Can The Margaret Thatcher Conference On Liberty Rescue British Conservatism?

Keith Joseph Margaret Thatcher

 

These are not auspicious times for people who believe in the rights of the individual and the need for a pared-back, smaller, more efficient state.

It says everything about today’s Conservative Party, governing in weary coalition with the Liberal Democrats, that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party find the current Tory spending levels palatable enough that they have vowed to stick to them should they win back power in 2015, while their eurosceptic credentials are now so widely distrusted that UKIP have become the standard-bearers for defending Britain’s national interests abroad.

Just as Gordon Brown agitated for power and eventually deposed Tony Blair without a real agenda for governing (and we all know how well that worked out for him), so David Cameron’s Conservatives stumbled across the finish line and into Number 10 Downing Street with a half-hearted policy agenda built only to address the immediate economic crisis while ‘detoxifying’ the conservative brand rather than building the foundations for twenty-first century Britain.

Meanwhile, the assault on personal privacy and freedom from the surveillance state is gathering speed and momentum. In the United States, those on the side of liberty have at least found voice through whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and journalists like Glenn Greenwald, forcing American politicians to at least pay lip service to the protections set out in their Constitution.

In the United Kingdom, however, the juggernaut has continued without so much as slowing down. Politicians from David Cameron on downwards have expressed no contrition that such a pervasive surveillance apparatus was constructed without any public debate or approval, while civil servants from the intelligence services remain unrepentant and continue their work without proper Parliamentary oversight.

As this goes on, the British people are assured that there is no reason to worry because we are only being spied on to protect us from terrorists, and that the surveillance takes place under “strict legal controls” – though thanks to the opaqueness of the British legal system and the propensity of the government to interpret laws creatively in their favour, this is of no reassurance at all.

Britain may not yet be facing a new winter of discontent – there may be no widespread industrial unrest, the rubbish may not be piling up uncollected in the streets and the economy may not be in freefall – but you would have to be mad not to pick up on the sense of pessimism and foreboding. The economic recovery remains an “order book recovery” at present, its benefits not yet felt by many financially squeezed families.

And now we are told to rejoice that six years after the financial crash, Britain’s economic output has finally caught up with where it was in the heady days of 2008. More than half a lost decade.

No, these are not auspicious times.

Paul Goodman agrees, writing at Conservative Home:

50 years on from the new social freedoms of the 1960s, and 30 years on from the new economic ones of the 1980s, liberty has decreased, not increased.  What we drink, what we smoke, what we speak, how we drive, how we bank, how we live: all these are far more restricted by law than was the case in the 1970s.  The reasons for curtailment may be contestable – health and safety, Islamist terror, the Dunblane atrocity, NHS costs – but the direction of travel is clear.

While there is no major existential threat to Britain at present as there was in 1979 – the unions having been tamed and the Cold War won – there is still an urgent need for radical conservative thinking and policy solutions, just as there was in 1979 when Britain stood at the abyss.

All those years ago it was the (then) new think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, that served as the intellectual engine behind the incoming Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. No mere talking shop, the CPS developed ideas that changed Britain for the better once put into practice, as John O’Sullivan reminds us in the Telegraph:

This stream of pamphlets argued for limited government, reduced public spending, control of the money supply as a means controlling inflation, an end to prices and incomes control, the abolition of exchange controls, the privatization of industry, the scrapping industrial subsidies and the wider dispersal of wealth. Study groups, at one time numbering more than twenty, were set up. One of them, the Trade Union Reform Group under the chairmanship of Sir Len Neal, a former trade union leader, laid the foundation of the legislation later introduced to reform trade union law. Another pamphlet was inspired by Keith’s vision of the wider ownership of wealth; it led to PEPS (later restructured to become ISAs).

In 2014, the CPS is now celebrating its 40th birthday with a major international conference, the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty.

It should be encouraging that the organ which did so much to inform and influence Thatcher’s government is riding to the rescue once again, but a glance at the agenda for today’s event hints more at the degree to which Britain has fallen back from the ‘peak’ of liberty achieved by Thatcher than it offers hope for bold new policy initiatives ready to be rolled out.

The first order of conference business, after the introductory speech by Sir V S Naipaul, is ditheringly titled: “The EU and the Big Corporations: are they ganging up against liberty and its protector, the nation state?”

After everything that has happened in Europe and Britain over the past several months, with the electorate’s rejection of the pro-European integration status quo and the rise of parties like UKIP, is this still a question that really needs to be asked? A forward-looking conference would be debating the best way to take advantage of the public’s growing scepticism and antipathy toward undemocratic supra-national institutions in order to either enact radical reform or achieve freedom from them, not half-heartedly speculate about whether the EU and the Brussels lobbying industry pose a threat in the first place.

And at the risk of venturing into conspiracy theorist territory, the fact that a number of conference attendees will participate in a session entitled “Big Government, Big Corporations: what chance for small business and innovation?” having come fresh from the Bilderberg 2014 meeting in Copenhagen, where big government gets together with (you guessed it) big corporations to the exclusion of everyone else does not speak very well of their legitimacy to discuss such matters.

One gets the sense that the Margaret Thatcher 2014 conference agenda was devised in order to fit the specialist knowledge and talking points of those special guests who accepted their invitations rather than the more fearless approach, which would have been to identify the most pressing trends facing Britain and the West, determining what needs to be discussed, and then engaging the support of those high-profile individuals who can best offer and promote policy solutions.

And while CPS is eager to promote the credentials and resumes of the conference’s star panellists, some of the luminaries scheduled to impart their wisdom – conservative celebrities though they may be – have decidedly questionable records when it comes to standing up for liberty in action.

If the Centre for Policy Studies is serious about rejuvenating conservatism and ushering in a new birth for freedom (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln), the honoured guests from America should include the likes of libertarian standard-bearer Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, or Ted Cruz of Texas (abrasive and odious though he may sometimes be) or at the very least Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

If this conference really is to recapture the success of 40 years ago and spark some new ideas, there should be representation from that force which is doing the most to upend the stale conservative status quo across the Atlantic, the American Tea Party.

But instead, the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty 2014 will be hearing from discredited, neo-conservative fossils the likes of Jonah Goldberg, who has never seen a war that he was not in favour of launching (though not personally participating in, of course), and Rich Lowry, who openly and unapologetically fantasises about the populist, proudly anti-intellectual Sarah Palin.

Sure, these big-name commentators may talk the talk when it comes to small government – at least, if you consider relentlessly hammering away at a “no new taxes, ever” message whilst simultaneously seeking to shrink the deficit and ringfence government spending on generous benefits for senior citizens or America’s bloated defence budget to be a “principled” form of conservatism – but it all goes out the window when it comes to foreign policy, national security and the surveillance state. On these issues, the likes of Goldberg and Lowry whine and clamour for big government louder than most die-hard left-wingers.

These people are Believers in Liberty in Name Only – or BLINOs. What insights and advice are they expected to give that they do not already regurgitate week after week in their National Review columns?

People like Jonah Goldberg – neo-conservative nepotism beneficiary extraordinaire – should be pariahs at a rejuvinated, forward-looking Centre for Policy Studies conference, not guests of honour.

It is curious that while some of the CPS’s American invitees are both out of power and widely discredited, their British counterparts are currently in power but are struggling to make a noticeable impact on an otherwise very centrist, pro big state, pro-Europe government.

Michael Gove, due to attend, is a formidable intellect and the closest that the Cabinet has to a libertarian (his bravura performance when giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry saw him at his best); but Gove has achieved all that he feasibly can at the Education Department, and has recently made a series of political missteps that could harm his chances of winning another major government brief in the upcoming reshuffle.

Likewise, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan is an articulate advocate for the eurosceptic cause, and yet his caucus did not do enough by way of defending Britain’s national interest to stop the rising tide of public fury at the antidemocratic European Union, which saw the Conservatives’ European Parliament group leader, Martin Callanan, lose his seat.

John O’Sullivan, writing in The Telegraph, notes:

As Henry Kissinger points out, senior people in modern government are simply too busy and too tired to think creatively about the problems facing them. If they haven’t used opposition to do some fresh thinking, they have to fall back on the ideas of their opponents.

The Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty 2014 has the advantage of throwing together conservative thinkers in power (albeit the dying days of coalition with the Liberal Democrats) with those in the wilderness of opposition (as President Obama’s administration inches closer to its lame duck days). According to Kissinger, this should be the best of both worlds – a combination of Tory blue sky thinking and hard nosed pragmatism from the coal-face of government.

Such a conference could do more than generate headlines for one day in a slow news season – it could provide the spark that finally drags British conservatism out of its introspective, apologetic, New Labour Continued stupor.

But the conference is heavy on has-beens and light on rising stars. Instead of conservative thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, we get demagogues like Jonah Goldberg. Instead of rising political stars like Marco Rubio or Rand Paul, we will hear from elderly statesmen like former Australian prime minister John Howard. Instead of someone, anyone with a post-Snowden mindset on national security, we get former CIA director General David Petraeus.

That’s not to say that there will be no people of interest to watch – Michael Gove will be attending, along with Daniel Hannan, Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas and intellectual heavyweights such as Niall Ferguson. But nothing sums up the tightrope walked by the Centre for Policy Studies more starkly than the fact that Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, is also a guest of honour at today’s conference.

British conservatism needs to look forward, but too much of the guest list suggests that the focus is on the past, not the future. Margaret Thatcher was right for her time and place – Britain in the eighties. But the next transformative British conservative leader will not look or sound like Thatcher; nor will he or she share the same priorities or advance the same policy goals. In the year 2014 Britain faces different challenges requiring different, bold solutions.

Tempting though it may be to sit back and reminisce about that day forty years ago when the Centre for Policy Studies was founded, there is too much work to be done in the present if British conservatism is to save itself.

And that work needs to start today.

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