When Suella Braverman delivered a half-hour-long speech railing against “identity politics” and “radical gender ideology” on Monday, it was the first time most people had heard of the National Conservatism Conference.
But for three days it filled a large Westminster venue directly across the road from the Home Office, attracting an array of ministers, Conservative MPs and high-profile political figures.
The conference was run by an American group that professes to be concerned for “Western civilization” in the face of supposed enemies, including “radical forms of sexual licence” and the loss of “traditional family”, where relationships should be between men and women.
It is the project of a think tank called the Edmund Burke Foundation, which declares its aim to be “strengthening the principles of national conservatism in Western countries”. It also has links to an Israel-based Zionist research organisation.
The foundation’s website states that it was founded in 2019, but it was registered as a private limited company in the UK through Companies House in March, by Cambridge University theology professor Dr James Orr.
Dr Orr served as chair of this week’s conference, and proclaimed the values of “faith, family, flag” to the crowd before claiming that the “cargo cult of transgenderism is triggering a social contagion that is inflicting irreversible physical harms on the young and the vulnerable”.
In a series of other speeches this week, communities secretary Michael Gove held forth on “biological reality”, Conservative MP Miriam Cates claimed birth rates were the “one overarching threat to the whole of Western society”, fellow Tory MP Danny Kruger praised the “normative family”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg was interrupted by a demonstrator warning of the “characteristics of fascism”.
Conservative Party deputy chair Lee Anderson brought the curtain down on the three-day event on Wednesday afternoon, undeterred by the outrage generated by a previous speaker who had described the Holocaust as “the Germans mucking up”.
Joe Mulhall, director of research at the counterextremism group Hope Not Hate, said the topics discussed at the conference “dripped with far-right and populist conspiracy theories”.
“The Conservative Party has always had a fringe in it that has flirted with far-right politics, but what is worrying here is that in 2023, when much of society has become more socially liberal, this rhetoric is coming from senior figures,” he told The Independent.
“Some speakers went beyond patriotism and embraced nationalism, while talk of demographic change, anti-immigration rhetoric and [discussion of] the incompatibility of migrants with British society, the notion of ‘Western civilisation’ being in decline, the rejection of non-typical family units, referencing the ‘cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, and open transphobia are all beliefs typical of the contemporary radical and far right.”
Downing Street confirmed that ministers had attended the National Conservatism Conference in a government capacity, but said the prime minister was not endorsing the organisers’ values or the content of all of the speeches.
It was a far cry from the official response when Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski attended an earlier conference held in Rome in 2020.
Following calls for him to be booted out of his party for appearing at the event, which was also attended by Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, he was forced to apologise.
In a statement issued at the time, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party said: “Daniel Kawczynski has been formally warned that his attendance at this event was not acceptable, particularly in light of the views of some of those in attendance, which we utterly condemn, and that he is expected to hold himself to higher standards.”
Three years and two prime ministers later, no such censure has been applied to the ministers who saw fit to attend, and the themes of the National Conservatism Conference remain unchanged.
The group’s website proclaims: “We are citizens of Western nations who have watched with alarm as the traditional beliefs, institutions, and liberties underpinning life in the countries we love have been progressively undermined and overthrown.”
It calls for the restoration of a “proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honour and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman”, while decrying what it calls “universalist ideologies”.
The National Conservatism group’s published “statement of principles” is heavily focused on Christianity, along with ideas of “Western” identity and heritage and “traditional family”.
“The traditional family, built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and on a lifelong bond between parents and children, is the foundation of all other achievements of our civilization,” one passage reads.
“The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations. Among the causes are an unconstrained individualism that regards children as a burden, while encouraging ever more radical forms of sexual licence and experimentation as an alternative to the responsibilities of family and congregational life.”
Hailing the Bible as the “surest guide ... to the political traditions of the nation”, the statement calls for public life in the UK and the US to be “rooted in Christianity”.
Signed by leading members of the National Conservatism group, it claims that “unassimilated immigration” is a “source of weakness and instability” and demands restrictions that could amount to an unspecified “moratorium on immigration”.
But the statement insists that nationalism can “offer a sound basis for conciliation and unity” between people of different races, and respects the “unique needs of particular minority communities”.
The Independent understands that no MPs were paid to appear at the conference, although several spokespeople did not answer questions on how the MPs concerned had come to be invited to speak – or why they had agreed to do so.
When asked why the Conservative Party’s position on the conference had changed since Mr Kawczynski was censured in 2020, a spokesperson at the party’s headquarters only pointed to previous comments from Downing Street.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson told reporters that, despite the content of MPs’ speeches and the conference organisers’ stance on gay marriage, there was “no change to government policy”.
He said the prime minister did not agree with Mr Kruger’s statement that the “normative family” with a mother and a father is the only basis for a functioning society, and was not personally endorsing the gathering.
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