At the National Conservatism Conference, Thatcher’s Ghost Was Haunting the Proceedings

I went to the right-wing populist National Conservatism Conference in London. I found a self-consciously “post-liberal” right grappling with the legacy of Margaret Thatcher and divided between pro- and anti-Thatcherites.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks during the National Conservatism Conference at the Emmanuel Centre in London, May 15, 2023. (Victoria Jones / PA Images via Getty Images)

It was a sunny morning in May. On my way out the hotel room, I reached into my bag, took out my copy of Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal, and chucked it onto the bed. After strolling down Whitehall and past Big Ben, I arrived at the Emmanuel Centre.

Inside the grand rotunda, a gray-haired man named Christopher DeMuth welcomed the audience. As if talking to God, he looked up and assured the crowd of British and American conservatives that “Thatcher would approve of what we are doing here” and promised to share his “spicy stories” about Ole Maggie during the evening cocktail hour. Coming from a guy who headed the American Enterprise Institute from 1986 to 2008, DeMuth’s glorification of Thatcher was no surprise. What else was a self-described “old Anglophile American conservative” supposed to do?

The next day, in a panel on economics and conservatism, Juliet Samuel, a popular young columnist for the right-wing Times, declared, “A specter is haunting the conservative movement. It is the specter of Margaret Thatcher.” Highlighting the utter failure of Thatcher’s neoliberal economic agenda, Samuel concluded, “It is time to bury Mrs. Thatcher once and for all.” Sorry, DeMuth. Turns out those odes to the Iron Lady might not be so welcome here after all.

For the past four years, the National Conservatives have gathered in Washington, Orlando, and Rome, bringing together conservative politicians, public intellectuals, and young fellow travelers to forge the ideological future of the Right. This was their first meeting in London, and it featured a veritable who’s who of prominent Brexiteer and Donald Trump–supporting icons from both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to DeMuth and Samuel, speakers included former UK cabinet secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, UK home secretary Suella Braverman, Hillbilly Elegy author turned Ohio senator J. D. Vance, Hillsdale College professor Michael Anton, and Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts.

But none of these figures loomed as large as Margaret Thatcher, whose legacy haunted the proceedings and threatened to undermine the organizers’ efforts to project a sense of unity against the Left.

The National Conservatives, or NatCons as they are sometimes called, routinely proclaim that they represent a new era of conservatism, one that opposes the “establishment” across the political spectrum. Yet as the clash between the pro- and anti-Thatcherites suggests, what that means — other than railing against the “woke left” — is not entirely clear.

Over the next three days, as I watched and listened to these debates over Thatcher’s legacy, I began to understand that their disagreements were not really about economic policies or any other policy for that matter. Instead, they were about the ultimate meaning and purpose of conservatives’ existential battle to reclaim their authority and right to rule from the Left.

The End of Thatcherism and the Rise of the Anti-Liberal Right

In 1979, the year Thatcher was elected prime minister, British scholar Stuart Hall penned “The Great Moving Right Show,” a short but incisive essay where he attempted to explain the nature and ascent of Thatcherism. Trying to make sense of some workers’ support for Thatcher’s neoliberal economic agenda, Hall argued that Thatcherism successfully invoked the populist language of the “nation” and the “people” to bind segments of the working class to an ideology that undermined their economic interests.

Exploiting discontent with a social democratic state that had compromised with corporate interests, Thatcherism promised to destroy the false authority of social democracy and replace it with the true authority of the nation. Hall called this “authoritarian populism.” His prescient analysis, later included in 1988’s The Hard Road to Renewal, foretold the hegemony of neoliberalism in British, American, and indeed global politics.

In 2016, when Donald Trump railed against Wall Street and declared the system was “rigged” on behalf of wealthy elites, he poked a hole in this neoliberal consensus on the Right, despite going on to pass the biggest corporate tax cut in decades. Trying to formulate a stable ideological paradigm out of Trump’s mercurial ways, the intellectual leaders of National Conservatism have branded their movement in opposition not just to Ronald Reagan’s and Thatcher’s brand of neoliberalism but to liberalism itself.

Yoram Hazony is one of these “post-liberal” leaders. In 2019, the Israeli American philosopher started the Edmund Burke Foundation, which hosts the NatCon conferences. In his introductory remarks in London, he declared, “We’ve tried liberal individualism, and we know that it doesn’t produce anything human.” As its name suggests, the National Conservatives want to dislodge the Right’s misguided prioritization of individual freedom and replace it with a renewed commitment to “the nation.” “When Britain is weakened and confused, I feel confused,” said Hazony. “When Britain is strong, it strengthens the entire West.” For Hazony and other NatCons, the restoration of the traditional nation and the traditional family are inherently linked. As Hazony told the audience, this “requires a reordering of your personal life — getting married young, having children, many of them, and raising them to serve the nation.”

Like Thatcherism, National Conservatism is at its core a battle for authority. In attempting to supplant the false god of liberal individualism with the true god of family and nation, Hazony and the NatCons aim to wrest authority from the illegitimate progressives and the establishment right in order to restore the authority of genuine conservatives. Many speakers drew explicit connections between the war on “wokeness” and the reclamation of legitimate authority. Calling them “pretended citizens,” Kevin Roberts argued that “the woke elites” have “influence, not authority.” Characterizing them as “children playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes,” he declared, “they don’t so much lead or govern nations as they occupy them.”

Katharine Birbalsingh, the self-branded anti-woke teacher, turned this crisis of authority into a bit of reactionary performance art when she smiled broadly and warned the Oxbridge audience that they were about to get disciplined. “You put your kids in private schools, but in many ways, they’re worse. The more privileged the school, the more woke it is.” Declaring that “adult authority is dead,” she urged these conservative elites to take back their right to rule, warning that “any organization that isn’t explicitly fighting left-wing ideas will become left-wing.”

Families Values and Market Freedoms

This invocation of traditional moral authority against the Left’s destructive influence is nothing new in the conservative movement. Moral panics around the erosion of parental authority have been fueling the culture wars for decades. As sociologist Melinda Cooper has shown, “family values” were central to both Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberalism.

When it comes to the market, however, the NatCons explicitly tap into a different paradigm of moral authority. In their quest to dismantle the welfare state, Thatcher and Reagan linked the traditional authority of family and nation to the moral tenets of market fundamentalism, grounding their arguments in Victorian defenses of a capitalist moral order. The NatCons have revitalized an alternative intellectual tradition that runs from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk and is much more critical of bourgeois authority. By elevating this tradition, they have not only threatened to knock Thatcher and Reagan from their pedestals but have also disrupted the broader ideological balance that has held the modern conservative movement together since the days of William F. Buckley.

Conservative political theorist Russell Kirk in 1962 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the old paradigm, the free market was the central instrument of efforts to restore conservative authority. In the new paradigm, the market is subordinated to the cultural order, and the two are not necessarily harmonious. Hall might have seen this as a shift from authoritarian populism to populist authoritarianism. Regardless of what we call it, this new framework is helping to buttress some significant policy transformations on the Right.

Against the establishment right’s support of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, nearly every speaker at the NatCon conference argued for the need to restrict immigration to protect the integrity of the UK’s borders and culture. Braverman, herself the daughter of immigrants from Kenya and Mauritius, recently unveiled a proposal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. In contrast to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s opposition to “big government,” several speakers acknowledged that the government must play a more central role in protecting civilization against what NatCon’s UK chairman, James Orr, called the “new priesthood” and “new inquisitors” of woke zealotry.

On most matters, none of the speakers disagreed about the need to subordinate freedom to nation. But whenever the freedom of markets came up, Thatcher’s ghost loomed large. In his opening remarks, Hazony expressed support for a tack away from neoliberal fiscal and trade policies. “I agree with Hayek and Friedman about the dangers of planned economies,” he acknowledged, but “policy should be based on one thing only — what is good for the British people, and if that is protectionism, then that is the policy.” But when Rees-Mogg — a Brexiteer with an investment scheme in Ireland worth £‎100 million — got up to speak right after him, he celebrated free trade and deregulation, calling for “supply-side” reforms and a stricter monetary policy. Thatcher would indeed approve.

While the older generation’s persistent attachments to Thatcher’s free-market fundamentalism were on full display, the desire to move beyond neoliberalism seemed particularly potent among the younger speakers, especially the women. Star Tory backbencher Miriam Cates and “reactionary feminists” Mary Harrington and Louise Perry all blamed neoliberalism for the challenges of having and raising children today. Conservative columnist Ed West pointed the finger at aging boomers for hoarding home ownership and driving up real estate prices, effectively locking the next generation out of middle-class stability.

Such remarks reflect a broader sense of anxiety within the professional classes, which are facing the generational downward mobility that four decades of neoliberal economic policy have wrought in the United States and the UK. But more often, in NatCon philosophy, as in anti-liberal conservativism more broadly, anxieties over the ruling order are ultimately expressed not as a material crisis but instead a cultural one. Citing Finland as an example of a nation with a generous welfare state and a rapidly declining birth rate, Cates explicitly argued against economics as the prime factor. “No,” she insisted. “The biggest factor is societal value.”

Several speakers then linked the crisis of neoliberal motherhood to the demographic cliff in Western nations. Perry invoked birth control as a “sterility meme” and warned of civilizational collapse if birth rates remained in the basement. Similarly, West’s critique of the neoliberal housing bubble was less about affordability than about cultural reproduction. “There is a strong link,” he explained, “between high rents and left-wing voting.” The crisis, he underscored, is “not just economic. It is spiritual.”

Listening to these talks, I realized that the tensions between the pro- and anti-Thatcher camps were probably not insurmountable after all. The younger critics of free-market fundamentalism had made a point of channeling their critiques back into the culture wars, effectively sublimating the conflicts between them and the older generation. And that flexibility is what draws someone like former socialist Frank Furedi into the NatCon movement. As Furedi put it, “The difference between me and Margaret Thatcher is far less than between me and the other side of the culture war.”

Unpopular Authoritarianism

In 1979, Stuart Hall warned readers that, because Thatcherism exploited genuine discontents with the corporate state and real attachments to the nation, it could not be easily dismissed as “false consciousness.” Something similar could be said of the NatCon movement. Just as Thatcher profited from popular discontent with social democracy in the 1970s, so do National Conservatives profit from popular disillusionment with neoliberalism today. But while Thatcher aimed to destroy the welfare state, the NatCons don’t really aim to destroy the neoliberal economic order. For the Oxbridge right seeking to reassert its cultural authority, the fact that the NatCons probably won’t do much, if anything, to address economic discontent is not just beside the point. It is the point.

So despite the professed claim to bury Thatcher, populist authoritarianism is potentially a way of saving Thatcherism from itself. Although young conservatives have rendered neoliberalism uncool, they have yet to truly disrupt the reigning neoliberal order. The older Thatcherites should be thankful.

But while Thatcher could confidently proclaim to be fashioning a new “common sense” in 1979, the same cannot be said of the NatCons today. For all their attempts to echo this refrain, it is hard to see how the NatCon ideology will win popular support. In the United States, survey after survey shows that secularism continues to rise while religious affiliation continues to decline, that low-income voters tend to be culturally conservative but economically progressive, and that affluent suburban voters tend to be the reverse. Meanwhile, a broad majority of all voters support higher taxes on the wealthy, investment in infrastructure, and universal health care.

Given these electoral trends, it’s not clear how incorporating critiques of neoliberalism into the culture war makes for a majority coalition. Just as in the 2022 midterms, when the GOP failed to live up to its promise to deliver a shellacking to the Dems, a few days after the conference, UK Conservatives lost a host of seats in the so-called Blue Wall they had built in 2016. For the time being at least, despite their populist rhetoric, the NatCons remain rather unpopular authoritarians. Regardless of what Ole Maggie might think, today’s democratic majority can surely approve of that.