Simon Richards is Chief Executive of The Freedom Association.
At this week’s Conservative Party Conference I was reminded of the final line in Brief Encounter: ‘You’ve been a long way away; thank you for coming back to me’. Over the past ten years I felt that the party had left me; now it is back in the hands of a leader who, as Paul Goodman has observed, is ‘One Of Us’.
There was so much to applaud in Theresa May’s first leader’s speech; the emphasis on fairness, equality of opportunity, meritocracy and patriotism – all were music to my ears. So why, despite all that, did alarm bells start to drown out the harmony as the speech progressed?
As you may have guessed, it was the phrase, “Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right” that made me feel that, although the party had come home to me, the newly installed furniture was distinctly uncomfortable. Here in Brum, had we escaped one supporter of failing Aston Villa, David Cameron, only to fall into the clutches of another, Nick Timothy?
Much has been written about our new Prime Minister’s impressive Birmingham-born adviser and his admiration for Joseph Chamberlain, but that dazzling golden statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch across the road from the ICC should serve as a reminder that Birmingham’s growth and prosperity were founded on the genius of individual inventors and engineers. Did those three brilliant entrepreneurs need someone from the Government to identify the sectors of the economy in which they should be working? Of course not. I suspect that they would have shared Ronald Reagan’s view that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.”
That scepticism about the benevolence of the state is not an invention of Ronald Reagan’s; it is profoundly conservative and a common thread throughout the history of the Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher. Being a Eurosceptic of long standing, you would expect me to be sceptical not just about the European Union but about the dangers of an over-sized and over-mighty state – and you would be correct. There is no doubt in my mind that May has nothing but good intentions in extending the Government’s tentacles. She undoubtedly has the best interests not only of the country, but all of its inhabitants at heart – but will a future Labour Prime Minister be as public-spirited? There can be no guarantee of that. That is why we should cherish that suspicion of politicians which all of the Anglosphere countries have shared since Magna Carta and beyond. That is why Australia holds elections every three years; that is why the United States has a constitution which limits the power of the executive.
We all know that some business people behave disgracefully – as, sadly, is the case in all walks of life – but where is the sense in imagining that those wielding the immense, overbearing power of the state can, uniquely, always be guaranteed to work selflessly in the interests of the public? The Prime Minister’s diagnosis rings true, but her prescription of more government does not. Had these calls for more government power been made in, say, 1816, I grant that a strong case could have been made for more rights for workers and higher taxation to pay for a more interventionist state. Today we already have extensive protection for workers – rightly so – but do we need yet more? Today we have a state that spends around 50 per cent of GDP; there is such a thing as a law of diminishing returns.
The Labour Party demands a bigger state, the Liberal Democrats want more state spending, and now we have a Conservative Party leader demanding more state interference and an industrial strategy. There’s not much choice for the voter there – perhaps we need a Monopolies Commission investigation into our political parties.
Like May, I applaud those successful businessmen and businesswomen who share the wealth they create for the public good. One such was the late Sir Antony Fisher, a pioneer in chicken-farming. He put his money to good use, setting up the Institute of Economic Affairs, which does such valuable work reminding us of the enormous benefits that the market economy has brought to Britain and the world. The Prime Minister is quite wrong to suggest that there is any equivalence between those who advocate market solutions and those who espouse socialism.
With Corbyn’s Labour enfeebled, those Conservative Party members, voters and taxpayers who, like me, believe that reducing the scale and cost of the state is the best way to spread prosperity, have a duty to speak out in defence of our more sceptical view of government. May has earned our support for her approach to Brexit. She is right to identify it as an historic opportunity for the United Kingdom. But it will be an opportunity squandered if we replace the dead hand of EU interventionism with our own, home-grown Government inspectors controlling every aspect of our lives.
She may have mentioned the word only once in her speech, but, in that famous interview in the Windsor, Ascot & Maidenhead Magazine, when asked “for what cause would you die?” Theresa May answered: “Freedom.” That freedom – from government interference as well as from our enemies – is something that all loyal Conservatives should be equally willing to stand up for.