For those of you old enough to remember, “where’s the beef“ was the TV ad used by Democratic candidate Walter Mondale to taunt and ultimately beat his rival Gary Hart and gain his party’s nomination. Mondale subsequently lost to Ronald Reagan in a clash of ideologies that not only had plenty of red meat, but whose outcome fundamentally changed the direction of the United States and beyond.
Politics today is positively vegan by comparison. No wonder voters have lost their appetite for it. Too tactical, too process driven and too focused on the latest trends we, have concentrated too much on the “how” of politics and forgotten to talk about the “why”.
The Conservative Party has just announced a total membership of around 130,000 — a reduction from its heyday under Churchill of 2.9 million — and membership has halved since 2005. The Labour and Liberal Democrats parties have faced a similar decline. Traditional party politics once united and engaged us in our millions.
Today 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 a new era of globalisation, 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 recent successes of centre-right parties in Norway, Australia and Germany should give us added confidence that this is our chance to make this the era of liberation conservatism; that is a Conservative agenda that sets people free.
Why freedom? Why liberty? Let’s remind ourselves why they really matter.
The great prize of liberty is that it allows individual 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. Like many of you here 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 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 than that I, or William Hague or others, went to a local comprehensive. Conservatives who dwell on this are falling into their own trap of stereotypes. 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 is equal access to mediocrity.
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the system should accommodate the individual.
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 – 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 that they have learned none of this. Ed Miliband makes Michael Foot look positively modern.
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 the last Labour government is not only unfair to those who work hard for a living, but also economically disastrous. By locking whole sectors of society in a state of dependency, we 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 had a reason 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 all.
But social mobility has ground to a halt in recent years. Today, Britain is one of the least socially mobile OECD countries. What Lady Thatcher started has since been stifled. This was an engine for change, unlocking aptitude and unleashing the power of competitive spirit, but the spend and depend culture of the last Labour government pushed it off course and so we must recommit ourselves to an empowering vision for all our citizens, including those of future generations. People with drive and motivation must be allowed to succeed, for the good of themselves, for the good of society, and for the good of the nation. It is wrong for the state to prevent this.
The National Institute for Economic and Social Research estimated that as a result of this debt, children growing up today will have to pay £200,000 in taxes over their lifetime just for the same public services we have already had. By 2015, more of our budget will be spent paying just the interest on our debt than on educating these children. Indeed, by 2015, our sovereign debt may even outweigh Gordon Brown as our greatest national embarrassment.
But in this new era we must also think well beyond our own borders.
It is important to remember that the freedom and liberty we now all too often take for granted in liberal pluralistic democracies have survived assaults across the ages by autocracy, absolute monarchy, socialism, dictatorship, fascism and theocracy. The challenge for our concept of liberation Conservatism now 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 philosophical 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.
Let me give just one example of how our belief in, and willingness to fight for, liberty can have a profound effect on global events and how weakness can result in adverse consequences.
I still feel angry about what I see as the West’s abandonment of the democracy movement in 2009 in Iran, not only because we failed to give support to those who needed it but because we failed to reinforce the universal nature of the values we hold and missed a historic opportunity to show that our quarrel is not with the people of Iran but with the leadership of the regime. It stands in stark contrast to the leadership we showed in the years of the Cold War, particularly in
the latter years, against the forces of communist oppression. When the Solidarity labour union was founded in 1980, with its membership eventually swelling to almost one third of the working Polish population, highly vocal political support and encouragement echoed from Ronald Reagan’s White House, Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street and the Vatican of Pope John Paul II. This moral support, played out on the world stage, was instrumental in enabling Lech Walesa and his supporters to stand firm against the government of General Jaruzelski even during the years of martial law and political repression.
The United States even provided covert financial support for Solidarity, estimated at as much as $50 million. Thus, Western policy was able to combine internal dissent against the regime with the external pressure being applied by military and economic means to the Soviet bloc.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the Cold War did not end; it was won, with the result that millions of people today enjoy liberty and democracy who would otherwise be denied them. If the victory of Solidarity represented the moral high point of Western democratic society, then the abandonment of the pro-democracy movement in Iran in 2009 represents one of its lows. So much depends upon our willingness to believe that our values have intrinsic value where ever they are applied in the world.
In my book, Rising Tides, I described a conversation that I had in Paris but it could have been any European capital.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. Has the concept of moral equivalence become so prevalent that it has diminished our belief in what has made us who we are? 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.
There is so much to do if we are really to bring the empowerment of liberty to many of those who thirst for freedom around the world today.
As I finished writing my book I came to believe that two of the most important factors that would determine the social and economic outcome for any country where the willingness to tolerate different religious views and the willingness to accept women as fully equal citizens with the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts. It should be at the heart of a wider empowering agenda. It is a challenge that is particularly acute in, though not exclusive to, many Islamic states. It amazes me that we have not seen more concern from the political left for the plight of women under the rule of the Taliban, for example.
Yet the outcry against such sentiments has been muted. Why?
According to Condoleezza Rice, ‘If you educate women, then they won’t have twelve children and have the first at thirteen,’ but she added, ‘The left’s first hobby horse is anti-Americanism, rather than women’s rights.’
There are however hopeful signs that this issue might be addressed. Gita Sahgal, a great-niece of the Indian leader Nehru and a lifelong human rights activist, particularly on issues relating to women’s rights and religious extremism, used to head the gender unit at Amnesty International. She was sacked three years ago after making known her concern that the organization was embracing some deeply unpleasant elements within the Islamist movement and, in particular, had become close to Moazzam Begg, Britain’s most high-profile Guantánamo Bay detainee. In 2011 she controversially and courageously set up the Centre for Secular Space in order to counterbalance this harmful and distasteful tendency.
The Spectator magazine, which to its great credit has helped promote her cause, believes that it is unfashionable because it exposes collusion between the Anglo-American left and the Islamist right. I fully agree, and it is time we put an end to this disgraceful and twisted form of political correctness and replaced it with a debate founded on sound intellectual principles. The Spectator’s Nick Cohen has said that the failure of the liberal establishment and the left in Britain to combat reactionary religion, or even call it by its real name is stunning.
He said that “I can say from experience that if I talk about the ‘American Christian right’ or the ‘Israeli right’ no one will blink .. . When I use equally precise language to talk about the ‘Muslim right’, one of the great forces of reaction in the world today, my comrades either go blank, because I am using language they cannot understand, or accuse me of ‘racism’, lack of ‘empathy’, inappropriate ‘language’ or some other gross offense against modern etiquette.”
I find it very encouraging to hear journalists talk in such a frank way.
I believe there is a fundamental difference between tolerance and political and cultural surrender and the real loser is our ability to promote genuine freedom and empowerment. If we do not learn the difference and redouble our efforts to promote our values wherever and whenever they are challenged, then we will not only fail the oppressed, who expect and require our help, but we will betray our own values and traditions. Such a betrayal will put us on a path leading away from those concepts of rights, liberty and the rule of law which have made us champions of freedom at home and abroad.
For too long we have allowed issues such as the global rights of women to be “owned” by the political left yet the arguments for the political and economic empowerment, and thus the transformational liberation of women, belong firmly in the Conservative tradition.
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, the economic freedom within a free market framework and to a religiously tolerant society have shaped not only this country but many around the globe. As globalisation makes our world a smaller place, what we conservatives should bring to the table is an agenda of freedom, liberation and law. 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, 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”.