Address at NatCon UK 2023

As James was kind enough to mention, I spend most of my time outside of this country these days, mainly living in the USA. But I also travel to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other territories across the seas. And in all of these countries, it has become commonplace to open any public address by first of all giving thanks to the first peoples on whose land we stand.

I don’t know if that tradition has yet arrived on these shores but I thought, nevertheless, that I would do a land acknowledgement before I made my remarks this evening.

So, I say with great humility and obeisance, my deep thanks to the Grosvenor Estate, the Duke of Westminster, the Crown Estate and His Majesty the King. We stand upon their land and without them we could not be here.

Thank you also to James for that very kind introduction and thank you to Yoram and to everyone at NatCon for inviting me back.

I wanted to lay out a number of things in the short time I have with you this evening. And I wanted to start with a thought.

What if many of the things that we are focusing on in Britain and the wider West at the moment are a distraction? What if they are a distraction because our politicians cannot answer the bigger questions that lie in front of us all?

Let me, in no particular order, list some of the challenges that the UK faces at the moment.

We have rising cost of living, we have inflation at above 10% becoming a norm, we have a country where young people who can’t accrue capital are nevertheless expected automatically to become capitalists. We have migration, maybe two to three times what it was under the New Labour years, as a norm. We have a housing crisis where targets for house building are never met but, in any case, it wouldn’t matter because the arrival of new migrants into the country effectively takes up all of the housing stock you would aspire to make in a year. We have unfunded public sector pensions liabilities of around two trillion pounds. And an NHS whose budget can never be stopped from rising, whoever is in power. We are facing an era where automation is already taking many blue-collar jobs and AI is already taking away many white-collar jobs.

The question also exists of how we get anything done at all in an era of social media, where, for instance, a thoughtful speech may be given by a politician making policy announcements and the headlines become something to do with a heckler: an example plucked from thin air.

But what do we do when the heckler’s veto exists? What do we do when, as T.S. Eliot once said, we are distracted from distraction by distraction. And then what do we do about the additional bollards thrown in the way of our society by the radical Left, bollards like the gender nonsense and the racialization of absolutely everything.

Now it seems to me that the Left can’t solve any of these things at all, but it does have answers. And the Left’s answers come of course with the Left’s perpetual advantages. That includes the advantage that the Left has, which is that their answers are the same everywhere and always. It doesn’t matter which country you’re in, it is always the same set of answers that are put out by the Left. The demand, for instance, for equality. The demand indeed for equity. The demand for social justice—as though everyone agrees on exactly what that is, and it is achievable in this life and any other.

The Left has extraordinarily little to say, actually, about all of the problems I listed above. But it has very strong weapons. For instance—and some of you will know the work of Helmut Schoeck and his classic study on this—they have envy. One of the deepest human emotions that exists, envy. What a thing to have in your armoury. They have resentment. Again, one of the most powerful tools you could have.

Nietzsche says, in The Genealogy of Morals, that the person of resentment has only one way to be hauled out of their life and that is for somebody—even Nietzsche doesn’t know who, he says maybe a secular priest—somebody must stand over the life of the person of resentment and say, “You are correct, somebody has ruined your life in the world entirely, the person is you”. But nobody exists that we know of in our society who would dare to say that thing, that even Nietzsche could only imagine being said. So they have resentment as well as envy.

And then they have a third advantage, struggle. Constant, endless struggle, where the meaning of life is answered. We have the struggle for equity, equality, social justice. And if you don’t agree with me, I will keep chanting the same banalities endlessly, as though repetition might persuade you.

They have this advantage everywhere and always and, of course, as many people—not least Roger Scruton—have observed, conservatives are always at a certain disadvantage. And one of those disadvantages come from the fact that everyone is conserving something different. In America for instance, they are conserving a republic. In Britain, we are conserving a constitutional monarchy. In France they still think that they were right to kill the king (although I was fascinated on reading today’s Times, there is a new monarchist movement emerging in France, so we’ll see).

In some countries there is a separation of Church and State and that is being preserved by conservatives. And in other countries there is not and that is also being conserved. This has always made and always will make the job of conservatives infinitely harder than the simplicity and the banalities uttered by the Left.

And then there are the divides within the conservative movement. Just to mention a few that are on some of our minds at the moment: There are those who think that the power of the state should never be used against the opponents of the Right. There are some of us who think that if somebody picks up a tool and uses it with abandon, they might need it to be used against them as well someday.

There are some conservatives who think that that we can have either a domestic policy or a foreign policy. And there are some of us who think that we can have both.

Now what can we answer these questions with? What can we on the Right answer these questions with? I would say that there are three things in particular. The first is love—perhaps the only answer that exists, in particular to envy. Love of country, love of family, love of the people around you, love of the culture that has produced you, of the tradition and the inheritance you have been born into.

This is in some ways still a controversial thing to say because, in Europe in particular, nationalism after all sounds different depending on the country you’re in. Nationalism in Israel sounds different to nationalism in America, sounds different to nationalism in Italy, sounds different to nationalism here in Britain. But the cordon sanitaire which used to exist around nationalism until recent years, existed not because we didn’t trust the idea of love of country—not because, I would argue, there was anything wrong with nationalism in a British context.

It all came from a recognition there was a problem with nationalism in a German context. And that is simply a historical fact. But I see no reason why every other country in the world should be prevented from feeling pride in itself because the Germans mucked up twice in a century.

As I have said before and discussed with Yoram, absolutely everything in human existence can go wrong. So sure, nationalism can go wrong. We know that. Religion can go wrong. We in Europe know that. But everything can go wrong. The Trojan wars began because of love and even the Left have not yet suggested that, as a result, we should abandon love.

The second thing we should be able to say that speaks of a similar depth, is the importance of gratitude. When Nietzsche wrote about the man of resentment, he said that, apart from that telling off that has to be given to him by somebody in his life, at some point standing over him, the only other answer to the person of resentment’s situation was gratitude. Gratitude not just for the things that you have been given, but also some kind of peace with some of the things that you haven’t been given. The recognition that you cannot have everything in this life.

And thirdly, I would say, one of the deep answers to the problems that the Left so inadequately tries to answer, is aspiration. I don’t want to name the minister in question but some years ago, and some people here may have been at the same dinner, I was at a dinner with a British minister and it was an off-the-record thing. Chatham House rules or something like that. Which is, I always say, not only the only thing that Chatham House ever gave to the world, but they also gave a rule that nobody quite understands. But they were on Chatham House rules. I prefer, as James knows, I prefer what Lord Franks describes as keeping a secret in the Oxford sense, which is that you only tell one person at a time.

At this off-record occasion, the minister was being interviewed by somebody who was very, very well informed and did something quite cruel, which I wouldn’t have done myself. But he pointed to a young waiter at the side of the room and he said: “Young man, how old are you?” and the young man said: “25”. The man said, “Do you own a house?” and he said “No”. He said, “Do you think you’ll ever own a house?” and he said “No”.

He said to the minister, what do you say to that young man?

This, I hope, is not seen by anyone who knows the person I am talking about as too deep a personal attack. But the minister in question ended up waffling for quite a long time and ended up talking about brownfield sites. Now, if the Left is working with envy and resentment and struggle, you better have more than brownfield sites. And the only thing that I know of that can take out resentment at that level is aspiration, is the opportunity to build a country in which young people actually believe that, if they work hard, they will get something better than they could have expected. That they will be rewarded for their labour, that they will not live a worse life than their parents, but if they work hard will be suitably rewarded and will have a better life than their parents.

Aspiration is the only answer to the life of resentment offered by the Left.

Now, I have one other thought to throw out there. It is not really a thought so much as a challenge. What would we be doing if the Left was not holding us back? What would we be doing? What would we be striving for, seeking to achieve in a country like this one. What would be our aims? What would be our ambitions? What would we wish to become?

The Left is making us go at the speed of the slowest kid in the class and we need to say, “we don’t have time for this”. We don’t have time, for instance, to undo the first thing we know as a species. What is that thing? A boy or a girl. We don’t have time to pretend that we don’t know. We don’t have time for people who want to pretend there’s a hundred genders or maybe eighty, who, whenever I debate them by the way, can never explain very basic things. Like what a non-binary person is, how it differs from gender queer or anything else. Personally speaking, I have no more time for these people, they have wasted enough of my life.

So, what would we be doing if we didn’t have to go at the speed of the stupidest kid in the class? The Left talks about unleashing talent. But nowhere where the attempts have been made has it yet worked. Everything that they have come up with in our era, whether it is DIE or CRT or any of these other things, none of them have worked anywhere. Not in one country, not in one district, not in one school. They have worked nowhere. Not in a hedge fund, not in a bank or a supermarket, not in any corporate office. And yet, this idea that has worked nowhere is in the process of being rolled out everywhere. That is madness. It is madness to try to follow a process that has never yet unleashed talent.

I would also suggest that instead of only talking about minority rights, we also once again remember that there is a thing called majority rights. That as important as minority rights are, majority rights matter as well. You might like to help 0.2% of the population, but how about giving a damn about 51%?

Now, everybody has their own answers to this, nobody is going to have the same answer to the question of what they or we would be doing with our time if we weren’t forced to go at this excruciating speed.

Elon Musk’s answer is getting to Mars. And, I have to say, I enormously admire him for it. If you ask him why he wants to go to Mars, he will tell you, “we have to have a reason to get up in the morning”. It is a brilliant answer. And if you don’t want to go to Mars, find your own reason for getting up in the morning and find a reason that could make other people want to get up too.

We should be creating in a society like this one. Not discussing problems that were solved millennia ago, not pretending we don’t know things that everyone knew until yesterday. We should be innovating. We shouldn’t be trying to rip apart our history. We should be making history. We should be leaving things better for the next generation than they were for ourselves. We should be creating things of which our successors will in turn feel pride.

One of the reasons why our lamentable attitude to the past that we have today is so utterly lamentable—apart from the historical idiocy of being amazed that everybody in history did not think what we think in 2023—one of the reasons to be sane about it is because to treat the past with some kindness and understanding is a request to those who come after us to treat us in a similar way. We would wish to be understood by those who come after us in a spirit of understanding. So we have to approach those who came before us in a similar light.

I repeat. What would we be doing if we weren’t being made to do this?

Now some people say to me, “Douglas”—and I get this in particular from university students—”the conditions are just not optimal. There are too many problems”—I listed some of them in the beginning—“I can’t accrue capital, I can’t get onto the housing ladder, I can’t find a partner, I can’t find my other half, I can’t find love, can’t find this, can’t find that. And until the conditions are optimal, I am putting off everything else in my life”.

It is an extremely common complaint. And I wanted to finish by saying that there is an answer to this problem. The answer was actually given in 1939 at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. It was given to the university church by a man who, as James mentioned, was also on the list of suspicious authors along with me. Which made me very proud, I have to say.

But this is what C.S. Lewis said in the autumn of 1939. “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If man had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun”.

“Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted, or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty and they wanted them now and they would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes”.

“Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line. They have sought first the material welfare and the security of the hive and presumably they can enjoy their reward. But men, men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities. They conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem whilst advancing to the walls of Quebec and comb their hair at the gates of Thermopylae”.

“This is not panache: it is our nature”.

I would like to think that we could heed the words of C.S. Lewis in far less propitious times.