Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Fox: Pursuing a Freedom Agenda – A Conservative Blueprint

Speech to the Foreign Press Association

Introduction

"It was the rainy season, and we fled for hours to reach the hiding place in the jungle, because the SPDC and KNLA were fighting. When we got there we were so tired, but too scared to light the fire for cooking or to warm ourselves, so we went to sleep without food, under the trees. We didn't care, and weren't scared of leaches any more. If our baby cried, we put a piece of cloth in his mouth to stop him crying"

This is the testimony of a woman of the Karen people of Burma who was driven from her home by the Burmese army as part of their campaign to displace the entire Karen population who live in the hill country against the Thai border.

The experiences of the Karen people are not unique in Burma. The Shan people experience similar persecution. Nor is such persecution uncommon across the world as a whole. This sort of description, with only marginal differences, could have come from Darfur today, the Balkans in the 1990s, Nicaragua in the 1980s or Cambodia in the 1970s - the list is endless.

Yet I raise this example for a reason. Burma is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most well-known political prisoners in the world, and her dignity makes her the most respected. Yet Burma will also be assuming the chairmanship of regional economic development body ASEAN next year. The second of ASEAN's official objectives are to 'promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law'. Burma has no respect for either. Yet ASEAN has global respectability as an international organisation whose member states including many of the region's economic giants - and democratic nations such as Thailand.

The international community always seems able to overlook human rights abuses, be it ASEAN with regards to Burma or the southern African states with regard to Zimbabwe. It is to be hugely welcomed that the plight of Africa has risen up the political agenda - at least if something actually gets done.

Whilst we should certainly associate ourselves with the statements coming out of the G8 or the immense emotional power that came out of Live8, we have to acknowledge and make ourselves familiar with the grim realities that exist in parts of the world.

Foreign Policy And National Interest

I accept at the outset that if we are to conduct a foreign policy which adheres to our national interests, it will require an element, sometimes a large element, of pragmatism. But because you are pragmatic does not mean you are not principled. The spine of our foreign policy should have democratic principles attached to it.

Condoleeza Rice said in a speech to the American University in Cairo last month: "When we talk about democracy, we are referring to governments that protect certain basic rights for all their citizens -- among these, the right to speak freely. The right to associate. The right to worship as you wish. The freedom to educate your children -- boys and girls. And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police".

These are values to which all right-thinking people can sign up.

What I want to set out tonight is the form those principles which shape our foreign policy should take.

I believe that four important elements are needed to ensure the longer-term stability that we seek.

Democratic Agenda

The most widely discussed is the democratic agenda. It is undoubtedly hugely beneficial if all citizens are able to take part in the choice of the government of their own country.

But sometimes we need to pause, and remember from our own history how long it took us to progress from a free market philosophy to universal suffrage, before we start to lecture those in other parts of the globe about conforming with a purely western model of democratic structures.

The struggle which so many countries undergo is part of a wider intellectual and political challenge. That challenge is about how countries in the grip of dictatorships, whether civilian or military, or countries that were perverted by the corrosive ideology of communism, are taken to a much better future, one based on what we know works - setting the human spirit free, respect for basic human rights and the unleashing of individual economic potential.

To make this possible, we have to have a clear model in our minds of what we are trying to achieve.

By that, I don't mean having a single model which is applicable globally, and which we attempt to apply without reference to culture or history.

There are, however, certain principles which we ought to encourage in order to maximise the potential for individuals to take control of their own destiny. There were clear echoes of this in President Bush's second Inaugural Address, when he said: "America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, and to make their own way".

It is unlikely that the Orwellian-sounding Burmese State Peace and Development Council will recognize the 1989 Election in which Aung San Suu Kyi's party won 392 of the 485 constituencies. We should always look forward to the day when Burma's people can cast a vote in freedom.

However, we must always keep in mind that the act of voting is, in and of itself, not always enough.

Democratic freedom has recently come to people in such disparate countries as Lebanon and the Ukraine. It is an uplifting sight to see queues of people stretching out of polling stations in democratic elections.

But democracy serves a purpose only if it defends people's natural rights and if, under it, people can aspire to, and fulfil, their goals in life.

There are many so-called 'democracies' around the world which utterly fail to do this. It is only a few weeks since we saw the Zimbabwean voters queuing for hours on parched red soil to cast a ballot in their parliamentary elections. Yet this was not democracy as we understand it. Polling stations were few and far between in opposition areas, often with irregular opening hours. The voting rolls were full of the names of the dead. That Mugabe won was no surprise. To all intents and purposes, the outcome was not democratic. It was no surprise, therefore, subsequently to see homes and orphanages bulldozed with people left cold and homeless in areas where voters had had the temerity to use their ballots to criticise the brutal Mugabe regime.

Zimbabwe's experiences demonstrate that the holding of elections is not always enough. Candidates such as Kim Jong Il in North Korea, who win with unfeasibly high shares of the vote over 90%, are rightly seen as not having much democratic legitimacy. Nor do they pay anything other than lip service to the concept.

Given the dangers of the democratic process being perverted, we need to give greater emphasis to the elements which underpin a stable and prosperous society.

I regard this as the "freedom agenda".

There are three basic pillars underlying that "freedom agenda" and upon which such stability is built - the free market, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Free Market Societies

The first principle is that free market societies are far more able to unleash the creative potential of their own population than those with other economic systems. It is hardly a secret that, since the Renaissance, those countries which have embraced creativity, education and free market economics have prospered better. The ability to exercise one's own individual, personal economic liberty is a hugely empowering force in any society. Where people have been able to do that, you can see the difference.

A stark example to consider is the situation on either side of the Berlin Wall. The same people, with the same cultural roots from Schiller to Weimar cabaret, and with the same historical understandings and the same experiences of the dark years of Hitler's rule, followed a completely different course for thirty years.

From economic liberty flows a natural desire for democracy among the people of any given country. The differences between this process, and having democracy imposed by the developed world, can be great.

Free markets do work. In this country, for example, I believe passionately that the consequences of the gradual accumulation of the individual decisions of 60 million people is a far better indicator of what is right for the economy and the people than the judgments of a civil servant or politician sitting behind a desk in Whitehall wondering what lever to pull this week.

Rule of Law

The second pillar is the rule of law. As Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, "an effective competitive system needs an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted framework as much as any other".

What do we mean by the rule of law? Roger Scruton defines it as "The form of government in which no power can be exercised except according to procedures, principles and constraints contained in the law and in which any citizen can find redress against any other, however powerfully placed, and against the officers of the state itself, for any act which involves a breach of the law".

In the kind of system to which we believe countries should aspire, it is essential that the rule of law pertains to all - equally applied to government and citizen, consumer and business.

Today, we can perhaps most easily see the importance of the interaction between economic competition and the rule of law in the sphere of intellectual property (IP). The protection of intellectual property is important if individuals and economies are to be able to maximise the benefits derived from an advanced educational system, individual creativity and technological innovation. If you look at countries as they progress, whereas they tend initially towards minimal protection of IP rights, at the stage when they are seeking to develop their own high-tech industries, they increasingly demand more effective IP protection. The state that in one decade pours out counterfeit designer labels and DVDs may demand protection for its pharmaceutical and industrial patents in the next decade.

Elsewhere in her Cairo speech, Secretary of State Rice said: "There are those who say that long-term economic and social progress can be achieved without free minds and free markets. In fact, human potential and creativity are only fully released when governments trust their people's decisions and invest in their people's future".

Human Rights

The third pillar is respect for human rights.

In the last week, a new generation has learned what war veterans already knew - that freedom does not come cost-free.

Freedom is a fragile concept. Rather like human life itself, it can easily be destroyed in its early stages and it cannot live without protection. Respect for the inextinguishable dignity of each and every human being must be paramount.

The issue of human rights has been too low down the Conservative agenda for too long.

As a Party, we have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as purely pragmatic, with too little principle. We Conservatives have a duty, as members of a strong and free liberal society, to speak up for the oppressed and for those who speak up for themselves often in the face of considerable dangers.

Democracy must not just mean access to the ballot box. It must also mean access to a way of life. It should not mean having your home and possessions - however meagre - bulldozed because you have been designated as 'trash'.

As a Zimbabwean priest I spoke to last month, and whose parish is at the heart of Mugabe's Operation Drive Out Trash said to me "Tell people what is happening in this country. We need the world to know about our plight".

Conservative Party Human Rights Group

It is against this background that I am today announcing the establishment of a Human Rights Group within the Conservative Party, under the Chairmanship of my colleague Gary Streeter. We will publish an Annual Audit of various Governments' records so that the development of foreign policy and debate can be carried out in an informed and transparent manner. The Group will look at each of the elements I have outlined - economic freedom, the rule of law and, particularly, respect for human rights.

The events of recent weeks surrounding the G8 Summit and Live8 concerts underline the power people now have to thrust issues further up the agenda. Poverty and famine of the kind which have been in focus recently are often the tangible consequences of an absence of adequate human rights and democratic freedoms.

Congo

When we in Britain consider the type of issues I have addressed here, we are understandably most familiar with countries that were once part of the Empire - such as Zimbabwe. Difficulties there are more readily identifiable, and we can comprehend their scope more readily.

It is a sad fact that, in today's often troubled World, there are plenty more deserving cases which receive little attention. It is the duty of politicians to raise therse "unheard-of" crises.

Our new Committee will give these unsung tragedies, which attract little or no coverage in this country despite death tolls of millions, the attention they warrant.

We ignore countries like Congo at our peril. To most people in this country, Congo is literally the dark heart of Africa, a 'faraway people of whom we know nothing'. It rarely features on the news. Most people would be hard-pushed to find it in an atlas.

Yet Congo matters to us. It is the key to an entire continent. It is bigger than all the American states that voted for John Kerry put together. As The Economist wrote on 11th June, Congo "touches every sub-Saharan region: central, south, east and west. A stable Congo could be Africa's healthy heart. Arterial roads could be built through it; it has a huge trove of untapped minerals and enough hydro-electric potential to light up half the continent. Conversely, a return to chaos could be a continental heart attack".

There is light at the end of Congo's tunnel. But it has been a dark and long tunnel. This is the country whose former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko plundered his nation's natural resources to fill his own bank vaults and hired Concorde for shopping trips. By contrast, the average Congolese wage is $100 a year.

The International Rescue Committee calculated a death toll between 1998 and 2004 of 3.8 million.

Tribal militias still battle and pillage in the North East. At least 60,000 have died in an ongoing conflict in the province of Ituri by the Ugandan border in battles over goldfields. Diamond plundering bedevils the nation.

There is currently a power-sharing transitional government, some of whom are directly implicated in the mass slaughter of the last fifteen years. Elections were supposed to have been held on June 30th - but there was never any real prospect of that. Congo's last census was in 1984. No-one knows how many people there are, let alone how many qualify as voters. Most Congolese think that the current rulers are happy not to proceed with elections so that they can carry on stealing.

Corruption is endemic. Congo has no roads, no civil service, no experience of democracy. This is one country which needs more than technical experts on election procedure, it needs the 'freedom agenda'. Yet it gets precious little coverage in this country. This must end.

A Trap

As we pursue the "freedom agenda", we must take care. There is a trap which it is easy for us to fall into.

British elections have famously been described as 'locks on the canal of British history' as though British history has been a logical and predictable sequence of events leading up to the current day. In America, progress towards liberty has been seen as inexorable and inevitable.

Such visions do the complexities of human development a disservice. History is a series of interlocking hinges, points at which events could easily have gone either way, so changing the fate of nations. Counter-factual history has become very popular these days for just that reason. We should never presume the inevitability of a particular development.

This weekend, we have been remembering not only the 60th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in the Second World War but also the 10th Anniversary of the massacre of Bosnian men, predominantly Moslems, from the town of Srebrenica. These latter events were barely broadcast in this country, but anyone who was overseas earlier this month might have seen the videos recently discovered which showed in graphic detail the murder of these men by Serbian forces. This footage proved that graphic images of violence still have the power to shock, even in an age suffused with pictures of indiscriminate violence.

It is events such as Srebrenica which demonstrate that mankind is as capable of backward steps as it is of moving forward to 'broad, sunlit uplands'.

Zimbabwe was regarded at one time as model post-colonial democracy. Belarus is progressively becoming an authoritarian state under President Lukashenka after a brief flowering of democracy. By contrast, just nearby, the three Baltic states endured fifty years of Soviet repression before recovering their independence.

Perhaps on an even larger scale we have seen the stalling of many Islamic states. It was Islamic society which invented algebra, which made such great strides in astronomy, and which constructed such beautiful structures as the Alhambra. Yet much of today's Islamic world is economically depressed despite huge natural assets - witness the rebellion of poor Iranians against the ruling elite in the recent presidential elections. In too many states, the basic rights of women to such essentials as education are ignored.

There is, however, still hope. Turkey is gradually emerging as a prosperous and stable state which has forsaken none of its Islamic nature.

The 'freedom agenda' is not something that can be won and then forgotten about. It is a battle that must be fought and re-fought every step of the way.

Africa

The agenda in the developing world is broader and more challenging still.

In Africa, the issue of trade and access to markets is a complex one. Africa is far too dependent on trade with the developed world. It is, of course, right that African farmers should enjoy access to free markets in the developed world. However, this is only part of the solution. There is a catastrophic shortfall in intra-African trade. An important element in developing greater access to markets in the developed world fro African producers is ensuring substantial expansion in infrastructure within Africa - especially a road network, which is often non-existent. Air travel between African countries is all but impossible. Many flights from capital to capital in central Africa can be made only via London or Amsterdam.

Until Africa's ability to foster intra-continental trade is built up, they will continue to over-depend on trade with the developed world. Under a true 'freedom agenda', we would not allow such dependence, since it comes at the expense of Africans' own economic liberty.

Politically, too, Africa is still imperfect. There might well be functional forms of multi-party democracy, but all too often the political parties are either based upon a particular tribe or are personalist - that is they are formed around a particular individual, with little or no ideological coherence. A stronger civil society is a necessary pre-requisite to embed political parties, and so prevent an 'alphabet soup' of constantly-shifting acronyms, as political personalities rise and fall.

In the past, too many African leaders have seen office as a means of personal enrichment. One cadre of politicians may campaign against the existing leaders by accusing them of corruption, but then fall prey to the same temptations themselves when they achieve high office. The agrarian nature of African economies means a prevalence of marketing boards for agricultural produce - and indeed for Africa's mineral wealth. This leads to price-fixing, with politicians siphoning off profits and leaving farmers and miners all the poorer.

IDU

I will be going to Washington this week for the International Democrat Union triennial summit.

There I shall lay out once again my belief that the 'democratising agenda' needs rejuvenating. What lies ahead is a "freedom agenda", emphasising economic liberty, encouraging supply-side economic reforms, building civil society, defending human rights and seeking to underpin the rule of law in fragile democracies.

This necessitates a broadening of the IDU's outlook. At one level, we need to act as champions for free trade within developed countries. Such reforms may not be to everyone's taste. In a European context, we need to set out the case for supply-side reforms. The issues at stake are of such magnitude that achieving these goals is not a matter of whether one is on the political right or left. Life is far too complex for such a simple dichotomy. When it comes to economic and free trade issues, the Conservative Party shares as much common ground with the Dutch and Danish liberal parties as we do with the German Christian Democrats, and far more than we do with the more protectionist groups on the right of politics.

The 'freedom agenda' will unite those in the developed and developing world who believe that a free market creates a free society. Encouraging free trade requires champions at home and abroad. There are many vested interests, some who even talk the language of - but do not practise - fair and free trade.

Bringing the benefits of freedom, economic liberty and human rights to the millions who currently do not enjoy it is no easy task. But that is no reason not to try to achieve it. It is our common responsibility.

We do not offer simplistic solutions but a framework which can improve the chance that beneficial change can become permanent.

Conclusion

We remember the words of Harold Laski: "Those who know the normal life of the poor, its haunting sense of impending disaster, its fitful search for beauty which perpetually eludes, will realise well enough that without economic security, liberty is not worth having".

We want still more.

Liberty, economic security, human rights, the rule of law and a democratic framework.

Our aspiration can be others' liberation."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech