The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP delivers a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies: The Lost Tribe: Finding the Quiet Conservatives.
The Conservative Party has been the most successful democratic party in the Western world, and the natural party of government in the United Kingdom for well over a century. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this fact in the periods of self-doubt to which the party is prone. Perhaps it is prudent, even necessary, to have such periodic heart-searching, but it is no excuse for the sort of self-induced negativity that occasionally afflicts British conservatism.
Today, as we embark on the leadership contest that will select a new Prime Minister, we need to remember some of the fundamental benefits this Conservative Government has delivered, like record levels of employment, rising living standards, record levels of exports and foreign investment pouring into the UK.
Is it simply a case, as our Australian counterparts would say, that there are many “quiet conservatives” out there, silenced or drowned out by the shrill voices of metropolitan liberals? Or is there something more subtle afoot? Is the Conservative tribe really lost, or just misplaced?
I believe that we need to look to our history to understand our current position and navigate the road ahead.
When we set out our beliefs with confidence and express them in language that voters understand, this has tended to coincide with our periods of greatest political success. Why? Because our fundamental values are those which strike a chord with men and women from all walks of life, up and down our country.
If that is so, you may reasonably ask, why do we not win every time? I think the answer is twofold. First, voters don’t always hear us talking about the things we believe in, and secondly, they may hear us but perceive a gap between what we say and what we do.
Let me deal with the first of these today: in what do we believe?
I want to set out what makes me a Conservative. Why I came from a very ordinary background to having a political career, serving in public life for over 25 years.
Many of the reasons will sound self-evident, but behind them lies a clear world view which leads to a very different destination, a very different Britain, and a very different world to its socialist alternative.
My message to all our fellow citizens, voters and non-voters, old and young alike is this: if you believe these things, then you are a conservative too, whether you realise it or not, whether you vote for us or not, and whether you are a member of our party or not.
Defence and Security
Let me begin with the basics.
The first duty of any government is to protect the lives, the safety and the property of its citizens. Without the proper resources for our defence, our intelligence services and our police, we are failing in our primary duty. Most politicians will recite the mantra, but too often corners are cut.
One of the most basic functions of taxation, and the one most readily accepted, is that defence and security are better and more efficiently conducted at the collective rather than the individual level. All too often, however, when there is a public and media clamour for higher spending in one area or another, it is easy to divert funding away from the less visible defence budget.
But while it protects our safety and security, the government has another function to perform. In protecting and safeguarding the security of the nation, it also must protect and safeguard the rights and freedom of each citizen. That’s why access to justice and, above all, an independent judiciary are so vital to that most delicate yet fundamental balance: liberty with security.
Of course, defending the United Kingdom is more than about hard and soft power. Underpinning the political values I am speaking about tonight is our unwavering commitment to the union of our nations that is the United Kingdom itself. We must recognise that we have become much more than a political construct – a family of nations in every sense, stronger together, and rejecting the destructive forces of nationalism.
It’s imperative to me that we live in a society where economic and political power are vested in individuals on the basis of their talents, their efforts and their achievements. It is both a mindset and a practical approach to governing. It requires us to understand that it’s not just about trying to get to the top for the most able. We also need to understand that getting from the bottom rung of the ladder to the second bottom rung of the ladder is as important as getting from the second top rung to the top. For me, meritocracy is king. It is what defines conservatism against the social planning and manipulation of the socialist alternative.
But having noble aspirations is not enough – we must provide the means by which they can be achieved. It means providing the most important tool of all to everyone, if we are to release the individual talents upon which we collectively depend. That is education.
Education is the key to meritocracy. Without proper access to quality education, there will be no real ability to grasp opportunity: whether as an individual, or at a national or international level.
I was fortunate in that, although I did not grow up in a wealthy household, I grew up in a home where education was valued, both for its own sake and for the opportunities it can bring. My father was a teacher, and in the first generation of his family to go to university – so my parents saw education as the key to a better future. We were encouraged to read and question and have opinions – though I’m not sure they were all the ones they expected!
I was fortunate enough to grow up in Scotland at a time when it was famed for enjoying excellence in the state education system. I went to one of the largest comprehensive schools in Europe and then on to study medicine at University.
In those days it would have been largely unthinkable that someone from my background would go on to become a doctor, Chairman of the Conservative Party or a senior cabinet minister. But it was both the quality of the education that I received and the encouragement of my parents and teachers that made these things possible.
If education is to be optimised in our society, there must be a partnership between teachers and parents. Raising our young people should not solely be the responsibility of the state. But nor should parents be unsupported in providing encouragement, guidance and instilling good values in their children.
A Conservative economy
Next, we have to communicate the ideas that underpin Conservative economic values, never taking for granted that lessons from one generation are necessarily understood by the next.
One of the great talents of Margaret Thatcher, particularly in opposition and the early years of her government, was to express complex economic arguments in language that voters found easy to understand. I remember how she was mocked for what was condescendingly seen by an overwhelmingly male establishment as ‘housewife economics’.
Ideas around sound money and the need for nations, like households, to live within their means resonated at a time when Britain was riddled with inflation and debt – and these fundamental truths remain the same today.
We need to make these arguments again and again, especially to younger voters, taking into account the changing economic circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Arguments based on the need for sound money are more difficult to make in an era where inflation is low and money has tended to retain its value.
It is always worth making the case, however, that inflation is not only an ever-present economic danger, but a threat to social stability. I would go as far as to say there is a moral case to make against inflation, as it transfers resources from savers to borrowers, and discourages personal responsibility – something of even greater importance in an ageing population, where there are finite state resources.
For many of us, the economic belief that has shaped our policy pronouncements since the 1980s is the unavoidable truth that there is no such thing as public money – only taxpayers’ money. Yet, at the 2017 election it was disconcerting to find how many young voters, in particular, were seduced by Labour’s promises of increased spending across the board.
It is particularly important to point out to them, even more than the rest of the population, that reckless spending by government today will be paid for in taxes from the wage packets of the future.
Far from being the champion of young voters, a high spending left-wing government would be a toxic curse, leaving them with increased tax bills for the whole of their working lives. It would mean that they, and their families, would be saddled with the cost of Labour’s failure, unable to benefit fully from their own efforts and talents.
Indeed, no individual, no household and no country can or should continually live beyond their means.
Of course, there are times when we may find that short-term debt may be unavoidable, even sensible on occasions – but a society based on debt rather than savings leaves itself much more open to external shocks beyond its own control, with all the potential consequences in terms of lost prosperity and diminished security.
These basic truths need to be allied with other sound Conservative principles that underpin economic analysis. We need to re-emphasise that markets work because they are the combined wisdom of millions of people rather than the applied opinions of the self-appointed political elite. Yet, it is equally important to point out that markets do not work if you reward failure the same way as success.
For instance, many of us would criticise the pay and bonus culture in the banking sector in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008, where excessive sums were paid to those who oversaw failing financial institutions and who left the price to be paid by the rest of us.
If we accept that properly regulated markets are an inherently good thing, then competition is the essential component of their health. Competition allows us to measure our talents one against the other within the law and without conflict. Competition leads to greater diversity and more choice, which in turn produces the innovation that is the gateway to furthering human capability.
The anti-competitive essence of socialism, from the school playing fields where winning is discouraged, to the penal tax rates that punish success and send investors abroad, is one of its most destructive manifestations.
We should reinforce that profit is a good thing, but not at any price. Company profits are a route to more jobs and ultimately more taxes being paid, directly and indirectly, to support the provision of public services such as healthcare, education and defence. Punishing successful businesses is a sure route to turning off the spending tap to the services most valued in our country.
So, becoming the repository of the British people’s aspiration is key to our electoral success. Every white van man – and woman – should see us as their champion. Every corner shop owner who stays open late to provide extra consumer service should gravitate towards us. Every small business owner who sacrifices family holidays and household luxuries to survive, succeed and grow should see us as their natural home.
Free and fair trade
Over the past three years, I have spent a great deal of time talking about the benefits of free trade. Open, free and fair trade, rooted in a sound and relevant international rules-based trading system has repeatedly shown itself to be of huge benefit to both individuals and states; producers and consumers; and in both developed & developing countries alike.
Indeed, as the world’s emerging and developing economies have liberalised trade practices, prosperity has spread, bringing industry, jobs and wealth where once there was only deprivation.
According to the World Bank, the three decades between 1981 and 2011 witnessed the single greatest decrease in material deprivation in human history.
A billion people taken out of abject poverty in one generation. That is why it is morally unthinkable to reject free and open trade.
Those who genuinely want to liberate the world from the scourge of poverty should support free and fair trade, yet sadly the political left seem intent on pursuing an agenda which sees trade as a vice rather than a virtue.
It’s not just in markets overseas where benefits are felt but here at home too. Although it might not always be noticed, the wider benefits of a liberal trade policy are shared by consumers and households all across this country.
It is not only vital in ensuring that supplies of raw materials and everyday essentials like food and clothing are available; it also increases the quality of those products, gives consumers a wider choice, and helps to drive down prices.
It provides supermarkets with the ability to sell us a full range of foods all year round. It enables retailers to sell increasingly advanced technology at ever lower prices – from TVs to computers to mobile phones. These are the tangible benefits of trade, and their importance in improving the lives of all the people of Britain, whatever their incomes, should not be underestimated.
As with many freedoms, free and open trade can seem like an inherent fact of life. But the reality is – these freedoms and the benefits that they bestow have been hard-won. They must be continually defended from the siren-call of protectionism, which would tip the global balance in favour of the rich against the poor, the strong against the weak.
Conservatives do not believe that trade is an end in itself, but a means to an end. Free trade is a way in which we can ensure the greater spreading of prosperity. That matters because, as I often say, prosperity underpins social cohesion, social cohesion underpins political stability and political stability is the building block of our collective security.
In other words, there is a continuum between prosperity and security that cannot be broken without unwanted consequences – be that greater migration across borders or creating the conditions that allow political radicalisation to take hold.
A Conservative society
Finally, let’s take a look at what type of society we are trying to build. Many of the themes that are the foundation of conservative social policy readily strike a chord with the British people.
Let’s start with immigration. Few subjects in our political discourse are subject to such irrationality and sometimes frank hysteria. Politicians too often back away from a subject that matters hugely to voters.
Immigration can bring many benefits to society and Britain has a proud history of tolerance, integration and cultural assimilation.
On the issue of culture, you may have read recently that chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.
But, more seriously, immigration can only work if those coming into a country want to integrate with its resident population and culture – and where the host population of the country is willing to allow that integration to happen. When immigration gets out of control, both of these are more difficult to achieve.
We also need to understand that, while diversity is enriching for a society, it is also necessary to celebrate and emphasise commonality – the things that unite us. Failure to do so can result not in diversity but fragmentation. Essentially, different is good for a society but separate is bad.
If we are looking to get a steer on the direction of immigration policy then we need only listen to the attitudes regularly expressed by British voters. They say that those who come to Britain and have a job, pay their taxes and obey the law are welcome. What is less welcome, they say, is where there are those who come to this country and utilise public services, such as housing and health, without having made any contributions to the services themselves.
In welfare, our basic approach also resonates with natural conservatives. I believe we have an absolute duty to help those who cannot help themselves – and that this is the basis for a decent and caring society. But where there are people with huge talents that for whatever reason are not using them, it is important, not just economically, but for reasons of self-esteem and self-worth, that we provide all the necessary incentives and opportunities for those who can support themselves through work to do so.
If the value that any individual has is only determined by how much the state will give them for inactivity, how can they ever truly understand their worth to themselves, their families and their communities? The dependent state, so often the result of socialist governments, destroys incentive, deprives society of talent, and saddles taxpayers with heavy financial burdens.
And there is another fallacy of the left that we must tackle. We must understand that poverty is not simply an economic or a financial issue. It is not just about the inability to afford material goods. The poverty of values, the poverty of aspiration and the poverty of opportunity will debilitate both individuals and society, undermining personal responsibility and sapping that crucial sense of self-worth.
That’s why dignity is the partner of responsibility. With dignity comes socially-responsible behaviour. Without the self-respect it engenders, we will never be able to unlock the opportunity that lies within our society.
Finally, perhaps the greatest difference between conservatives and our socialist opponents is that while we Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, for all the reasons I have set out, the socialist believes in equality of outcome. While we believe in liberation conservatism, setting free and supporting the talents of individuals to reach their greatest potential, the socialist believes in social engineering to achieve a preconceived outcome that suits their political model.
In conclusion, we Conservatives treat people as they are, not as we would like them to be.
We understand the motivations and the dreams of our fellow citizens – enhancing their freedom, but yes, requiring responsibility; maximising choice and therefore competition; and appealing to a belief in the possibility of one’s own success. These aren’t merely the ideals of a political ideology, but the fundamentals of human instinct.
It is our duty to make this case once again, to inspire a new generation to reject the fundamentalism of socialism, and restore faith in the philosophy of opportunity. Let us speak for those quiet Conservatives – for they are all around us – and ensure that our place in the next chapter of our nation’s history is sealed. Not for our own benefit, but for the prosperity, security and opportunity that the people of our United Kingdom deserve to have.