We should be Liberation Conservatives, says Liam Fox, and unleash the talents of all.
The recent General Election produced an outright Conservative majority Government. Now, with the opposition parties in complete disarray is a good time for a renewal of Liberation Conservative values.
It is probably true that the fire of strongly held beliefs that used to inflame discussions in the pub has been gradually swamped in an era obsessed with trivia and celebrity and where technology offers many other distractions. A long period of peace and prosperity may also have created the feeling that politics is not as vital as it once was.
Beliefs and values, never mind philosophy, have become unfashionable in recent decades when pragmatism has been king. It has left us in a political landscape with too few signposts for voters to discern any clearly differing political directions. But the recent successes of centre-right parties in Norway, Australia and Germany should give the Conservatives in Britain added confidence.
In my book Rising Tides I discuss the era of globalisation that we now live in, where the world is being shaped by new forces. There has never been a better time to harness the power of ideas in order to further the causes of freedom and liberty and there is no better Party to push this agenda than the British Conservative Party.
At our strongest we have championed a broad range of ideas aimed at liberating our people from the excesses of state interference at home and defending our freedoms from threats abroad. We are at our strongest when we are a broad church and have avoided external coalitions by maintaining a vibrant internal one.
The great prize of liberty is that it allows individuals to maximise their own distinctive potential, and in doing so maximise their contribution to their own society, their nation and the wider world. Political, economic and religious freedom engenders creativity and innovation, and the free competition of one talent with another is the route to progress and excellence. Any impediments to these freedoms not only diminish the expression of individual talents but ultimately will reduce the potential of societies and nations to prosper in a world which is increasingly subject to rigorous competition in almost every aspect of life.
The great commitment to liberty and freedom has been the dynamic which has propelled much of our social and political progress and, through our relationship with the rest of the world, shaped much of the direction of global thinking. Late seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and David Hume shaped the political and philosophical discourse of the day, and are shaping it still. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ still provides the foundation and assumptions on which our economic system is based and operates, especially since the fall of communism.
But politics is not about theory, it is about human experience. I joined the Conservative Party because I believed that in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, it represented a genuine engine of social mobility. Here was a grocer’s daughter telling people who would never have previously had dreams of joining the Conservative party that all they required to be ‘one of us’ was to share in the same beliefs and aspirations for our country. I was drawn to that vision for Britain, when millions of people who had never cast their ballot for the Conservative Party before took us to four consecutive majority Conservative governments.
I too did not come from a wealthy background – my father was a teacher, we lived in a council house, I went to the biggest comprehensive school in the country – but I went on to become a doctor, a Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party – something that would have seemed impossible to my grandfather who was a miner. But although I didn’t come from a wealthy background I did come from a privileged one – one where the values of loyalty, hard work and family were paramount. And that’s what counts.
Liberation Conservatism therefore must be blind to colour, social background and religion. It should not matter what your parents did, where you went to school or what regional accent you have. All that should matter is that you share the same values, aspirations and goals for the sort of Britain that we want to see – strong, proud and free. We need to break away from the focus on the superficial. It is no more relevant to today’s Conservative Party that David Cameron went to Eton or that I, or Sajid Javid for that matter, went to a local comprehensive school. Those who dwell on such stereotypes are missing the point. What we should concentrate on is why our beliefs are the right ones.
The Left can never offer the sort of liberation we seek for one simple reason – their objective is not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. The difference between these two concepts is monumental. The Left will alter the circumstances of the individual and manipulate any aspect of society in order to achieve their preconceived end point. In the socialist world, individuals are made to fit the system and all too often the outcome becomes nothing more than equal access to mediocrity.
The Left measure their success by the relative gaps between individuals and groups in society. Not for them the challenge and rigour of absolute achievements. But they have failed to understand – and continue to fail today – that if you hold back the brightest pupils, it doesn’t make the less bright more clever; if you hold back the risk takers, it doesn’t make the rest more secure, if you make the wealthy poorer, it doesn’t make the poor wealthier. It is clear from today’s Labour Party with the recent ‘Jeremy Corbyn mania’ that they have learned none of this.
Conservatives believe that talent should be free to flourish – that exceptionalism, innovation and excellence need trailblazers. We also believe that these trailblazers should not be held back by punitive taxation, and that people who work hard, who have ambition, who are driven to succeed should be free to spend their money however they please. It is not for politicians to tell them that they are wrong to do this.
Nor is it for politicians to offer people the opportunity to live on the taxes of others. The welfare dependency created by previous Labour governments is not only unfair to those who contribute to their society, but is also economically disastrous. By locking whole communities in a state of dependency, we have developed a situation where there is no incentive to succeed, to innovate, and to prosper. How absurd is it that someone who contributes nothing to the economy would be rewarded more than someone who has grafted hard? This is what the alternative to a liberating Conservatism is - enslavement by welfare and the State.
However harnessing the talent of our nation is not simply a case of eradicating dependency. We must also provide a vision of the future that inspires. People must be rewarded when they work hard. By allowing millions of citizens to participate in a property and share owning democracy with the sale of council houses and the privatisation of monolithic state-owned industries, Margaret Thatcher built a society where the best and brightest were able to shine. She unlocked the hidden talent in all sectors of the nation and allowed aspiration to turn into success - a success that was shared by more people than ever before.
The challenge to our values - underpinned by Liberation Conservatism - is to ensure that our passion for empowerment, freedom and opportunity is a global phenomenon. We need only look to our own recent past to see how successful we can be when we dare to believe and how failure can stalk us when we lose faith in our own convictions. What is it that makes these concepts so resilient and how do we mould them, if at all, in light of the challenges we face in this new globalized era?
Globalisation brings with it a number of positives and a number of negatives. There is an unavoidable loss of sovereignty in a world where our interests are increasingly intertwined with those of others and there is an unavoidable importation of strategic risk. But there is also a wonderful opportunity to help to shape this new world and see it imbued with our values of liberty, democracy and the rule of law.
It is important that we keep emphasising that it is not a coincidence that those nations who have embraced liberty most fully have been the dominant global economic and political powers. Free, democratic nations who allow their citizens to express themselves openly and without fear also unleash the powers of creativity and entrepreneurship which are the basis for success in a free market. We saw this most prominently during the Cold War, which was not only a military stand-off but an ideological clash between the capitalist West and the Communist bloc. It may now seem clear, as many of us believed at the time, that socialism was the intellectual hiccup of the 20th century doomed to failure in a world full of differing individuals, but its demise did not always appear inevitable.
In my book, Rising Tides, I described a conversation that I had in Paris. I was talking about how we had won the Cold War not just because of our military and economic superiority but because we also had a moral superiority and belief in our own values. I asked why it was that we had been so willing to use the word ‘better’ then - democracy was better than dictatorship; freedom was better than oppression; capitalism was better than communism - but seemed so afraid to use it now. Surely in relation to fundamentalist Islamist views our ways are better - better to have religious tolerance than violently imposed orthodoxy, better to have a concept of universal human rights than not, better to have societies in which women play a full and equal role with men? The answer was depressing: “I don’t think we can really say ‘better’ nowadays”, I was told by an official, only “different”.’
If this is what we really believe, we are in deep trouble. If we do not believe that our values are better than the alternatives, and worth defending, then why should anyone else listen to us. Liberty, equality and the rule of law are better than the alternatives. We need more ‘better’ and less ‘different’ or we risk losing the battle of ideas and ideals for the future. That would be an unforgivable betrayal of those who sacrificed so much for what we too often seem to take for granted.
It is why I believe that in tangible policy areas, such as overseas aid, we should use our leverage to ensure that the ethics of those generous British citizens who provide the money through their donations and taxes should be reflected in those countries whom we assist. We should make clear that religious tolerance and equal rights are an essential part of our culture which we insist on being replicated within recipient nations. If they are not then our aid should be re-evaluated.
We are who and what we are not just because of our economic or military strength but because of what we believe. Our commitment to political freedom and expression, economic freedom within a free market framework, and a religiously tolerant society, has shaped not only this country but many around the globe. In the era of political correctness and moral relativism we need to remember what idealism can achieve. All around the world the conservative message should resonate: liberation, freedom, and empowerment. As Conservatives, now is the right to reassure people with the message: whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background, if you share our beliefs, our passions and our values then you are ‘one of us’. And who are we? We have been, we are, and we should always be, Liberation Conservatives.
Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox is Member of Parliament for North Somerset.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 06/05/2016