June 18, 2024

Until the conversation orbits the sacrality of what Roger Scruton called ‘homecoming,’ we will be stuck with a politics of empty promises.

In the UK, genuine conservatives hate the Conservative Party. The Party will lose the next election not because of the popularity of the Labour Party, but because of the contempt in which the Conservative Party is held by its own traditional voters. The Reform Party, which will pick up a good number of those voters, is—as populism goes—remarkably uninspiring. Many thoughtful small-c conservatives are growing aware of just how dangerous populism can be in any case. The fleeting success of Boris Johnson marked the Tories’ flirtation with the populist paradigm and just look at what the country suffered under that unprincipled oaf. Had a Labour leader botched Brexit like that and then placed the country under house-arrest, he would have been accused of advancing a socialist experiment and hounded into hiding. Johnson—‘the people’s Prime Minister’—got away with it simply because of the populist mythos that had been created around him. “He must be on our side,” so many thought, but he never was.

The old conservatism is on its way out; populism can’t get a foot in. If it were no more complicated than that, perhaps a simple solution could be found to the crisis of conservatism, at least in these isles. But increasingly conservatives are questioning what it is they’re meant to conserve, when so much seems to have been swept away by relentless social repudiation. Then, of course, there are the subdivisions of ‘civilisational conservatives,’ most prominently the ‘Christendom conservatives,’ the ‘Enlightenment values conservatives,’ and the ‘individualist, free-marketeer conservatives,’ all of whom hold utterly irreconcilable conceptions of conservatism. So, what is the future of conservatism to look like?

Among younger conservatives, I’ve noticed two camps emerging as some workable vision of a future conservatism is sought. Loosely speaking, there are those who look to ethnic identity on which to build the conservative case of the future, and there are those who look to the land itself. The former emphasises ethnic bloodline, homogeneity, and the importance of recognising the dynamics of human tribalism; the latter emphasises the land, shared territory, and the sense of belonging that dwelling together in a single locality brings about. Making such principles into exhaustive foundations for a future small ‘c’ conservatism will, I suspect, lead what is left of such conservatism down a dead end.

But what the new conservative debate, which is largely a Gen Z debate—mostly online—has revealed is that one is expected to side with one or the other of these camps. The former think that the kind of shared territory we have is largely an effect of the ethnic community that has dwelt there for centuries, if not millennia. The latter think that if you dwell in a certain locality for long enough, it will shape you, and certainly it will shape the generations of whom you will be just one ancestor. At bottom, these budding conservative visions attribute to different sources a certain causal power for the establishment of something approximating nationhood. 

Those who look to the land think that those who emphasise a shared ethnic identity are going to ruin any future for conservative arguments in the public arena by tarnishing them with what is, in their view, basically racism. And the former equally think that the latter are going to ruin any future conservative case by rooting it in non-scientific, empirically flimsy sentiments that amount to a belief in “magic dirt”—a phrase coined by the so-called ‘alt-right’ pseudonymous writer Vox Day. I myself have been concerned for some time about conservatism going down the path of racism, and have attempted a more personalist case for national identity; it has long been my hope that conservatives would help to bring an end to the 20th century, and not perpetuate it ad infinitum. 

It seems to me that both groups are actually appealing to some sort of providentialism. Both think that as a nation comes about, it develops a kind of value—or to use the 18th century term, a genius—that is precious and must be protected. This emergence of nationhood should be seen as a gift, and induction into its ways should be viewed as the sort of initiatory passage from which our very sense of selfhood arises. Both groups are anxious about defending something that they deem to have intrinsic value.

Probably much to the annoyance of some of my conservative allies, I am inclined to sympathise more with those who look to the land. Anyone who has rambled across the English landscape with a pack of hounds knows that the earth itself possesses a kind of sacrality that emanates forth into the souls of those attuned to its frequency. Unashamedly, I believe in ley lines and other cosmic energies that run through the earth, I believe that certain places have spirits that guard and protect them, and I also think that the saints—whilst beholding the face of God—dwell in the very places that they consecrated with their prayers and sacrifices during their lifetimes. 

All that is to say, I believe that the world is a magical realm that theurgically participates in the celestial liturgy of the Godhead, but that this cannot be known by some intellectual ascent out of the world of experience. Rather, it can be known only by encountering reality in its most concrete, gritty actuality. In short, I believe in the enchantment of the skylark’s song and the night-time constellations, in the dance of the spheres and the upward hanging fungal fruits that might nourish or kill you. I believe that the interpretation of the earth that belongs to the desert cultures of the Middle East, however noble, is different to that which gave rise to Piers Ploughman and the works of Shakespeare. I believe in magic dirt because I believe in both magic and dirt, but I also believe that we are formed by that magic dirt—that it possesses a very potent causal power—and having been so formed we have become something unique and precious.

A French Jesuit named Charles Bourgeois reported a conversation he had witnessed in the 1920s on Poland’s eastern border between a Polish nobleman and a Belorussian priest, the former being Roman Catholic and the latter Orthodox. The nobleman opined that in the life of the Christian what mattered was the learning of catechism and the habit of personal prayer; the Orthodox were, in his view, too attached to ritual and liturgy. Fr. Bourgeois recounted the reply of the Orthodox priest:

Among you it [the liturgy] is indeed only an accessory. Among us Orthodox (and at these words he blessed himself) it is not so. The liturgy is our common prayer, it initiates our faithful into the mystery of Christ better than all your catechism. It passes before our eyes the life of our Christ, the Russian Christ.

I do not introduce this anecdote to suggest that there is some necessary Christian case for any future conservatism, even if at bottom I do in fact think precisely that. Here, though, is not the place for that argument. The point of this anecdote—for my purposes, anyway—is that for the priest, his source of meaning did not spring from a set of abstractions or concepts, but from the traditions that incarnated his source of meaning in the place in which he lived. The only Christ he knew was the Russian Christ. So too, the only Christ the English should know is the English Christ, the Irish Christ among the Irish, the Polish Christ among the Polish, and likewise and so forth for any given people.

And it seems to me that it is the underlying assumption of the Belorussian priest that should be that in which any future conservatism ought to be rooted, namely that a nation and its territory are correlative principles that together make up a corporate person—who can truly make the claims of a person. And just as the life of any person is sacred, so too the national life of this corporate person is sacred. As with any sacred thing, it can be desecrated. 

Last year, when I flew to the U.S. for a debate, I watched on the aeroplane a documentary entitled Lakota Nation vs. United States. In many ways, it was a terrible film, with all sorts of garbage drawn from half-baked critical race theories (the climactic moment of the film was a Lakota Nation march of witness, in which the viewer is shown the ridiculous spectacle of Native Americans in traditional dress waving rainbow and trans flags). Nonetheless, the film’s merit was in its presentation of the historical struggle for the Black Hills that stretch from western South Dakota into Wyoming, and the intense feeling that this most sacred of mountain ranges for the Lakota Nation had been directly desecrated due to the greedy appropriation of it by the U.S. government. Well, equally, I want to suggest that the transformation of England by mass immigration and the colonisation of ancient cities and towns by people who want England’s spires to stand in the shadow of minarets should be felt by the English to be a desecration of something both gifted and holy.

This is where, it seems to me, the conversation should be had: given that a nation is a natural good, that emerges providentially down the centuries, and may be considered a ‘sacrament of nature’ (in the idiom of Aquinas), should it be treated as possessing a kind of sacrality of its own? If so, I submit that all discussion of the good of the nation should be centred on this principle. Such a principle is not eccentric, for even the most reductionist, materialist right-winger raises concerns about unregulated or badly regulated immigration and the rapid transformation of his culture because his nation is at least sacred to him. All I am suggesting is that we treat such a sentiment as reasonable communally.

And this, I suggest, is the real problem with the type of leader we have today. Take a look at Whitehall. Listen to what they say. Take time to listen to their speeches and interviews. These people think exclusively in terms of efficiency, outcome, and productivity—if they think of anything besides their own private ambitions. Nothing to them is sacred in itself, and that is why, according to my analysis of where the conversation about the future of nations should rest, generally speaking such people have absolutely no business being political leaders. 

Ever since David Cameron launched his ‘Well-Being Report’ in the early 2010s, according to the Report’s criteria Northern Ireland has been consistently the happiest place in the UK. Yes, you read that right: the UK’s most economically deprived, religiously divided, war-torn region is also the happiest. How can that be? Well, Northern Ireland is a patchwork of extremely tight-knit communities living amid a spectacular landscape, and over 50% of the people attend church every Sunday (compared with 4% in England). Essentially, the Northern Irish are still sufficiently traditional, rooted, and communitarian enough to be happy, and they still renew those attachments in a covenant with God each week. Hence, the UK government’s own report on well-being condemns the entire individualist, efficiency-based paradigm of ‘human flourishing’ that our politics perpetuates. 

Until the conversation shifts into one that orbits the sacrality of what Roger Scruton simply called ‘homecoming,’ we will be stuck where we are, namely with a politics of empty promises about immigration in the face of widespread frustration, on which nothing will be delivered because one eye is kept on GDP. The frustration with which such politics must contend will continue to oscillate between a now dichotomised ‘blood or soil’ narrative, both of which seem a dead end. Neither GDP, nor ethnicity, nor material conditions should be our primary focus, however important they may be as secondary considerations. Rather, the public conversation of the future must centre on the sacrality of place and the particular people who dwell there, and in turn the possibility of desecrating that place, against which there is a moral duty to be on our guard. All the politics of the future must become, and necessarily will become, mystical, for the alternative is oblivion.

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