George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, and is MP for Mid-Norfolk.
We are living through one of those periods in history when everything in politics changes. Both capitalism and conservatism are suffering a deep crisis of unpopularity. A new generation of aspirational professional voters under 45 are rejecting both the conservatism and the capitalism that we appear to stand for. Why?
The legacy of the crash, trillion dollar bank bailout and QE printing of public money, massive public debt and deficits, a low wage recovery and intergenerational inequity is deepening disillusionment with a capitalism that doesn’t seem to be working for many people who used to vote Conservative.
Unless Brexit is a moment of profound national renewal – as it was sold as being: £350 million extra a week for the NHS and a renaissance of accountability and opportunity – the anger will deepen.
At present, the Conservative Party in government is in danger of making Conservatives look like tin-eared technocratic administrators of a bungled Brexit and a broken model of crony capitalism that puts monopolies, entrenched interests, and big business ahead of “the little guy”. A bungled Brexit and continued austerity is a lethal mix which would see us cast out of office for a generation, and gift the keys of Number 11 to an unreconstructed Marxist. With Jeremy Corbyn next door.
Can we turn the tide? Can we recast Brexit as the moment of renewal that its 52 per cent majority voted for? Without undermining the economy or alienating the other 48 per cent?
I believe that we can.
But only if we wake up and smell the coffee. We can’t go on as we are. We need to change. Now.
By doing two things:
- Delivering a sensible Brexit that doesn’t undermine our economy.
- And becoming the champions of a more disruptive, empowering capitalism and conservatism.
If the Prime Minister can’t negotiate a decent Brexit deal, I believe we have to have a Plan B. That’s why I and the Brexit Delivery Group and Nick Boles and about a hundred Conservative MPs are preparing a Better Brexit Plan.
But we also need to reboot popular capitalism.
That means we must be the party of disruption, not the status quo. Back new entrants into markets, not prop up monopolies. Take the side of accountability, not bureaucracy. Champion the self-employed, start-ups and SMEs. Conservatives should always support the authentic, local, creative and human – not the technocratic, remote, bureaucratic state.
The good news is that technology and the spirit of a new generation is with us. All social surveys show that the millennials aren’t socialists. They are more entrepreneurial, liberal and suspicious of the state than their parents’ generation. They’re disillusioned aspirant capitalists – frustrated that they can’t afford a house or build up any asset base. We need to harness their impatience and the empowering technology that they live by. We need to show that Brexit is a moment of profound change in which we take back control of the over-centralised, top-down model of government, and unleash a “capitalism for the little guy” – a conservative capitalism that harnesses the market to work for people, not the other way around.
The pace of technological innovation makes this possible. Just as Thatcherism embraced the spirit of 1980s enterprise to liberate huge swathes of our economy from the failures of nationalisation, so we now have an opportunity to harness the technology and innovation reshaping our society – so that it does for government what’s it’s done already doing for our day-to-day lives and our economy.
This is possible across the board: in health, the old model of top-down NHS healthcare (“the doctor will see you now”) is being swept aside by a revolution in digital and genomic health which puts the patient in charge. (“The patient will see you now”). Fin-tech and gov-tech could transform the way government works. Agri-tech is opening up a new dawn of low input farming. Crowdfunding and digital mutual finance models such as Kiva could transform how we fund public projects. And big data means we can now measure and fund from government what works rather than what fails.
This “smart state” revolution means we can harness technology and innovation to re-empower the people. So that they don’t have to work for the government. So. It. Works. For. Them.
This demands not just a policy change, but a big change in the way we do politics. Harnessing this new spirit of creative, disruptive conservatism also means creating new ways for a new generation to discover the spirit of conservatism – the flame that should burn in all of us.
It means inviting people of all orientations and none to come and discuss the issues that matter to them. Not just expecting them to pay £1000 to come to a corporate party conference, or endless 1970s-style cheese and wine evenings. Old-fashioned machine politics – taking voters for granted as lifelong Blue or Red, or as pro or anti-Brexit – and expecting them to vote for us to retain the status quo will fail.
We need to be the change we believe in.
This is why I set up the Big Tent Ideas Festival. The event is all about having the confidence to question old shibboleths, and the generosity to reach out and build a new coalition for a new conservatism and capitalism.
This year’s event is being held next weekend on Saturday September 8th. We have an extraordinary array of 150 speakers, participating in 50 45-minute sessions in our eight tents. Throughout the day, you’ll hear from such people as Liam Halligan, Robert Peston, Dan Hannan, Mark Littlewood, Steve Baker, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat, Bim Afolami, and Penny Mordaunt. In conversation and debate with leading thinkers on the centre-left. Yes: real debate. Real people. Real politics.
We’ll be debating on our panels how we build a smart state, and will wrestle with topics that neither the party conferences nor other political festivals address. Are millennials really inevitably socialists now? Is this really the end of liberalism? And popular capitalism? Should we legalise and license cannabis? Embrace flat tax? Make the homeless young or the home-owning elderly pay for childcare? Build on the Green Belt or not? How should we reform British aid? What should Britain’s foreign policy now be?
The festival will be held in the beautiful grounds of Babraham Hall Research Campus in Cambridge – the fastest-growing research park in the UK, and home to some of the stunning innovations that are transforming our society. Come and hear about them in our Technology Tent.
There will be great festival food and drink, plus an array of fun stalls and activities: our very own Speakers’ Corner; an oratory pod; a public speaking workshop, and a street art wall to try your hand at political cartoons and caricatures – or you can join our artist-in-residence working on a stunning mural. In the evening, we will have a set from the singer-songwriter duo, Outline. It’s a festival of politics you can bring friends and family to without fear.
At The Big Tent, all will be free to debate the most difficult topics of our times, and to make their voices heard. Loud and clear. People of all political persuasions and none.
So why not come and join the thousand of us already gathering next Saturday? Plus, for the next week, we’re offering 100 ConservativeHome readers a special offer of discounted tickets (£5 for students, £15 general). We promise you a stunning day.
And you may even help to save capitalism and conservatism.