Liam Fox is the MP for North Somerset and a former Defence Secretary.
Last week I spoke in Washington DC on the topic of “the weakness of the West”. I was mainly focusing on the long-term costs of living beyond our means and the strategic implications that it might have, but I was also talking about what I believe to be a values crisis in the West, and how we need to deal with it. Let me begin by giving you an example that I gave them.
In my book, “Rising Tides”, I wrote the following:
“I vividly remember a conversation I had in the Elysée Palace with a senior member of President Sarkozy’s government. 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 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, 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.”
Let me be blunt. I believe that the moral relativism which emerged post-war has morphed into something much worse – what we may call intellectual relativism. It is a state of affairs where people seem to believe that the validity of their views is determined by the strength by which they hold them, not by any reference to empiricism. It is verging on an anti-Enlightenment culture.
It is a trend which is exacerbated by the culture of political correctness. In true Orwellian doublespeak fashion, this is the imposition of a particular set of, usually left-leaning, social and cultural mores. We must not let the good manners and respect for others’ differences, on which civilised behaviour depends, to be confused with the restrictive language and thought control which the PC culture promotes. While we were winning the economic debates in the 1980s and 90s, the left were winning the social debates and too much of their flawed intellectual agenda litters our political discourse today.
It was while I was writing this American speech that I reflected on a conversation I had with Paul Goodman about how it was once much easier to differentiate between the different respective creeds of conservatism and socialism. Not only is there a values crisis in the West in general, but Conservatives seem to have been affected by the contagion. It is time, therefore, that we went back to our core beliefs and expressed them in a way that is relevant to today’s society – clearly and explicitly.
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 before have dreamt 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 and millions of people who had never cast their ballot for the Conservative party before took us to four consecutive majority Conservative governments.
In that time millions of citizens were set free to participate in a property and share owning democracy with the sale of council houses and the privatisation of monolithic state-owned industries.
Yet what was set to be a new freedom from the sterile, self-serving Labour fiefdoms was never fully accomplished. In too many parts of the country, especially in big cities, where the Socialists have remained in an almost unassailable political position, the poorest in society have remained poor. All this while their socialist masters tell them that the darkness of the dependency culture in which they are enmeshed is a blessing in disguise because they will never have to know whether they are blind or sighted. They will never need to know their real talents or nurture or develop them because the state will provide for them in return for their electoral support for those who enslave them.
We must confront this political pact with the devil and proudly, and emphatically, set out another way.
In Britain where social mobility has diminished rather than increased in recent decades we need to recommit ourselves to an empowering vision for all our citizens. What I have called “Liberation conservatism” must be blind to colour, social background and religion. It should not matter what your parents did, where you went to school, which part of this nation you come from, what regional accent you have or have not or how you choose to worship your God. 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 want not just a different sort of society, but a better sort of society.
Perhaps the greatest difference that exists between conservatives and Socialists is that Socialists seek equality of outcome, while Conservative seek equality of opportunity. It is because of this basic difference that socialists continually try the social and economic engineering which has always been doomed to failure. In their attempts to ensure that there are never any losers, they end up handicapping those who would be the winners, not only for themselves but for the whole society. Unlike them, we believe that competition is a good thing in itself. It is the means by which we weigh our talents, one against the other, in a civilised society.
Competition produces diversity, excellence and innovation. That is why it is championed by conservatism. The equality of outcome, on the other hand, which Socialists tried to achieve, results merely in equal access to mediocrity with a disincentive to innovate. It is this failure to support the innovators and risk-takers, which lies behind the serial failure of socialist governments to successfully manage their economies. Anyone can achieve growth by spending and borrowing other people’s money – or at least the illusion of growth. But real prosperity can only be supported by genuine wealth creation, and that requires taking an individual’s unique intellectual property and turning it into a good or a service that they can sell to someone else.
We must be the champions of the risk-takers, because they are ultimately the providers of the wealth that we will require to provide our security, pensions and public services. We must champion the concept that markets, the combined wisdom of millions of individual decisions, are likely to make better judgements than a few self appointed experts, whether elected or not. Socialists will never welcome the concept of markets because they believe they know better than everyone else how we should run our lives.
And while we’re at it, is worth pointing out some other stark differences we have with the socialist alternative. Unlike them, Conservatives believe that the state should only do what the state needs to do and leave people free to make their own choices. We do not believe, unlike the Socialists, that society is simply a coalition of minorities, but rather that it is a wonderful array of individuals, all with their own unique talents, and needs.
We believe that it is our moral duty to look after those who cannot look after themselves but not our duty to look after those who have the God-given talents but refuse to do so. This is not simply because it is a waste of society’s wider potential, but also because it is disempowering and dehumanising for individuals themselves. If the only value that some people ever know they have is what the state hands out, how can they measure the contribution that they can make to their families, their communities or their country.
We must not be afraid to stand up in important debates such as that of immigration and point out the tragedy of socialist management and belief.
The political left are so obsessed with the unique celebration of diversity – and diversity is no bad thing in itself – that they have forgotten to also celebrate commonality. And let me tell you, when you only celebrate diversity and not commonality, the result is fragmentation and ghettoisation – not the liberation of a whole host of individual talents with a common aim but a tearing of the fabric of society, creating the conditions for mistrust and hostility.
We need to be much clearer about what we mean by tolerance. To tolerate is to treat with indulgence, liberality and forbearance. But tolerance is not the same as surrender. Because we tolerate the views and ideas of others does not mean acquiescence to them or the glib acceptance of the creed of inevitable moral equivalence.
We are all, in some aspects of our lives, majorities and in other aspects minorities, be it in gender, race, religion or politics. While majorities in a civilised society need to tolerate the views of minorities, at least those expressed within the boundaries of the law, minorities also need to tolerate the rights of the majority to disagree with them, and even disapprove of them, again within the boundaries of the law.
If the concept of tolerance ever comes to be defined as the requirement for the majority to ditch or apologise for its value set simply because it is disliked by some minority or another, then we would have reached the tyranny of the minority and the scene would be set for real social discord. Conservatives must be clear and strong in defence of the real tolerance that is an indispensable part of a balanced, pluralistic society.
I often begin speeches by warning audiences that I regard myself as an unreconstructed free market, Thatcherite, Unionist, Atlanticist, Eurosceptic. On top of all of these I would put “meritocratic”. It is only by unleashing the talents inside every one of our fellow citizens, protected from an overbearing state that we can create genuine liberty and prosperity.
The great prize of liberty is that it provides the freedom for every 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 in a world which is increasingly subject to rigourous competition in almost every aspect of life.
The values, freedoms, prosperity that we in the West take for granted, did not come about by accident. They came about because of the conscious choices made by those who came before us. We must make our own choices today and those choices will have their own consequences for the future. It is true as much here in Britain as anywhere else. We are a great party and have shaped British politics and the world to the strength of our beliefs and our faith in our people.
Conservatism is not simply a different coloured box on the political shelf, but a historical lesson in the pragmatic application of political beliefs. It must never be a vehicle for personal ambition, but the reflection of a deeply held philosophy. It is not a dusty relic of the past, but a route map to the future if Conservatives have the courage once again to be its champions.
This speech was given by Dr Fox to ConservativeHome at the Conservative Party Conference earlier today.