Religion is integral to the coherence of British society, argued speakers at the National Conservative Conference in Westminster yesterday.
Speaking on the “God and Country” panel on the third day of the conference, Sebastian Milbank, executive editor of The Critic and a former Newman intern at The Tablet, said: “Britain is a Christian country or it is nothing at all.”
On the same panel, the author Sebastian Morello insisted that all societies are inherently “religious”, and while he decried most contemporary mores he also observed that “woke is an expression of a deep and noble religious need”.
He called for a “theocentric conservatism”.
Milbank argued that the origins of the nation lay in the evangelisation of Germanic and Gaelic cultures “in the twilight years of our early history”, and that expressions of British statehood – such as the pursuit of empire – were closely tied to its religious identity.
These were themes echoed by Fr Benedict Kiely, an Ordinariate priest and noted advocate of Christians in the Middle East, who said that British conservatism was “spiritless”.
Christianity, he said, needed “a new language” to address a culture largely desensitised to religion, citing Benedict XVI’s prediction that Catholicism would need to become a “creative minority” in Europe.
Fr Kiely said that finding such a language was the role of all baptised Christians, in their threefold character of “priest, prophet and king”, suggesting the Church’s leadership could not be relied upon to do so – he quoted Hilaire Belloc’s description of the English hierarchy as “a fog of mediocrity”.
In the concluding remarks, Milbank observed that “social conservatism doesn’t always have the language to address the lives of imperfect people and imperfect families”. He said that Christianity did not start in a vacuum but appeared “in the middle of things” and had to address the realities that it found.
The three-day conference was run by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a US-based think tank founded in 2019 and associated with the populist right.
The foundation’s “statement of principles” of national conservatism asserts: “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.”
It adds that where there is a Christian majority, “public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honoured by the state and other institutions both public and private”, while preserving the traditions and institutions of religious minorities.
Previous conferences have drawn accusations of harbouring nationalistic or even crypto-fascist voices. A small group of protesters picketed this week's event (and some staged protests in the auditorium).
Nevertheless, the conference attracted several high-profile Conservative Party figures, including the home secretary, Suella Braverman, the levelling-up secretary, Michael Gove, and MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.