - and eventually cast out both from the leadership and from Labour. Here, both Michael Gove and Suella Braverman retain their portfolios - and serious pressure on Sunak to remove or censure them is nowhere to be seen.
It would also be a mistake to dismiss the conference because the Conservatives are apparently doomed to lose the next election. First, this is not at all a given; and second, such a defeat would create precisely the conditions for a far-right takeover of a wounded and raging party looking to coalesce. The National Conservatism movement is planting its flag early on precisely to give that party something to coalesce around - and radicalisation is picking up steam; for one vector, read Sian Norris's report on how, of all things, protests against Drag Queens Story Hour became a prefect recruiting and networking ground for the far right.
Bloated, self-important fascism has always been vulnerable to laughter. But it won’t be beaten by ridicule alone. If National Conservatism is a farce, it is a farce that should be taken deadly seriously, with no benefit of the doubt - and no compromise.