Last week in London the National Conservatism Conference met to discuss the country, its history, and Britain’s place in the world.
It was a gathering of right leaning politicians, academics, and thinkers to discuss a new conservative agenda. Historian David Starkey used his speech to talk about the “symbolic destruction of white culture.” Douglas Murray attempted to assuage guilt on nationalism by noting Germany “mucked up” twice in a century. And former social mobility commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh used her speech to place schools at the forefront of the fight for conservative values and culture.
If there is any theme that unites these speeches it is that governments, institutions, and capital, run against conservative values. Conservative MP Miriam Cates framed it as a project to reform institutions toward more nationalist ends. For Cates this plays out in the home, job security, family, a strong sense of nationhood, and dismantling “cultural Marxism” in schools.
The striking part aside from the dog-whistles and the occasional foray into the bizarre and distasteful, was the attempt to frame what “England” is. This isn’t a conservative project about winning votes, or winning the red wall, or maybe even winning elections, it is a project to define the nation.
This definition comes in different guises. On the one hand it is an explicit cultural appeal to say being white is nothing to be ashamed of, or that being concerned about immigration doesn’t make you a racist, or that maybe LGBT+ rights have gone too far. On the other hand it is an implicit view that institutions aren’t the real England and they sometimes secretly and sometimes not very secretly hate you. Schools hate conservatives. The Church has been captured by the forces of woke. And universities are irredeemably lost.
It is reasonable to think about this as a project of cranks and extremists but it is also revolutionary in its zeal for dismantling England’s institutions.
There will be discussion in universities this week on what an absurd event it was. It was undoubtedly very odd but it was only in 2006 David Cameron called UKIP a bunch of “fruitcakes, loons, and closet racists,” only for UKIP to change politics and the country forever. The fringe needs attention not because it is intellectually serious but because it can quickly become culturally significant.
The problem with cultural projects is that they resist logical argument. Brexit did not happen because it was a sensible economic decision but because the Leave project spoke to people’s feelings of detachment and displacement. Universities are very skilled at making the argument for their financial or intellectual impact but it is much more challenging for them to define their role in shaping the identity of the country.
If you look across university websites there is lots of copy on their place in the world. It is about world leading research, global cooperation, and solving the great issues of humankind.
There is a growing fluency in talking about issues on a regional level. Aside from REF case studies there are local economic impact assessments, shining photos of buildings, and developments, and content streams devoted to everything #trulycivic.
When it comes to the country, the relationship between English universities and England is often defined for them. The Office for Students is explicitly the regulator for England and regulates with a view to taxpayer value and labour market outcomes in mind. The fundamental tension in much recruitment policy is the (mistaken) political belief that there are votes to be had in restricting international student numbers while universities’ economic incentives are to recruit as many international students as policy. The entire research security agenda can often feel like an opaque and clumsy attempt to stop universities doing things the government feels runs against the national interest.
There is this squeezed middle between universities defining their economic impact and government and regulatory challenge to their national activity. There is not as much definition of that ephemeral hard to grasp how universities shape an national identity. There is an idea of how universities contribute to national projects like levelling up but this is different to what universities mean for how the country feels. It is not the same as people feeling proud of their university, it is not about national investment, it is something more intangible about England as a whole.
The problem is that if universities don’t have their own vision of England they will be defined as being opposed to it. Universities may choose not to care but given Michael Gove turned up to this conference it suggests the government believes these ideas are worth at least listening to (or being seen to listen to). To allow a narrative to persist that universities are somehow opposed to the values of the undefined silent majority is also to invite investigation and regulation.
The issue with culture is that it’s hard to pin down and even harder to influence. It is perhaps made more real by thinking about who universities are talking to with their work. The national conservative project is aimed at what they perceive to be a silent majority of small c conservatives that are nervous about the modern world. The data suggest that this cohort is ever shrinking but it is influential and it is also difficult to think how universities reach them.
There are some examples to be learned from politics. There is a set of progressive politicians that have been able to hold a significant proportion of conservative votes. They are the usual line up of centerist dad’s favourites like Blair, Obama, Biden and to a lesser extent Brown. The reason they were able to win or hold on to power is that while they could mobilise around a change agenda they could also hold a swathe of the electorate with a message of reassurance. It was yes we can but also forever explaining how the world is changing, how they were responding to it, and how that would benefit the nation as a whole. It was things can only get better but it is institutions that mediate, manage, and change with you, not impose change to you.
To England then. Universities are at the very cornerstone of England’s identity. Fundamentally, universities make the country a much more diverse and multicultural place to live. It is a good thing that this is the case, it is something universities are proud of, and this fact can sometimes be lost in a wider economic argument of student recruitment. If the institution’s message is that universities are at the forefront of bringing people from all over the globe to towns and cities, the emotional argument is that the country is culturally enriched by the variety of experiences.
There is also some soul-searching to be done on what it means for universities to have local, national, and international identities, which do not always exist harmoniously. National security should be considered in this light. MIT’s work in this area contains an explicit appeal to say that ensuring the university’s security is also about the prosperity and security of America. On these big issues it could be powerful for an English institution to talk about the links between its activity as being about the nation’s security and prosperity, not just an awkward negotiation between universities and government.
State of England
Reassurance, however, is not the same as acquiescence. It also means being even braver on where the collective research of English institutions leads challenges to what England is. It is not a tidy package of nationhood that can be resurrected by an appeal to tradition. It is an identity which is never stable but forever reformed on the investigation of our past. It is a set of institutions that are strengthened, challenged, and changed, from the knowledge produced within the walls of our institutions. And it is a story that weaves around our great scientists, engineers, and academics of all kinds.
To retreat from this space is to not only allow universities to be defined as being not for the country. It is to retreat from England’s national story.