Ross Thomson: Free enterprise, liberty and individualism

The Conservative Party is the most successful British political party. Our electoral record of success surpasses that of our political rivals. The Conservatives have been in office for the majority of the time that Britain has had a mass democracy. Quite simply, the Conservatives are the governing party of modern British politics.

I thought it important that we remind ourselves of that. For weeks now there has been headline after headline and article after article on how our party is doomed, “finished for at least a generation”, and that it will “forfeit its political relevance”. With headlines like that, who needs an opposition party. I welcome the fact that there is a new energy and enthusiasm to develop fresh ideas. I welcome that there are MPs more interested in thinking than drinking – well, maybe thinking and drinking – but I do not buy these arguments of impending political Armageddon, and I am certainly not convinced that a party that has such a vibrant youth activist base is incapable of appealing to young people.

I’m fed up of all the doom and gloom. I’m fed up of us talking ourselves down when actually our party has a great story to tell. It’s time to inject some optimism. I couldn’t agree with my colleague Priti Patel more when she said to The House magazine that “The relentless negativity associated by politicians – actually, the establishment in Westminster and Whitehall – is dreadful. They should be at the forefront of being advocates of change, taking on the reins of freedom, empowerment, meritocracy, looking at what change could mean for our country.” In 1987 43% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Conservative. Why? Because the party was entirely in tune with the aspirations of the British public.

Our party is at its best when we advocate and embrace our basic and fundamental values of freedom, liberty, democracy, capitalism, free enterprise, deregulation, wealth creation, choice, property ownership, law and order, nationhood and strong but limited government.

When we stick to our values and fight for our principles, we win.

In 2017 we went into an election with a majority and came out the other side having lost it. No doubt lessons will be learned, and I’m not going to go over old ground on the number of reasons as to why that happened. The key issue for me was that the manifesto offered to the electorate a rejection of laissez-faire capitalism; a rejection of free markets; a rejection of individualism; and a rejection of Thatcherism. Fundamentally, it set us on a course out of step with the aspirations of the public. I was astonished to read the manifesto’s opening gambit, setting the tone for the whole document, which stated:

“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.”

In dumping the great legacy of Thatcher and our core values that individuals know better than the state and that free enterprise and capitalism are inherently good, the manifesto time travelled all the way back to the interventionist traditions of the 1950s. That’s not the party that I joined.

It has become increasingly obvious that we need to make the argument in favour of free markets and limited government, not just within the party to help it find its compass but also to make these arguments throughout the country given the significant risk and threat posed by a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

It is terrifying that in modern British politics the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell publicly stated that it is his mission is to overthrow capitalism, to bring down the UK’s system of free enterprise and to radically transform society to a socialist society. The system as we know it faces an existential threat.

This would result in higher taxes, more debt, fewer jobs and less money. Labour would bankrupt our economy and do untold, unmitigated damage to our country.

As Conservatives we know that the socialist-inspired consensus politics and the model of redistribution nearly took the British economy off a cliff. The ingrained damage it did took decades to recover from. We are at first principles a party of low tax. We understand that if the state simply confiscates the fruits of hard work and risk-taking through punitive taxes that there then is no incentive for people and businesses to push themselves to succeed. Why have we allowed the words “free market” and “capitalism” to become tarnished as if they are cold and cruel concepts? Further, why on earth did we allow our own manifesto to turn on those concepts and tear them apart. It’s time for our party to return to its principles and with missionary zeal promote the ideas that these principles inevitably lead us to. We will then enable people and businesses to unleash their full potential and reach the bounds of their imagination.

More recently the Health and Social Care Committee, under the banner of tackling childhood obesity, proposed the following measures to be adopted by the government: a ban on sponsorship deals by brands associated with high fat, sugar and salt products for sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments and extending the sugar tax to milkshakes alongside other “fiscal measures”. Further, it has been reported that the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is keen to introduce a watershed on adverts for products that contain high levels of salt and sugar in the same way we have one for showing sex and violence on TV. Apparently plans include not only banning the selection of sweets at shop checkouts and two-for-one deals, but Percy Pig may also face the chop as well as unlimited refills of your Fanta at Nando’s. And I can’t believe I’m even about to write this, but yes, there’s even a proposed ban on Tony the Tiger!

This is an alarmingly nanny state style approach to take. Sacrificing consumer choice and freedom for all responsible people on the altar of childhood obesity. No doubt the big government zealots will accuse me of not caring about the well-being of young people. Nothing could be further than the truth. Firstly, it’s blatantly obvious that these measures are not being targeted at children but at you and me. As a Conservative who believes everyone should have the opportunity to aspire and achieve, I want our children to have the best possible start they can in life and to be able to live the life they choose. I do not believe that restricting choice to this extreme, to restrict freedom of speech and expression with bans on adverts and packaging and for the government to nanny people is the best way to achieve it. Education and encouraging responsibility are merely two examples of what can be done. Growing the economy and creating well-paid jobs are others. The possibilities are endless.

I would also make the point that, as a Scot, I know that some of our greatest national dishes are very high in unhealthy ingredients. Don’t even ask what’s in a haggis! Some of our greatest national dishes help us to promote the UK abroad. They feature heavily in the GREAT Britain campaign. How can the government with one hand promote that our food is great with massive billboard advertisements at home and abroad, but at the same time say that they want to ban the advertising and promotion of products high in salt and fat?

As I’ve mentioned being a Scot, it would be remiss of me to not turn my attention to Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon runs the most illiberal, authoritarian and centralising government.

Nationalist reforms have centralised power to an unprecedented degree in Edinburgh, sucking powers from communities and councils across Scotland and into the hands of nationalist ministers.

A number of their legislative changes and reforms have been an affront to personal freedom and liberty; an assault on personal responsibility and choice. Fundamentally, Nicola Sturgeon believes she knows everything better than you, even, chillingly, when it comes to raising your children. The nationalist administration doggedly pursued a scheme to appoint a Named Person or “state guardian” for every child under 18 in order to “monitor what children and young people need” with the “power to assess well-being”. Thus, removing quite a sacred right of a parent being allowed to determine these things themselves and to raise their own child. This really is 1984 stuff.

Thank goodness the SNP were stopped in their tracks with this offensive scheme by the UK Supreme Court.

From policing to education, the SNP have a top-down authoritarian, one size fits all approach. Like nationalists everywhere, they sacrifice individual freedoms – our freedoms – on the altar of their nationalist agenda.

Linking into what I was saying about UK plans to tackle obesity, Nicola Sturgeon chummed up with freedom and choice hater Jamie Oliver, and she is now planning to ban two-for-one deals on pizza. Well, I’m laying down this marker now. She can keep her hands off my Meat Feast!

It was Ronald Reagan who said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The duty lies with us to make the arguments for freedom and liberty – within the Conservative Party and the entire country – as today the libertarian ideal is in more danger than ever before. 

To finish where I started, Conservatives accept change, but we don’t believe in change for change’s sake. The very purpose of change must be to actually improve what already exists. Changing in order to preserve, not destroy. Therefore, the recent siren calls for immediate change because we are facing impending decline are simply not the Conservative way. To me they don’t sound very Conservative at all. Rather our values of free enterprise, liberty, individualism and freedom have always been a pull for voters. We cannot sacrifice these ideals in the pursuit of a mythical centre ground. We need to stand by our convictions. That is how we used to win and that is how we will win again.