Editor’s note: In June, we published National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles (SOP). We hoped it would elicit discussion and debate. This commentary, written by an SOP signatory, is the second in a series of commentaries on the topic.
I was both interested and disappointed to read the open letter penned and signed in response to the National Conservatism Statement of Principles (SOP), to which I am a signatory. While it is a thoughtful reflection in response to a growing political philosophy, the letter is also mistaken in several ways. Firstly, it faults the Statement of Principles for its “assault on ‘universalist ideologies’” in ways that the SOP answers. Secondly, in doing so displays a skewed expression of universality. Thirdly, the letter also misuses the ideas and philosophy of Edmund Burke for ends he would not have agreed with. As a result, the letter is a laundry list of problems without resolution, with no explicit alternative laid out.
Universalist Ideologies vs. the Nation
The letter argues that in its stand against “universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe,” National Conservatism is supposedly denigrating the “Western, European and Christian civilisation” grounded in “a universalist ethical, spiritual and, yes, political vision.” The complaint against this from the letter is that this stance downgrades the importance of local and communal loves and repudiates the international realm, as “The NatCon statement implies that such internationalism is inevitably imperialist.” As such, the true commonwealth, foreign and domestic, is undermined by a nationalism that springs from Enlightenment philosophy and is itself based in a homogenising drive to override local and communal attachments. National Conservatism is faulted for not providing for the pursuit of the common good at every social level from the family to the international community by placing the nation as the primary force in society.
I am left wondering whether the letter’s signatories read the same National Conservatism Statement of Principles that I both read and signed. First, it must be asked what the letter is saying with its accusation against the SOP’s condemnation of universalist ideologies? The letter argues towards the end that the National Conservative vision is not Christian for its repudiation of universalist ideologies. From the way it is written at the beginning and end, it seems like the letter conflates Christianity as a religion and faith with “universalist ideologies” themselves, therefore presenting Christianity itself as an ideology. Is this the case? For if so, who is really diminishing the ideals expressed through the Christian religion? Christianity is far more than an ideology, a word with Marxist inflections signifying a rationalist political blueprint to which human nature, culture, and society must conform for salvation within history itself. The SOP’s criticism of universalist ideologies is applied to what remains of the Marxist vision, but mainly to a particularity-dissolving liberalism. This critique is perfectly consonant with the message of Christ in the Bible, and does not deny the kind of universality that is compatible with national particularity.
Moving on, the SOP does indeed affirm the central importance of the nation, but does not derogate the importance of familial, local, communal, and regional identities. Indeed, the SOP explicitly affirms these constituent elements of the broader common good, when it states its support for the “the diverse communities, parties, and regions of a given nation” that are furthered through the nation’s existence [emphasis mine]. The letter praises the principle of subsidiarity for achieving the protection of local and communal attachments and loyalties.
But as Roger Scruton has written in the context of Europe, “European integration was conceived in one-dimensional terms, as a process of ever-increasing unity, under a centralised structure of command” to where “in the EU as it is today, the term ‘subsidiarity’ denotes not the means whereby powers are passed up from the bottom, but the means whereby powers are allocated from the top.” The EU, based in a rationalist top-down idea of European unity which supersedes and erodes democratic accountability, exemplifies precisely the kind of universalist ideology that the SOP critiques. In the words of the Paris Statement: A Europe We Can Believe In (2017):
The true Europe is at risk because of the suffocating grip that the false Europe has over our imaginations. Our nations and shared culture are being hollowed out by illusions and self-deceptions about what Europe is and should be.
Supporters of the EU for its supposed subsidiarity should heed Scruton’s diagnosis, given that those who hold the reins of power in the EU structure “ignore, even repudiate the Christian roots of Europe,” seen in the fact that the EU Constitution fails to mention modern Europe’s roots in Christianity anywhere, and indeed purposely rejected references to Christianity in the Constitutional amendments of 2004.
I would note here that the signatories to the Paris Statement attested to the compatibility and even mutual need between the nation and Christianity, so it’s a little galling to see the National Conservative SOP, and by implication its signatories, labelled as un-Christian. There was a whole section dedicated to the importance of an explicitly public faith and its expression in laws and congregations. Hence the line concerning how “for millennia, the Bible has been our surest guide, nourishing a fitting orientation toward God, to the political traditions of the nation, to public morals, to the defense of the weak, and to the recognition of things rightly regarded as sacred” [emphasis mine]. This concern for the defence of the weak, including of those like myself who were born and live with a disability, is only found in Biblical religion. This is partly why I added my signature. Finally, the fact that the SOP wasn’t more explicitly Christian than it already is, despite repeated reference to Christianity, is probably because several of its prominent signatories are Jewish. My question for the letter’s signatories would be: Where do Jews fit in the Christian universalist political vision? Should a Christian Empire as the real-world manifestation of this universalism be re-established, would Israel be a state of, by and for Jews, or would it be subordinate to this Christian universalist entity?
The implications of this universalist political vision would undoubtedly include a correspondingly large state structure. Meanwhile, the SOP’s call for a reduction in the scope of the administrative state Leviathan and its judicial executor would seem to contradict the accusation of the letter against the national state’s overbearing centralisation—which one might say the EU epitomises. As Patrick Deneen writes:
Contemporary liberalism [has] increasingly resort[ed] to imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive ‘deep state,’ with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control.
But later, our call to limit the state in reaction to this development is castigated by the letter for being emblematic of the inherent liberalism of the Anglo-American tradition, and therefore wrong. So, which is it?
It is in this vein that the SOP commends the federalist principle for its “delegation of power to the respective states or subdivisions of the nation so as to allow greater variation, experimentation, and freedom.” The anti-globalist stance noted at the beginning of the letter furthers the defence of local identities against the “locality-destroying imperium” of globalisation. The National Conservative view, based in the very Anglo-American tradition that the letter repudiates, is that the local and the national are mutually enriching and beneficial, both needing the other for the reciprocal flourishing of the whole.
This view is echoed by the Paris Statement, when it declares that “The true Europe is a community of nations,” with “our own languages, traditions and borders,” with “the nation-state… the political form that joins peoplehood with sovereignty. The nation-state thereby became the hallmark of European civilization.” It is precisely in this spirit that the SOP recognises the need to balance national sovereignty and international cooperation when necessary, which is why it commends “working together through trade treaties, defensive alliances, and other common projects that respect the independence of their members.”
It is from the threat to international cooperation that the letter warns against the risks supposedly inherent to re-armed, competitive nations, as being more prone to violence than other forms of political community. But as Michael Lind points out, “This is really an argument against territorial states in general, not against nation-states in particular. Any territorial state smaller than a world government is going to have territorial borders. Whatever its principle of legitimacy, the territorial state must defend and police its borders,” whether through immigration enforcement or military preparedness.
The idea that universalist political entities are any less violent than nations is disproven by history, and by Russia’s imperial efforts in Ukraine today. This is what imperialism actually looks like, and what it has always looked like. The potential for violent competition applies to empires as it does to national states as both forms of political collective are subject to exactly the same anarchic international system. Furthermore, as Kenneth Waltz argued, “The prospect of world government would be an invitation to prepare for world civil war.” The idea that a form of Christian political universalism would result in any less violence than the religious wars that killed millions and birthed the national state system at Westphalia in 1648 is not convincing.
If, as has been argued, “To oppose ‘bad’ empires… in the name of justice is simply and rightly to oppose one variant or offshoot of empire to another, not to oppose empire as such,” why is it less legitimate to adopt the same position for the national state? It is interesting that National Conservatives are accused of sanitising nations as such, when the same claim could be levelled the other way. If empire as the real-world manifestation of political universalism is “continuous with human history,” then so is the rebellion against it in favour of national self-government. The fact that there are 193 nations in the United Nations General Assembly, up from 51 at its creation, is testament to this.
In reference to national self-government, it is interesting to note that the letter inveighs against the SOP’s favouring of the Anglo-American constitutional model and also its affirmation of “free enterprise,” arguing that this creates the conditions for the liberal globalisation that the SOP sets itself against. Firstly, the letter ignores the fact that under the heading of free enterprise (6), the SOP argues that “the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation,” and calls for economics and trade to be conducted in the best interests of the population. Secondly, the letter ignores the next principle (7) which calls for greater investment in research and development, a more developmentalist economics criticised by classical liberals as “industrial strategy”.
It is therefore strange to hear the letter offer a defence of the “many European countries with very different and highly successful models, which have more blended forms of mixed constitution and fuse political and economic functions,” as though the calls for industrial policy do not constitute exactly this. Simultaneously, the letter ignores that when it comes to precisely this area of policy, countries in the Eurozone are often at the mercy of the EU bureaucracy driven by a rationalist universalism that pays no regard to national specificity and actively seeks to supplant it. The National Conservative standpoint is all in favour of these countries pursuing their different models; that’s the core point of the vision, after all.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the letter’s signatories are overwhelmingly from the Anglosphere themselves but prescribe a European vision of political-economy. This favouring of a set of political and economic traditions foreign to the Anglo-American culture from which most of the letter’s signatories originate would have to be enforced rather than adopted through evolution given the differences between the contrasting models. So much for the local and regional diversity lionised in the letter. As a result, there’s some confusion here: I thought globalisation that takes no account of cultural and civilisation particularity was driven by national states? Apparently not. This implied economic imperialism is surely a greater irony than an explicitly Anglo-American statement extolling the virtues of the Anglo-American political, cultural, and economic model.
The Universal and the Particular
The letter’s vision of universality tries to argue for the nation as an important element of a universal moral and ethical vision, but by skipping over the nation entirely when it describes the common good rising from families to the international realm, it reveals its bias against it. I would argue that the vision of the SOP is both valid and moral. It is undoubtedly the case that there is more than just subjective opinion and taste here, given the extensive evidence of human cultural and metaphysical universals, but which are revealed and expressed in diverse ways.
This is emblematic of what Claes G. Ryn argues, in A Common Human Ground, that “amidst the diversity of human tastes and preferences is a fundamental confluence of moral and aesthetical sensibility. This confluence is visible not only in mankind’s strictly religious traditions but in the moral and cultural life more generally.” Therefore, “In its most fundamental aspect, universality is a moral force, a force on which even truth and beauty ultimately depend because they cannot in the end do without the centering of the personality made possible by moral will. Universality in general can be seen as the power that orders the diversity of groups, individuals, and desires so as to make them part of the higher human life.” The striving for the higher ethical state is a universal endeavour, pursued in particular ways, and true universality can only be attained through the particular, and “brings concrete and specific good into the world by embodying itself in particularity, giving such particularity a special dignity, raising it above inchoate individuality.”
I see Christianity to be the ultimate expression of this moral force, but the same force can also be seen in Judaism and the Jewish tradition. Israel combines the particularity of nationhood, tradition, and territory while serving as an example to the rest of the world, a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Any universality in this call is only revealed through the particularity of Jewish tradition, nationhood, and territory. In Christianity, the tension between the universal and the particular is reconciled through Christ Himself, the embodiment of the transcendent universality of God born in a particular time and place, to a particular people. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Christianity acknowledges our ‘creatureliness,’ and the preference for the familiar and known that this brings. Our finitude, living in particular places with particular people at a particular time, means our attachments will necessarily be specific in their embrace.”
While Yoram Hazony has presented the nation as a particularly Protestant phenomenon, a number of Popes have also affirmed the good of nations, among them Pope Leo XIII, who wrote that “natural law commands us to love with preference and devotion the country where we are born and where we have been raised to the point that the good citizen does not fear to face death for his homeland.” John Paul II spoke in favour of “a treasure, unique in its kind, of values and spiritual content, that is, everything a nation’s culture includes,” and against the idea that Christians have no “native land” in this world. This pope also wrote, in a spirit similar to the vision of the SOP, that “patriotism … is a love of one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.” Pope Benedict XVI has argued along similar lines, and Pope Francis has condemned a universalism that “‘lacks any sense of belonging to a family, to a land, to our God,’” and which has “no need of mother, of father, of a family, of a homeland, of belonging to a people.” However, John Paul II was also correct in reminding we Christians that “the inheritance we receive from Christ orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal homeland.” The nation may be our earthly home but is not our final resting place. The particularity of the nation orients us to the universal, while the universal redeems the particular.
The upshot is that each side appears to be advocating its own form of universality, the difference being the prominence of the nation in that vision as a legitimate form of cultural and political particularity. National Conservatives see the nation as being the median between the overly subjective worldview of kin-based tribalism and a detached, abstract, universalist cosmopolis. The letter’s signatories’ view of universality leans towards the universal as primary, with the national particular as a diversion from apprehending and achieving this. One might say that the letter sees little between local and global. In my view, National Conservatism manifests a synthesis between the particular and the universal, expressed in preference for the nation. The universal is apprehended and appreciated through one’s familial, local, regional and national particularity, the highest form of the cultural and political first-person plural. Edmund Burke understood the nation as such.
Here we come to the points raised by the letter about Edmund Burke. The letter states that Burke saw the sovereignty of the modern state as a myth, and dangerous because it led to the ravening, revolutionary fanaticism of the French Revolution that ended in tyranny and terror. In reality, it was not the nation as such that Burke saw as the danger but rationalist and political formulas, one might say universalist ideologies, that overrode the variety of political life between national cultures that “made constitutions specific to political communities.” And even within those communities, “formulas were unsuited to the complexity of human beings living in society.” Burke saw that this rationalist universalism “naturally bred fanaticism and was impossible to confine to national borders,” which was why he viewed Jacobinism a uniquely dangerous imperialistic force. This was why he labelled Jacobinism as an “armed doctrine,” a label by implication applicable to all such universalising ideologies.
Burke’s warnings against the violent tendencies of radical rationalism did not mean that he thought a moral or ethical order didn’t exist. In his opening speech of the Warren Hastings impeachment, Burke proclaimed “We are all born in subjection… in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existent law… by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.” He further wrote that “principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” Burke thundered that “geographical morality we do protest against…. We think it necessary… to declare that the laws of morality are the same everywhere.” Moreover, morality did not change with time, was “eternal” and that those “persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.”
While sentiments like this may seem to bolster the letter’s case, Burke was far from a proponent of transnational, universalist political communities the letter recruits him for. Burke explicitly argued against a weightless reason that escaped the bonds and constraints of history and concrete locality. The rationality of the individual was too limited through its flaws to prescribe a single way of life and a corresponding system of government valid in all times and all places. The systemic rationality of custom, tradition and history, captured by the word “prejudice,” provided the guideposts and guardrails for life’s journey, at an individual and societal level mediated by “practical wisdom” and acted out with prudential consideration, with prudence itself having a moral dimension that “is not to be found in rigid adherence to preconceived rules but in a sense of high purpose, or will, that accords with the ‘permanent part’ of man’s nature.” This kind of will that strives towards the highest ethical and moral goods is consonant with what Burke called our “second nature,” that “which refines and elevates the human animal to what we actually are.”
The universalism praised by the letter leans too far away from this vision of universality as expressed by Burke, and too far towards the abstract designs of the mind that he stood so firmly against. It was for this reason that Burke defended the English constitution and its customs and mores as best for England, not directly applicable anywhere else, stating that he “did not mean that its exterior form and positive arrangement should become a model for… [France], or for any people servilely to copy.”
It was for this reason, as Uday Singh Mehta argues, that Burke castigated British imperialism in India. He denied the view that held Indian culture in its particularity did not rise to the level of political society. He went further and condemned the imperial project as such, “because it d[id] not take the task of understanding and recognition seriously.” Burke compared India to the kingdoms of Europe to buttress his refusal to accept that the traditions of India may not themselves constitute the striving towards the higher ethical will of our second nature—which comprises true universality as revealed in the world’s religious traditions. This lay at the foundation of Burke’s attempt to impeach Governor-General Warren Hastings.
Echoing his refusal to apply British ways to French society due to the limits of abstracting particular traditions and institutions, Burke asked how British liberty could reconcile with “that vast, heterogeneous, intricate Mass of Interests, which at this day forms the Body of the British Power.” If this reconciliation was impossible, as Burke suspected, then “[I]f we are not able to contrive some method of governing India well which will not of necessity become the means of governing Great Britain ill, a ground is laid for their eternal separation, but none for sacrificing the people of that country to our constitution.” Burke saw empire as inherently corrupting, declaring that “Today the Commons of Great Britain prosecutes the delinquents of India [Hastings]: tomorrow the delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain.” According to Singh Mehta, it was this ignorance and denigration of the traditions, culture, and community bounded by time and place that comprised Indian peoplehood that meant that “for Burke, the British Empire, especially in India, was nothing less than a revolution, with all the psychological naïveté and theoretical arrogance that he associated with the revolution in France.”
It was because of his view of man’s historical and cultural rootedness that Burke saw the nation as highest point of man’s earthly loyalties founded in concrete communities, declaring the following:
We begin our public affections in our families… no cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connexions. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone men come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom.
Burke further proclaimed that “next to the love of parents for their children, the strongest instinct both natural and moral that exists in man is the love of his country”, whose “native soil has a sweetness in it beyond a harmony of verse.” Finally, “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.”
Burke was in favour of nations pursuing the good and aiming for the good, true, and beautiful through their own cultural particularity. His view of the evil of imperialism that stemmed from its similarity to Jacobinism, precludes a universalist vision that minimises the nation, as laid out in the letter. In my view, Burke would more likely have favoured the SOP’s support for “working together through trade treaties, defensive alliances, and other common projects that respect the independence of their members,” rather than a universalist political vision that contains the seed of the very forces that Burke criticised so fervently.
The open letter states that it was “dismayed” at the vision laid out in the National Conservatism Statement of Principles. Given this dismay, it might enhance and further any dialogue between the two schools of thought if the letter’s signatories created their own statement of principles, rather than a raft of complaints that misrepresent certain points and misinterprets others. The specificity gained by such an exercise would be mutually beneficial in the sharpening of the arguments both sides can present in favour of their vision.
I would also note that the SOP’s signatories may disagree with some of their fellow co-signers in how they conduct debate and present their case, but we all agree to the substantive vision that undergirds the principles we signed in support of. In contrast, there are such fundamental differences in political and even metaphysical terms between the letter’s signatories it’s difficult to see how they maintain the coherence of their vision.
For me, this feeds into the flaws of the letter’s substance, given that a degree of vagueness is likely necessary to encompass such a divergent range of views. In its conflation of the SOP’s critique of “universalist ideologies” with Christianity, the letter in my view reveals a faulty conception of universality that contains the seeds of the very globalising tendency it claims the SOP furthers through its affirmation of the nation. Given some signatories’ support for a form of Christian imperialism, this concern is arguably not unfounded. The letter’s use of Edmund Burke in connection with its universalist vision seems odd given his own critiques of political universalism and of the British empire.
In conclusion, I would say that the deep and substantial disagreements between the visions of the SOP and the letter should not blind us to the fact that in dialectic we each come closer to apprehending the higher ethical state that Burke espoused and articulated. The search for the good, the true, and the beautiful in itself speaks of a hope in the goodness of life as such and of our time here on earth. When so much seems so bleak, and many on the left and right seem to have lost hope and instead invest their energies in a destructive, ‘burn it all down’ nihilism, this is something to be thankful for.