What Does Post-Brexit Conservatism Stand For?
Friends, what an amazing conference this has been. So many ideas, discussions, friendships. Thank you to the Edmund Burke Foundation for making it happen, and thank you James Orr for providing the inspiration, energy, and enthusiasm for it.
And thank you too to Yoram Hazony for so many things. Yoram, I have been reading your work for two decades now - going right back to your essays “On the National State” in the now sadly defunct Azure Magazine in 2002 - and you had a huge influence on the way I thought about Europe and the ideas that we eventually brought into play in the Brexit process. Thank you also for your paean to this country on Monday morning - a reminder of our history, our record of protecting national independence and individual freedom, and our massive contribution to Western civilisation. This is a great country and we should not forget it.
This has been a great event. Not just for what we said, but also the effect we had on our opponents. They seem to have been sent into paroxysms of rage to a quite ludicrous extent. What a humourless bunch they are. Scanning Twitter, I saw one publishing executive say he was watching "an all-singing all-dancing fascist musical extravaganza". Now it's true I haven't been in the conference hall the whole time, so maybe I missed the moment when Jacob Rees Mogg and Suella Braverman tap danced down the central aisle in national dress - but more likely what these comments show is that our opponents are completely out of touch and completely deranged by perfectly normal and widely supported ideas - which is a very good thing to have demonstrated to the British people.
Friends, we are now once again a free country. I am proud of the role Boris Johnson and I played in cutting through the constitutional chaos to make that happen. Now, Britain is in a unique position - not for the first time in its history. We are a country that has recovered our independence, more or less - put to one side the unfortunate Windsor Framework and the continued imposition of EU law in Northern Ireland - but we are still living with the political, mental, and even psychological consequences of 50 years of EU membership. The British establishment did not want to leave the EU and is even now only partially reconciled to it. As so often in history, it was the role of the Conservative Party to deliver uncomfortable truths and to reach beyond that establishment to the broad common sense of the British people and their wish to govern themselves again.
We are now out. But Brexit deeply divided the Conservative Party too, and the conservative movement in this country I think remains uncertain about the right way to proceed.
When I took over the Brexit negotiations with Boris Johnson, I gave a speech in Brussels which was quite controversial at the time. It was called “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe” - and I think you’ll recognise that title. I said
“Brexit was surely above all a revolt against a system – against an “authorised version” of European politics, against a system in which there was only one way to do politics and one policy choice to be made.
That spirit of the Brexit revolt is now how we must proceed. It is the spirit of nationhood. It is the wish for countries to choose their own way and forge their own destiny - to make democratic political choices for themselves rather than be told by people who think they know best that there is only one choice they can make.
That’s why post-Brexit conservatism can only be a form of national conservatism, because it is about governing this nation: coming to terms with the implications of our recovered self-government and working out what it means to govern an independent nation state in the 21st century.
Across this continent many don’t even seem to think this is a meaningful and worthwhile thing to do. Belief in the nation state as a valuable and meaningful unit in politics has been dramatically weakened. The German view of the nation state, that it is inherently a damaging and disruptive force, best subsumed into wider European interests, and that national sovereignty is a meaningless concept, has become very widely shared and is still strongly held in this country.
That’s what makes this such an interesting but also challenging moment for the conservative movement. We have it in our hands to prove that the self-governing national democracy is still a thing. But then we have to deliver actual change - and show why living in a democratic nation can make peoples’ lives better. If we can’t do that we won’t succeed.
Plenty of people want us to fail. That’s why they drive the history culture wars. If they can show that the British nation was somehow born in sin, or even isn’t really a proper country at all but a temporary constellation of four nations fused together purely for self-interest, then it’s much easier to discredit the proposition that getting Britain to succeed in the 21st century is a worthwhile or even a possible task.
That’s why I am so anxious about where we now stand. Purposeful forward direction is needed. There are two major tasks before us. But it is important to go about them in the right way. To explain why I take the view I do on that, let me take a step back for a moment.
18 months ago I resigned from this government over our pandemic policy and the seeming descent into yet another unnecessary lockdown. I did so because I believed that policy was fundamentally incorrect and damaging to this country. I found the lockdowns a profoundly inhumane and disturbing policy, though like many people I have struggled to find the exact words to articulate why. But certainly one of the reasons was that for this period civil society seemed to just disappear. The normal intermediating institutions - the Church, the universities, schools, societies of all kinds, and of course for a long time Parliament - did not speak up or actively encouraged the policy. There was no mediation. It was just us, individuals, alone with the government, and the doubtful care of our world beating NHS.
Now fortunately - and it is a strength of this country’s institutions that we were the first country to do so - we managed to dig ourselves out of that hole in winter 2021. But the pandemic and lockdowns didn’t create a new relationship between us and government - they just revealed it. We had already got very collectivist. We were already used to looking to the government for everything. Our independent institutions were already very weak. Life was already very politicised and the central government was, and is, very strong.
That is why I am cautious about assuming a powerful state can be our ally. It’s not so easy always to use government for good. In this fallen world there are always consequences we don’t foresee.
That is why I think the right thing to do is to reverse the powers of government in our everyday lives. The politicisation of every activity and every choice. Let's not forget what that means. The endless hectoring. The constant suggestion that the government has the right to dictate how you behave when it has socialised the costs. The dangerous & counter-productive intrusion into private property - as Michael Gove's Renters Bill will do this morning. The seeming determination to remove risk from every aspect of daily life. The belief that the government can dictate what your children are taught. The establishment of DEI as something close to a state ideology that you must sign up to if you want to work in the public sector. The growing assumption that the government has the right to know where you are, what you spend your money on, and increasingly what you read and think.
Worse than that. The people who want all this don’t want it because they are bad people. They want it because they are good people who think they know best what’s best for us. From the merely absurd, the Wes Streetings and George Osbornes who want to ban smoking and sugar, to the actively dangerous, the people who want the government to go into your bank account if you spend more each on gambling than nanny wants you to, and the people who just 18 months ago wanted to stop you going out in public unless you had the right green pass on your phone. But because all these people think they are good, if you oppose them you are not just a critic. You are bad. You are dangerous. You should be cancelled.
Friends, we need to halt this dreadful corrupting development before we have all entirely got used to it and come to think it normal. We need to open up space, and then protect it, for civil society, for families, for individuals, to act and grow independently once again. And let us confine government to its proper role in building, administering, and protecting a free country.
I spoke earlier of two tasks. The first is to rebuild this nation - to re-establish this country as a cohesive national democracy and to recreate a sense of nationhood. We don’t live in a market, we live in a country, and the nation state is the best way we have found for a free people to run its own affairs. There is much to do. We must stand up for the right to speak freely in debate. We must modernise government and reform our civil service. We must get serious about defence. Above all we must control our borders properly, radically reduce the numbers coming in, and insist that those who come here commit to our ways of doing things.
We must also be vigorous in maintaining our national traditions and I see nothing wrong at all in the government refusing to allow statues to be taken down, names changed, or plaques removed. I think we also have something to learn from countries like Germany and Hungary in demolishing some of the monstrous buildings we built in the last fifty years and rebuilding what we have lost - a project, perhaps, for this new Carolean age.
The second task is to make people wealthier again. That means getting the economy growing again. That in turn means reducing the burden of government - which means we need a stronger society that needs less government. Miriam Cates was right to say on Monday that if you think the government should have nothing to say about social issues then don't be surprised if you end up with a high tax high spend economy. So it is absolutely right to make taxation and social policy supportive once again of the family. The bias against the family is one of the worst in Europe and it needs to change.
We need to get out of the current stasis into a virtuous circle. Growth gets going; incomes go up; people feel wealthier and can do more for themselves; they look less to the government; spending and tax fall; and things continue to improve.
I believe as a conservative that the only way we will get to this point is by trying to liberate the powers of the free market. It seems to me a pretty unarguable truth that free markets and freedom produce better economic results than social democracy and socialism.
Of course this is not an argument for free markets in all cases. There can be, and currently in my view is, a strong national security argument for reducing our economic dependence on China and of course that will involve trade and other economic measures.
As Yoram said on Monday, clever state officials can’t plan the economy successfully. We therefore can’t believe that the right way to rebuild national cohesion is through social democratic methods of an intrusive state, high public spending, and directed investment and industrial policy. On the contrary - experience in practice is that this route slows growth and prosperity, reduces incomes, and therefore reduces cohesion, increases social conflict and makes finding resources to solve all our other problems even more difficult. Try it, and government gets captured by big companies, by lobbyists, and by incumbents, urging special treatment and trade benefits. Such people are even less likely to help us run the economy to everyone’s benefit.
I really think this is a blind alley and for conservatives a distraction from the harder, and consequently less attractive, task of getting tax, spend, and regulation down and making this country more attractive to investment across the board. Free markets and modern capitalism have produced the biggest growth in opportunity, the biggest widening of horizons, for most people that we have ever seen. Things are going wrong not because we have too much free market but because we are becoming over-directed, over-regulated. The dynamism of free enterprise - which let’s not forget is individuals trying to improve themselves and do the best for themselves and their families, to build something new and to hand it on - is being lost. I think it is our job not to stifle these forces but to shape them and liberate them.
Releasing that dynamism means uncomfortable decisions for the Conservative Party too. Markets are disruptive. They reward skill, ability, and opportunity. Not everyone is comfortable with that. Plenty of people have accumulated unearned wealth over the last 20 years or have established positions of privilege through government action. House-owners have seen houses go up hugely in value, with massive unearned gains due to planning restrictions and poor monetary policy that are totally unrelated to the productive capacity of the economy. Owners of financial assets have benefited in the same way. Pensioners and many government employees have been protected at the expense of those who earn a living.
Meanwhile, many others are locked out. For them, housing is out of reach. As Michael Gove said yesterday "there aren't enough houses" - well there's only one answer to that. They can never build up savings because the government takes so much in tax. Or there are the self-employed, working hard to pay for others’ benefits while not being entitled to them themselves. Small businesses are crippled by energy costs because of green levies. And can we not forget that young people are paying the highest rates of income tax in the country to finance their student loans.
In my experience there is real suppressed anger and frustration amongst those who are just trying to get on with their lives, have families, build their future. We ignore this at our peril. Maybe they don’t realise it, but these are the people who would benefit from deregulation, from tax reduction, and from the massive shake up this country so badly needs. These are the people who will build this country well into the 21st century. They won't be Conservatives if we only seem concerned about looking after those who have already done well. The Conservative Party won't win elections as the party of the self-satisfied and the entitled. We must be the party of opportunity and the party of the future.
Solving this problem, breaking the log jam, pushing past all those who say nothing in this country can change - that is certainly the job of the state in all our interests. How do we unwind these injustices without resorting to the easy, but impossible, answer of raising taxes still further? How do we manage the trick of normalising monetary policy, bringing house prices back to normal levels, unwinding the energy policy fiasco, reforming public services, and much more, so ordinary people have a chance? It is certainly complex but it must be done. It's not good enough to say nothing can change. This is the great task for national conservatism, for Brexit Conservatism, in this country. Defining the solutions, explaining them, selling them - that is the great national project that we must work on together in the years to come.
We must also go out, persuade, and try to win the arguments. Maybe the centre of gravity in public opinion for the time being is, as some people say, right on culture and left on economics. But left on economics is bad for the country. So we shouldn’t just accept it - we need to argue to change it. We haven’t done this for years. It is difficult nowadays to imagine a PM presenting a books by Hayek to the Cabinet and saying “this is what we believe”, as Lady Thatcher did. That whole task of explanation has to be done again. If we aren’t persuading, we are accommodating; and if we are accommodating, we are losing.
We must not fall into this trap: the trap of pushing policies which seem to be politically possible but which we know won't actually solve the country's problems. It's our job to change the politics: to persuade voters that the country is on a wrong path, that the socialist and collectivist solutions currently offered won't work, and that another way forward is not only necessary, not only possible, but actually in reach.
That’s the way forward. Nationhood. Aspiration. Freedom. Prosperity. That’s post-Brexit Conservatism. Thank you.