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Fox: Let freedom reign

Speech at the think tank, Politeia

"I would like to begin by thanking Sheila for the opportunity to deliver this Spring Address. I apologise for the fact that it is a little late. It should have been delivered on the sixth of April - but at that time, in the wake of the Howard Flight affair, speeches to think tanks were not thought to be helpful!

So, tonight, I find myself speaking against a different political backdrop from the one I initially expected.

The Conservative Party will naturally want to examine the recent election results and consider the way ahead.

I am not one of those who believes that instant post-mortems after General Elections are of very great value. Time and objective analysis is required to learn all the necessary lessons. In any case, it is difficult for any opposition to fight an election against the backdrop of an economy that is perceived as being in a benevolent state, whether that perception is right or not.

So, the Conservative Party should hesitate about being overly self-critical or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This was one of the most professional, focussed and disciplined campaigns in recent years not least because of the sheer determination engendered by Michael Howard.

There is, however, one general point which I feel we can reasonably make. In marketing speak, it is that we were successful in selling the product, but not in selling the brand. In other words, people bought into our policy agenda, even using our own language to describe their feelings on the doorsteps. But they were not yet willing to buy into us as a party.

The young families who were turning away from Tony Blair could not yet clearly see why the Conservatives would offer a brighter future for their children. Despite the heroic work undertaken in the past 18 months by Michael Howard, we had done too little work in previous years establishing the Conservative brand - not just what we would do, but why we would do it.

As we consider the way forward, one thought should carry considerable weight. It is that we have successfully avoided coalition politics in this country for decades because we have been successful in maintaining broad internal coalitions within the two major parties. In the Conservative Party, we have seen just how powerful such a coalition can be. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, Leon Brittan, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, could not be described as political soulmates. Yet working in tandem, they created a synergy, which in turn led to bold and strong government. In too many of the following years, we saw the opposite trend. Anything which damages this internal coalition, be it factionalism or single issue obsession, will not only weaken the party and diminish our chances of returning to office, it is also likely to spawn minority or single issue parties which will make it more difficult for us to obtain an outright majority.

The coalition that is the Conservative Party is drawn from different political traditions. The Party is at its strongest when it is best able to match these different traditions to the contemporary political landscape. It is this skill which has enabled a small 'c' Conservative Party to adapt and survive better than any other party in widely changing social circumstances.

So it is a prerequisite that we understand the nature of the society in which we live. Like it or not, and it is immaterial whether we like it or not, we live in a largely urban society. From Islington, to Inverness, the dominant cultural influences are far more Eastenders than The Archers. We need to understand and take account of these influences or we will find ourselves politically becalmed. I therefore take great pleasure in the greater diversity of our candidates at the General Election, doubly so because they got there on their own merits, not as a result of artificial positive discrimination.

We need to understand why we are different from the other political parties.

All politicians start from the same place - a sincere desire to make the world better. But that's where the similarity ends.

Labour politicians believe, instinctively and philosophically, that the best way to make the world a better place is through active government. They believe that every social problem has a government solution. They believe sincerely that, through government action, they can create the perfect society in which everyone is wealthy, healthy and happy.

If you were being charitable, you might describe this as idealistic. The less charitable amongst you might just call it vanity. And it's vanity that comes at a price. The price is more taxes and less personal responsibility.

This might be acceptable if it worked. But we know that it doesn't. We know that the less responsibility people have, the worse they behave, and the worse the outcomes are for themselves - and society. We also know that the opposite is true.

There is much talk about whether the Conservative party should be more libertarian or more authoritarian. An over-simplified debate between "modernisers" and "traditionalists" has been played out in the media.

What is in fact required is a balance between the different strands of Conservative tradition. We need to begin with a clear definition of the role of the state and the role of the individual. Freedom is the key. Never let us underestimate the importance of individuals exercising to the maximum degree possible their personal liberty.

Individual freedom breeds diversity. Diversity breeds innovation, and innovation breeds excellence. That is why authoritarian states fail. But so do chaotic and anarchic states. In other words, for individual freedom to flourish effectively, it needs to exist within a framework of safety and security. Ideally, the state should only do the things that only the state can do.

The alternative is what I described in my last speech to Politeia, as "the intruder State". Every political generation has its dragon to slay. Previous generations have had communism, inflation and the trade unions. Our dragon is the intruder State, interfering with every nook and cranny of our lives, driving us towards the "pocket money society" in which individuals keep less and less of their money while the state makes more and more decisions on their behalf.

In our society, the role of the state and the role of the individual have become dangerously confused. Rather than the state functioning as an enabling framework, it increasingly is seen as an entrapping web.

Consider our economy. If, as happened last year, average incomes are falling during a time of economic growth, it is self-evident that the government is taking too much money in tax out of people's pockets. If, as happened last year, the number of jobs in the private sector is shrinking while the number of jobs in the public sector is expanding, then it is self-evident that the natural enterprise of our people is being suppressed and supplanted by a dangerously overblown state. If we continue to allow the wealth-producing sector to shrink, while the wealth-consuming sector expands, then the result will be simply incompatible with increasing prosperity.

So the first test that we must apply to any proposal, in opposition or when we come to government, is this - does it increase or decrease the size of government?

We have an even more illiberal state when it comes to the delivery of public services. I didn't come into politics because I believe Conservatives can run public services more efficiently than socialists. I don't believe politicians should be running them at all. The state should guarantee everyone access to good health care, a quality education and security in later years.

But rather than creating an enabling framework, which guarantees these things, we have the state attempting to be a monopoly provider. The Conservative Party has to ensure that our policies are not seen as helping the wealthy escape from second-rate public services, but as raising the standard of all services by granting greater freedom to provide and greater freedom to choose. Why is it that we tolerate the condescending attitude from Messrs Blair and Brown that the British public are incapable of making the type of choices about their public services which are taken for granted in France or Germany or Switzerland?

Give the British people more freedom and more excellence will surely follow.

Sometimes Conservatives make the mistake of talking about freedom purely as an abstract concept, a good in itself whose benefits are self-evident and require no further explanation.

For us, freedom is about empowerment.

We believe that freedom offers not only the best and brightest hope for all our citizens, but also particular hope for those in our society who have least freedom today.

So, as Conservatives, we must of course argue passionately for freedom. But we must also explain, clearly and patiently, why. We should never take it for granted that people understand why freedom works. We must explain why it works. And why the converse fails.

Dependence on an expanding welfare state has not liberated the poorest communities.

Public services cannot be improved simply by throwing public money at them.

Many of those with the poorest quality of life have lived for decades in one-party Labour fiefdoms.

Nobody would choose to live in poverty.

Nobody would choose a failing school.

Nobody would choose a life of dependence.

But it's not a coincidence that many of those who find themselves in this predicament are there because of the failure of socialist policy.

All Conservatives believe that freedom is not only an end in itself, not only a privilege for those at the top of the tree, not only the means which allows the talented to excel and prosper, but also that freedom offers practical, tangible solutions to poverty, to failing public services, and to people trapped in a life of dependence.

And the reason we believe this is that we have a profound, optimistic and generous faith in human nature.

We understand that people everywhere want the same basic things for themselves and their family: to be healthy, wealthy and happy. And we have sufficient faith in human nature to believe that by and large, if people are free to pursue these aims, they will achieve them, and behave in ways that benefit themselves and society at the same time.

But there is a necessary corollary to greater freedom, and that is the encouragement of greater individual responsibility. Allowing people to exercise maximal responsibility within their own natural constraints is not only a noble ideal. It is also the bedrock of social stability. Conversely, the more intrusive, the state, the easier it is for individuals to abdicate their personal responsibility. This is not only detrimental to self-esteem and self-reliance, but gradually leads to the erosion of the conventions, traditions and institutions which underpin our liberty.

So the second test we have to apply to any proposal is - does it reinforce or diminish personal responsibility.

As Henry Brooks Adams put it "Absolute liberty is absence of restraint; responsibility is restraint; therefore, the ideally free individual is responsible to himself".

Of course, not everyone is able to exercise the same level of individual responsibility. We must never forget Churchill's safety net, the supportive society, ready to lend a helping hand to the genuinely needy or guidance to the aspirational. We know that it is only in the supportive society that people can grow to their full potential, living up to the responsibilities imposed by freedom.

So we believe, at one and the same time, in free markets, free choice, freedom of lifestyle freedom of speech, freedom from over mighty government, the neighbourly society and the encouragement of social cohesion.

Sadly, today, we live in a country that is over-endowed with government and under-endowed with social cohesion. We live in a country where individual liberty is too often curtailed by big government. But we also live in a country where those who could exercise greater personal responsibility are let down by a society that is not supportive enough.

We do not need to invent economic theory. We know that free markets, unencumbered by excessive regulation or taxation, already work. We know that greater freedom and the exercise of personal responsibility are the best defence against an intrusive oppressive nannying state. So we need a Conservative Party whose instincts are economically conservative and socially liberal in tune with the diversity and aspirations of Britain in the 21st century.

We must ensure that the rich traditions of British conservatism resonate with all those of our countrymen and women who seek something better.

Every parent who aspires to something better for their children should see in the Conservatives a future of opportunity, prosperity and freedom.

Every young man or woman trying to set up a small business, employing their own talents and labour, should see the Conservative party as their natural ally.

Every taxpayer should know instinctively that Conservatives will keep the size of government in check and maximise the potential of society by maximising the potential of every individual citizen.

Freedom is not a slogan.

Freedom is not just a means to an end.

Freedom is our essence.

Freedom is our core.

Let Freedom reign."

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