This is the transcript of a speech delivered by Priti Patel MP. It took place at the UK edition of the Free Market Road Show 2019 hosted by 1828 and the Austrian Economics Center.
“We stand at the crossroads, each minute, each hour, each day, making choices. We choose the thoughts we allow ourselves to think, the passions we allow ourselves to feel, and the actions we allow ourselves to perform. Each choice is made in the context of whatever value system we have selected to govern our lives. In selecting that value system, we are, in a very real way, making the most important choice we will ever make.”
Those are the words of one of the founders of the United States – the distinguished Benjamin Franklin.
Freedom is a product of our value system. 30 years ago, we witnessed a watershed moment in our shared history – an epoch-making moment of what seemed to be the ultimate triumph of our values after a century of conflict.
After two world wars, a cold war and proxy wars it seemed that our western values had succeeded.
We all remember where we were when those television images were beamed into our homes – the extraordinary scenes of East Germany literally breaking down parts of the Berlin Wall with their own hands. They defied the oppressive organs of the state to reach out to a new beginning and a brighter, freer future. We witnessed the very real physical manifestation of their new freedom. We celebrated with them, cheered with them and sang with them.
30 years on, after we thought we had seen victory for freedom, those values are once again under threat, and we must now ask ourselves this question: why are our democratic, economic and political freedoms so undervalued by a generation of political leaders who have failed to fight for them?
1989 was a time of tremendous optimism about the future. The cold war ended in a flash, despite the decades of political and economic oppression.
Expectations were high for the future as the old eastern bloc was embraced by the west. Our political leaders stood like giants. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were steadfast and united in their belief in freedom as they confronted the evil empires of socialism and communism.
They confronted the very forces that crushed individual freedom and liberty. They understood what freedom meant to individuals, our democracy and society. They defended the cause of freedom and liberty,
Yet three decades later, we are not in the broad sunlight uplands which we had hoped for. Instead, we are in a troubled Europe, in a troubled world; witnessing the polarisation of our politics, the rise of extreme political movements, and the tragic decline – at home – of one of the greatest political value systems in the western world: British conservatism.
In short, we are less confident about our future than at any time in decades, because political consensus has created a generation of political office holders rather than champions of the value system that governs our lives.
But it need not be this way.
As a nation, we have weathered difficult times and emerged stronger and more prosperous. But we will not achieve that renaissance of our democracy and prosperity with uninspiring leadership and unimaginative policies – which brings me to the domestic political decline we are witnessing.
For many observers, life in the Conservative party appears simply as a debate about our relationship with the European Union. There is some truth in this, but our party is about so much more than a yes or no to Brussels.
What we see in the Conservative party is the fight for the survival of British conservatism. A contest between those who believe our purpose is to be more prescriptive and controlling, and those who believe that our party – the greatest and most successful political party in the world – should promote the cause of freedom and liberty.
Conservative values, beliefs and principles touch upon the fundamental struggle for the soul of the Tory party. A struggle between those who support a statist, more interventionist and controlling approach, the soulless managerial decline we are currently seeing, versus the dynamic, innovative and entrepreneurial policies – advanced by the likes of Margaret Thatcher under successive Conservative governments – which unleash our country’s potential.
And at the heart of this emerging debate is the simple question: how do we best govern ourselves so that we can be prosperous and free?
For me, the answer is a simple one. We should stand on the side of freedom and reject the political approach that restricts and limits our liberty.
We must never forget that our rich heritage as Conservatives and economic liberals was bequeathed to us by the greatest thinkers of freedom and markets, from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman.
Yet it is simply not enough, as we have seen from our current political masters, for them to play the rhetoric that free markets and personal choice is the best way without actually acting upon that belief.
And that is why, Jack, Matt, and the team at 1828, the work that you do is vital. 1828 champions neoliberalism. And as champions of markets and freedom, we must all have the courage of our convictions to publicly advocate the transformational impact these principles can have on our society and our freedoms.
My party has forgotten that it was Margaret Thatcher who would reach into her famous handbag to produce a copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and declare: “This is what we believe!”
We believe in the power of free markets, free enterprise and personal liberty for ushering in long-term prosperity. We believe that society is built from the bottom up and not the top down, and that such a society should ensure that people have the freedom to make key personal choices for themselves. We believe that people are the best judges of how their money should be spent for their own betterment. And it should stand as being fundamental to our beliefs that we all gain as a nation when we free people to succeed.
Which means one thing: the time has come for a new generation of political leaders to effectively take back control and deliver policies that promote the hard-fought-for freedoms we witnessed 30 years ago and make them relevant today.
That means a new generation of leadership that trusts and believes in the people and enterprises of this great nation. A new generation that champions the great liberating forces of freedom, capitalism and democracy. Fresh, forward-thinking leadership that supports the power and ingenuity of our entrepreneurs who generate the jobs and wealth upon which our prosperity depends.
Open markets deliver the increased revenues vital to our public services. Tax-heavy, centralised socialism is often superficially attractive in principle but never in practice. And the last thing this country needs is a Corbyn government and the creation of his version of Caracas upon Thames.
But it is also true, for those of us who champion freedom and capitalism with genuine conviction and understanding, that we have a responsibility to address the challenges that the market can create.
Complacency, corporate scandals, the hardships that follow a cycle of boom and bust, and those who act with pure greed destroys confidence in capitalism and fuels the protests of the left.
Our political opponents talk down our beliefs by highlighting such distrust, while failing to acknowledge that their own preferred socialist system delivers far more injustices and inequalities.
So to defend capitalism and freedom, we must resolve to make it work better.
If we can use this approach to address some of the biggest challenges our society faces today – the housing crisis and affordability, the changing nature of employment and our demographic challenges – then we will be remembered as a generation that transformed our country for the better and in doing so restored more confidence in the viability of free markets.
And this is a critical point. History teaches us that economic freedoms and political freedoms go hand in hand.
Thatcherite Conservatives like me believe in freedom and free markets, not out of ideology, but because freeing people from the control of the state delivers them and their families more wealth, jobs and opportunities.
We believe in care and compassion, not just because it makes good economic sense to look after those who can’t look after themselves, but because this is the ultimate test of our civility and our humanity.
But when it comes down to it, it is a fact that when people are free to choose, they choose freedom. We see across the world, again and again, where democracy and free markets work, people have the freedom to succeed.
The time has come for my party to rediscover our values and our self-confidence to go to the country and explain why the Conservative way is the right way and the only way.
Because the freedom to choose encourages people to pursue their dreams, enables people to start up their own businesses, as my parents did, and to provide for themselves and their communities. It fosters a culture of ambition, aspiration and opportunity.
Our political and economic freedoms should position government support for a society founded upon communities for people, families and enterprises, not a replacement of it.
And just as the end of the cold war and fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago gave political leaders a chance to hit the reset button, Brexit is our opportunity to shape and create a truly global Britain. A Britain comfortable with itself, encouraging individual freedom and enterprise, and trading with the outside world.
This is especially true regarding trade, the crown jewel in the Brexit negotiations. It is the essence of our economic freedom to choose with whom we want to trade and under what conditions. It is an unnatural position for a great trading nation with a long history of free trade to be huddled behind 10,651 EU tariffs created by Brussels out of fear of competition.
It was reported that during the negotiations the EU offered a free trade agreement similar to that negotiated with Canada. We should have grabbed it with both hands and then set about negotiating our own deals around the world – because we are British, and we have no fear of the open sea and all its risk and opportunities.
It is the combination of the nation state and a vigorous program of economic and political freedoms that will serve Britain best in the decades ahead. And just as we should reject the freedom-destroying, nanny-state control of socialism, we should reject the oppressive controls and restrictions from the EU.
But it is not enough to simply know we are right. We have to deliver, and it is a tragedy that a generation of politicians has failed to advance those freedoms.
In order to secure our political and economic freedoms for a new generation, we must look to the future, with renewed leadership that doesn’t just talk about freedom but has the authentic conviction, determination and desire to deliver the economic and political freedoms our country needs to succeed.
By promoting economic freedom for families and businesses, having an unequivocal belief in the creators of wealth, adhering to the spirit of optimism and the ability to apply Conservative values and beliefs to policies, we can become the champions of economic and political freedoms and be unapologetic about the values of free markets and free enterprise.
As we witnessed 30 years ago, a generation of political giants confronted the very forces that crushed individual freedom and liberty. The time has come again to reignite the flame of liberty, seek to lift Britain’s standing in the world, and put freedom at the forefront of government and political life.
If we choose to fight for these clear principles and beliefs, we can sweep away the complacency which has seen our country sleepwalking towards another decade of slower growth, higher taxes, and less individual freedom.
The time to act is now. Our future freedom depends on it.