Try if you can to forget Theresa May’s speech in Manchester last week. It might even have been worse if she had delivered it perfectly because then the lack of vision would have been even more apparent. Watching the speech, anyone of a centre-right persuasion would have sat with their heads in their hands, desperately willing her to make a cohesive argument as to why handing power to unreconstructed Marxists may not lead us all to the promised land. Such an argument was not forthcoming.
The failure of communication isn’t just the Prime Minister’s, however. In recent months I have lost count of the number of observers and commentators who have stated that the Conservatives must mount an all-out defence of capitalism to counter the Marxist make-believe of the opposition, convinced that a careful, dispassionate explanation of economics would succeed in winning over the hearts and minds of young Corbynistas. Exactly what they base that conviction upon is a mystery.
Defending capitalism in itself is actually rather difficult, particularly after a decade of wage stagnation for the poorest and galloping asset values for the richest. It is too easy to find yourself justifying the practices of Goldman Sachs, Sports Direct, Sir Phillip Green, Google, Amazon, Vodafone, Starbucks et al, which is a damnably hard place from which to fight battles. Anyway, to use the cliché du jour, it is hard to sell capitalism to people with no capital, a problem that is unlikely to resolve itself by 2022.
Truly, explaining the benefits of the free market to anyone under 40 is like trying to explain the benefits of air – only by its absence can it be truly appreciated. Most people have no experience of price, wage or rent controls, of sky-high interest rates and capital controls, of closed-shops, three days weeks and general strikes. Few people remember that nationalised energy, rail and telecommunications services offered dismal levels of service with little incentive to improve.
The problem is that, in the absence of such experience, the abstract theories of the left have been allowed space to grow. For example, it is trivial to make an argument in favour of privatisation – rather than allowing companies to make profits, wouldn’t it be better for the government to receive that money instead? The rebuttal is far more complicated, based on the overwhelming evidence that it leads to inefficiency, unresponsiveness and underinvestment. Making that point takes time and constant repetition, not a mere mention in an election campaign.
As a further complication, China demonstrates that it is possible to have capitalism with a high degree of state involvement. This can be used to make arguments that a more “mixed” economy is possible, that Corbynism is just a minor adjustment to the status quo.
In reality, there is no space to make a pure capitalist argument. Too few people want to make it, too few people want to hear it.
So, what’s the alternative?
Well, China does indeed demonstrate that capitalism can exist without political freedom, that open markets do not in themselves guarantee liberty. But that isn’t the argument. The crucial point is that a market will naturally occur wherever there is a free society. There is no example of a country where the citizens are free but the markets are, relatively speaking, not.
The corollary is also true; there is no example of a country where the exchange of goods and services are controlled by the government but the people are free. The fact is that preventing capitalism and free exchange requires significant government intervention and restriction of liberty. To quote John Locke:
“Every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
What does this mean in practical terms? It means, for example, that no-one should be stopped from being an Uber driver if they want to be. It means that if someone wants to work 80 hours per week because they want to earn more money and buy a nicer house, then it is nobody’s business but their own. If someone wants to work 16 hours per week and spend the rest of the time writing, painting or playing music then that’s also fine. Everyone should be free to live their lives as they see fit.
Such a philosophy is anathema to the Labour Party in its current incarnation. To give him his due, Jeremy Corbyn is pretty good at spotting problems. But every single one of his solutions requires power to be transferred to the government and away from individuals. One example was when Corbyn proposed that the government should “requisition” property in Kensington and Chelsea to house those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. On the most superficial level, it seems like an obvious solution, just what you might expect from St Jeremy. A little bit more thought and you realise that the man who would be Prime Minister just took an axe to individual property rights.
Just as you can’t be a “little bit” pregnant, you can’t have “some” property rights. But where were the Conservatives making the intellectual case against requisitioning property? It may have been politically impossible for the Prime Minister to dwell on this point, but one of the jobs of back-benchers must be to provide intellectual air-cover for government at these times. Refusing to engage with the point suggests that the government just doesn’t wish to offend wealthy people. The truth is that individual property rights protect everyone, especially the poor and the weak from the strong and powerful and, most especially, from the government.
The worst crimes of the 20th century were committed by governments. Only governments have the power to carry out the Holocaust, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the purges and mass starvations of Lenin and Stalin, the killing fields of Cambodia. True liberty lies in protection under the law from arbitrary edicts of government.
But who would escape the edicts of a Corbyn government? Shareholders could find that their stakes in utility companies would be expropriated by the government, parliament deciding what they were worth, not the market. Workers could find themselves subjected to the directives from emboldened trades unions, including the re-imposition of the closed shop. Consumers could lose the ability to shop around for better service from utilities. Homeowners would find their property being taxed by central government despite owning it outright. Companies could find their freedom to set wages and working conditions drastically reduced. Individuals could be prevented from taking money abroad under the capital controls that John McDonnell is war-gaming. It is nothing less than an assault on liberty.
But it wouldn’t be enough just to restrict people’s actions. The control-freakery of the modern left extends to the desire to regulate expression and even thought by declaring what ideas are and are not permissible for discussion.
There is a huge opportunity for the Tories to draw a contrast with the politics of Labour and their Momentum outriders. Consider the humourless ultra-leftie, constantly on watch for breaches of etiquette so minute that neither the offender nor the purported victim had themselves noticed it. The sort of person who would harangue Susan Calman for dancing with a male partner on Strictly Come Dancing or accuse Kemi Badenoch of betraying her race for being a Conservative. The type of person who would arrange to have the conductor Matthew Halls sacked for joking with his black friend. The sort of person who accuses aspiring working-class people of being class traitors.
It’s a world where what you are is more important than who you are, the polar opposite of individualism. As Badenoch put it in her inspirational introduction to May’s conference speech, it is the daft belief that the colour of your skin is more important than the content of your character.
The great social progress in the last fifty years was to move from a time when people were expected to conform to certain narrow roles to being individuals. The triumphs of the left in liberating women and promoting gay rights were necessary and irreversible. What an irony that it is the modern left who is trying to reverse that process by devising an infinite number of overlapping boxes while imposing upon individuals the duty to defend and promote each aspect of your identity. Intersectionality, identity politics, check-your-privilege, you-can’t-say-that, the vicarious taking of offence, the no-platforming of feminists, scientists and conservatives, the banning of newspapers from universities, the banning of student Free Speech Societies – it all comes from a desire to control every aspect of behaviour.
Has any normal person ever thought to themselves that these people – people who would police what you can say, think and do, people who would restrict who you can shop with or work for, people who shout “scum”, spit on people attending a political conference and subject MPs of their own party to torrents of abuse online – should actually be given the legal authority to enforce those beliefs?
There is an open goal here – it should be the stance of the Conservatives that they have no interest in how individuals choose to define themselves. They can say we are all citizens of the same country, each of us equal before the law; Corbyn Labour can only see what you are; the Conservatives care about who you are.
They should also promote the concept that all ideas must be open for debate. Passing a law to enshrine free speech, similar to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, would be a good start to show they were serious. At a local level, setting up Free Speech Societies in all university towns would be more beneficial than trying to restart Young Conservative clubs.
The two current darlings of the Conservative Party embody liberalism in its different forms. Ruth Davidson appears utterly at ease in her own skin. She doesn’t seek anyone’s approval for being who she is, as a Christian, a lesbian, a Tory or even just someone who’s game for a bit of argy-bargy, a political cage-fighter with a grin on her face. Though very different in character, Jacob Rees-Mogg has also found a following through calmly and politely arguing for conservative values almost from first principle. He genuinely believes what he says and is willing to state his beliefs despite knowing they may be unpopular. Crucially, while having strongly held convictions, he doesn’t believe in imposing his moral values upon anyone else – the essence of liberalism.
It is also apparent that once you shift the focus away from economics, it becomes easy to discern a thread that runs through Conservative policies. For example:
Why do Conservatives believe in balancing the budget? Because it will restrict the opportunities of those yet to be born if they are saddled with our debts. Why do the Conservatives believe in free schools? Because they believe that anyone should be free to open a school, providing they can meet certain basic standards.
Why do Conservatives believe in equal marriage? Because to prevent same-sex couples from marrying is an infringement of their liberty.
Why do Conservatives believe in strong armed forces? To protect individuals from those who would seek to deprive them of their freedoms.
Why do Conservatives believe in the principle of Brexit? Because the EU is a centralising, controlling organisation that prioritises its institutions above the rights of individuals, e.g., the ability to trade freely with African farmers, or even to eat chlorinated chicken if they so wish.
Why do the Conservatives believe in implementing the Brexit referendum result? Because the people were given the freedom to choose.
Why do Conservatives believe that wholesale nationalisation is bad? Because it reduces the liberty for employees to change employer or for consumers to change supplier.
Why do Conservatives believe in maintain the international aid budget? Because they believe in helping provide these liberties to other people.
Why will the Conservatives not impose a regulator on the press? Because freedom of expression underpins all our other freedoms.
Promoting the freedom of the individual need not be libertarianism, red in tooth and claw. The government has a clear role in providing a legal framework for free exchange, ensuring the sanctity of private property, maintaining public safety, ensuring that the environment is protected, etc.
But to rebalance the relationship between government and the individual such that the individual gains more rights while the government has less scope to restrict the, is not only true to conservative politics, but is absolutely at odds with the vision currently being presented by the Labour Party. It’s also a principle worth fighting for, one the young and idealistic can understand and believe in and, crucially, a reason to vote Conservative even in the absence of rising wages.
So, just forget about defending capitalism and focus instead on promoting freedom of expression, freedom of thought and freedom of action. For just as the gulag is an inevitable consequence of socialism, the free market is both inevitable and essential in a free society.