On the 20th of September 1988, Margaret Thatcher addressed the College of Europe with a speech, now commonly referred to as “The Bruges Speech”, that featured the above quote. In her usual, formidable manner of oration, the Iron Lady described how her government had “rolled back the frontiers of the state”, alluding to libertarian ideals and the influence of Hayek on her economic policy. Therefore, this week, at the Conservative Party conference, as a Thatcherite, with strong support of dry and libertarian conservative values, I had very mixed feelings as I heard our Prime Minister Theresa May’s speeches – especially her closing remarks on Wednesday.
In her first address to the conference, she displayed wonderful humility, setting a fine example to us all, as she, despite having campaigned to remain in the EU, gracefully accepted the voice of the people and stated that a Great Repeal Bill would follow the invocation of Article 50, itself taking place by March of next year. The atmosphere was electric and markedly different from the rather audible groan when Michael Heseltine walked onto the stage. As the official television broadcast caught a Union Jack being waved by a Young Britons for Liberty member in the audience, there was rapturous applause and cheering; for decades we, as a nation, had struggled to regain our voice, to demand the government elected by and accountable to the people to which we are entitled. This was a victory for liberty, a realisation of notion of the Bruges speech. Maggie’s influence was present and she had won. It was thus bizarre to hear later in the Think Tent the screeches of “Invoke Article 50” by campaigners outside; the focus now needs not be on which month the said article is invoked, but instead that we get the outcome the people voted for: a departure from the single market, and a points-based immigration system that reflects global meritocracy, not the inward supremacism of 27, predominantly white states.
May’s first speech was truly exquisite – the call for equal opportunity, the demand for meritocracy, and reasonable call to patriotism. Certainly a message that will appeal to people across the political spectrum, whether they be traditional Tory voters or not. It was beautiful to hear the praise for grammar schools, the desire to proceed in ensuring social mobility, despite the hypocrisy of the left, who would send their children to grammar schools, while withholding the same chances of success from the children of the less affluent, working-class they increasingly absurdly purport to represent. Was this the influence of May’s advisor, Nick Timothy, the Birmingham lad known for his deep admiration of Joseph Chamberlain? “Radical Joe” was known for his desire to help the working class to achieve social reform, for pushing for reforms as mayor of the very city conference was taking place in. Such visionaries have always understood that, if someone has a talent, a skill, they certainly should be supported to achieve that; at the very least, it is a worthwhile investment in the advancement of the nation as a whole to ensure its talent is not frittered away, but fulfilled to its greatest potential. We should, as Thatcher dreamed, have a nation where background is not a barrier, but where even a grocer’s daughter can aspire to be head of government.
However, despite all the jubilance, there was a palpable unease during Mrs May’s speech on Wednesday. While the return of Chamberlain – or perhaps Disraeli – may have been welcomed in regards to social reform, there was certainly no red carpet for the calls for state intervention to increase, from an audience champing at the bit for a rejection of Cameron’s blasted fascination with ‘wet’ One-Nation Toryism. At the conference, there were some fascinating fringe events promoting free market economics, but, as I walked past Anna Soubry and wished I’d brought an umbrella with me, I noticed, not for the first time, the awful growth of “wet” groups like Policy Exchange, Bright Blue and Tory Reform Group. Those who are by no means opposed to socialism, but wish to in some form embrace it, to combine it with free market libertarianism as some form of watered-down Thatcherism, and therefore, are all too similar to the synthesis that was Blair’s “Third Way”. I found myself rewording that famous phrase from the Bruges Speech, redrafting it in my mind. Perhaps it needs an update. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in the EU, only to see them re-imposed at a British level, with a British centrist state exercising a new dominance from Westminster.”
This reflected the position of the modern Tory party, perhaps not that dissimilar from Macmillan’s “Middle Way”. Walking past a deluged Bright Blue event, and noticing one of their supporters was a certain Ken Clarke, I could not help but observe the noxious proximity of these groups to New Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Lady Thatcher rightly dismissed such a ‘wet’ approach as “No Nation Toryism”, rejecting the pusillanimous approach of the cowardly Ted “Red” Heath, who was flanked on the right even by Tony Blair. The Conservative Party is, naturally, keen to avoid a repeat of its wilderness years in the heyday of New Labour dominance – but the reason for such unelectability is often falsely claimed to be conservative ideology too extreme and unyielding to the centre ground, when, in reality it was simply a question of PR. Blair was slick in front the camera, while his opponents were not. Cameron’s success came not from embracing Blair’s ideology, but his image.
We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in the EU, only to see them re-imposed at a British level, with a British centrist state exercising a new dominance from Westminster
Dry conservative and libertarian ideas are not rejected by the modern voter. Ipsos MORI polls on ‘Generation Y’ (1980 to 2000) show that there is strong opposition to high levels of taxation and a large welfare state. There is always much call for young people to join the Conservative Party, despite the troubles of its youth wing in recent times. What must be remembered is that an increasing number of young voters are socially-libertarian, but most significantly, fiscally-conservative: they are resolute in their belief that, yes, government should keep a distance from economics. We have a Labour Party that demands a far larger state, while Liberal Democrats insist on greater spending, but if the Conservative Party also backs increased state intervention, what home remains for the young, free-market libertarian?
Young Britons for Liberty, my own organisation, is a fast-growing, non-partisan movement, that aims become a young free market movement like Young America’s Foundation or Turning Point USA. We welcome all dry conservatives and libertarians who share our desire for a free market economy. Just the day before, a room above a pub in Birmingham had been packed out by Young Britons for Liberty, eager to hear Daniel Hannan MEP, a right-wing libertarian and the genius behind the Brexit movement, speak on the need to struggle for liberty today. Hannan’s words were poignant as we heard our Prime Minister declare it to be “Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of us all”. We, the dry, proper conservatives, were being described as though the equivalent of Corbynista entryists to the Labour party.
Birmingham, however, was an economic powerhouse built not on state intervention, but the hard work and ingenuity of some of the finest minds in engineering. Perhaps understandably, May’s speeches appeared designed to appeal to the whole party – wet, dry, or even beyond. Clearly, the aim was to draw in people both from UKIP, with popular comments on Brexit and immigration; and New Labour, with comments on appealing to the centre. But I fear this too difficult an approach. To me, it seems impossible to unite such a broad range of so many groups behind common policies not currently in place. It must not be forgotten, that centuries of Conservatives have held but one remove from their heart the sacred belief that the role of the state is to ensure people have access to the means to help themselves, and not to patronise them through forced victimhood. Tories are supposed to be the voice, the home, of the free market – its home – we’re meant to be libertarian, following in the footsteps of Thatcher, who slammed Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty down on a table, to the declaration “This is what we believe!”
This is the kind of ideology the non-partisan Young Britons for Liberty movement was formed to promote amongst young people, and we thus felt more than a little uneasy hearing a call to improve markets by allowing the state to interfere with them. We passionately believe that reducing the scale and cost of the state is the best way to spread prosperity, as opposed to any form patrician attitude. Speaking for many, Mark Littlewood, Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “Focusing on the centre-ground might seem to be electorally sensible, but is economically undesirable. This was an alarming attack on free markets and the Prime Minister’s pledge for more state intervention in business completely disregards the evidence that competition, deregulation and a light-touch approach breeds the best results.”
While promoting social libertarianism is inevitably challenging, there is undeniable warmth for economic libertarianism. In fact, Keynesian ideas are so weak even to be rejected by their natural supporters in the Labour Party, and I thus see no reason for us to stray anywhere near them. While there is, of course, a need to accept the reality of the Overton window, it seems extremely unlikely that Tories are under any pressure to lean to the centre, with Labour posing not even a token threat. It would be a shame for the Conservative Party, after winning two elections in a row and a majority in the Commons on the latter, to then flirt with the centre-left. No, this is the time we must invoke not just article 50, but the spirit of Thatcher – and not Disraeli. It is the time when we must find the courage and determination to stand, when we must build a powerful youth movement to call for the free market principles that made our nation great. We must prove wrong Michael Portillo, when he said during the Cameron era, “After 23 years of careful thought about what [the Tories] would like to do in power, the answer is nothing.”