Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism.
In my lifetime, there’s never been a more exciting moment in British politics. The global shocks of the last few years have unsurprisingly left many people uncertain. But for those of us who focus on political ideas, it’s hard not to feel that our time has finally arrived.
I’ve always liked writing about the fundamental things — things such as freedom, responsibility, and democracy. But, in the past, some friends would say to me, “Why do you keep banging on about all that philosophical stuff? Why not settle on a nice policy area?” And then they’d ask me to join them in their battle for revamped train gauges or reduced housing regulations. Well, I enjoy thinking about pressing practical issues as much as the next person, but it’s difficult to get off the ground on those “real-world” things — never mind being able to clarify and justify your views on them — unless you’ve thought about what lies beneath.
Now, in the fallout of the most surprising time in politics — you remember that long period following the EU referendum when every day was, yet again, the “biggest news day” you’d ever known? — the need to talk about deeper things seems ever more urgent, and ever more recognised.
In the very first piece I wrote for ConservativeHome, some years back, I said that I was a Conservative because I’m a libertarian. My view remains that conservatism is non-ideological, but that the Conservative Party is the best party-political home for UK freedom-lovers, not least because of its long association with, and promotion of, various forms of liberal thought. I’ve written about those kinds of ideas here many times. But I’m not going to subject you solely to theorising today — for a change, I’ve got something more tangible to discuss.
This evening, a new initiative I’m directing will launch in Westminster. Entitled FREER, its purpose relates to what you might infer from its name: we will make the argument for increased freedom; we will promote a freer society and a freer economy. Over the past few months, I’ve been working on FREER’s development alongside its co-chairs, the Conservative MPs Lee Rowley and Luke Graham, and we’ve created something that — to my mind — meets real demand and real need.
There are, of course, various other ideas-based projects, but FREER will be distinctive in its embrace of both social and economic liberalism: we have a packed range of upcoming events and papers on topics ranging from no-platforming to Blockchain. We also have a great group of Conservative MPs signed up as parliamentary supporters, and we have Liz Truss and James Forsyth giving speeches at the launch tonight. All of our parliamentary supporters agree with our core purpose, and many of them have agreed to write for us, on the understanding that FREER publications are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of all group members — as you would expect from fans of free speech. The spirit of genuine debate is alive and well.
Our new initiative will not only aim to fill an obvious gap, however — I think it also represents something limitless and exciting. Brexit offers great opportunities as well as posing great challenges, and at the heart of those opportunities is the way in which the UK will become more able to determine its own future for itself. Whole policy areas have effectively been out of our politicians’ hands for decades; others have been heavily regulated and controlled from outside. We now have the chance, as a country, to think to the future — about the kind of society we want, post-Brexit, and how we can get there.
In a theoretical sense, I don’t think there has to be one single value from which our understanding of a good society must stem. But it’s hard to think of a better practical and all-pervasive starting point than freedom. What better way to further the common good than by focusing on liberty? Than by fighting to live in a freer society — a more just society? In a country tempted by Corbynism, in which the Overton Window has shifted towards state interventionism, the urgency for freedom-based thinking seems clear.
Now that events have liberated us to talk about ideas — to think things through from basics, and to expose the flaws in quick and easy slogans — we have an obligation to unpick the weak thinking that leads not only to bad policy outcomes, but also to unintended societal unrest. Yes, the state is central to a good society, but let’s not confuse means and ends, here. Britain’s recent dependency on ever-increasing government action has often been counter-productive, yet has more fundamental risks, too — not least in eroding our own personal responsibility, and weakening the bonds of true society.
Clearly, those of us who recognise these things haven’t always done the best job of communicating them, however. In the inaugural FREER paper, published today, our co-chairs Lee and Luke say that we must have the confidence to argue from first principles once again. They contend that “classical liberalism has a compelling case, and we need to make it” — and that this means ending “simplistic conflations between the values we believe in, and the caricature of liberalism that has grown up”. We cannot blame people for misunderstanding or stereotyping us if we do not stand up for what we believe.
We need now to regain our position, and the language that helps us explain it. As I wrote here a few weeks’ back, “surely, the crony oligopolist is the arch-enemy of the true free-marketeer”. Liberalism represents freedom, not identity politics; the free market represents liberalised trade and enterprise, not the corporatism that gives capitalism a bad name; and don’t even get me started on current understandings of libertarianism (let’s not get ahead of ourselves!). It’s time to recognise that increased personal freedom necessitates increased personal responsibility. It’s time to emphasise the deep societal benefits of a such an approach. And it’s time to stand up to those people who would rather tell us how to live our lives than enable us to find the right way for ourselves.
I know I’m biased, but, to my mind, FREER is positive and fresh, as well as solidly grounded in the long-standing tradition of classical liberal thought that is both good and effective. The embrace of freedom has boundless inherent value, and incomparable instrumental benefits for society. It’s what we need now, more than ever.