We meet at the right moment.
At the referendum seven years ago our country made a pledge to itself: to restore and renew the basis of our politics; to reconnect the government with the people; and to make the British Parliament once again the sole source of our laws.
What happened next? Well, it wasn’t great.
The forces that were defeated in the referendum did not disappear. For three years after 2016 the House of Lords, the judiciary, the civil service, the established media, and even the established church – all those conservative institutions which make up the skeleton of our body politic and which the British people by voting for Brexit had empowered with a new responsibility and independence – they didn’t all suddenly put their efforts into helping deliver the people’s decision.
And of course nor did the EU respect the sovereign decision of its closest ally, and seek to make Brexit work for both sides. We were pushed about like a child in the playground encircled by bullies, unable to break out.
Until 2019, when Boris Johnson stood up to Parliament, the judiciary, and the civil service. He stood up to our own Party and the brave deluded refuseniks who wouldn’t accept the result of the referendum. And because he showed courage the EU took notice. They took Britain seriously. They gave us a deal we could accept – our whole Party accepted it even if the opposition didn’t.
And so we broke free. We crashed through the ring of bullies and made it to the people, and forced an election: the great election of 2019, when the whole country voted to get Brexit done.
That election, confirming the decision of 2016, was or should have been a great turning point in our politics. I say ‘should have been’ because we still have to fully realise what 2019 meant; to honour the public’s demand and to fulfil the opportunities before us.
And what I want to do today is make the case for a 2019 strategy at the next election. This conference is the natural place to make that case.
It’s this simple. We need to lean into the realignment. Recognise that 2016 and 2019 were an instruction from the public that they expect us to govern with their interests, and their values in mind. Not the values of the intelligentsia – the globalised elite whose loyalties are to everyone and no-one. Our government’s loyalties must be to the people who brought us to power. If we honour those people, their interests, and values, then they will vote for us again and we will win again.
Let us not retreat to the southeast, to the managerial class, to the affluent – important as those places and those voters are. As Disraeli said the Conservative Party is a national party or it is nothing. Our future is with the nation as a whole.
So my argument today is this. We need to ‘Try the Nation.’ It’s not my phrase. It was the phrase of John Bright, the great Victorian reformer – no Tory; in fact a deep opponent of Toryism, of the landed interest, and, usually, of Benjamin Disraeli.
But on the great question of the franchise Disraeli knew that Bright was right. Together they outbid Gladstone to pass the Reform Act which gave the vote to working men. And this was Disraeli’s key insight. He knew that trusting the people wouldn’t make them all liberals. It would make them all Tories.
And that’s what happened. Disraeli enfranchised the people and brought them to the defence of the nation – and in doing so he won the support of millions of people for the Conservative Party.
And this has been the theme of Conservatism at its best ever since. Churchill, Thatcher, and for that brief moment Boris Johnson, knew that the national interest and our party interest lay in trusting the people. They lie that way again.
We know – and Rishi Sunak knows – that at the next election we need to trust the people once more. Because something profound has happened in our politics. 2016 and 2019 were reflections of a fact. The fact is the 21st century so far has failed the people of this country. Failed in the great idea of the 1990s and the turn of the millennium.
It was the great millennial package. Globalisation. Liberalisation. Modernisation. The progressive promise: abandon the nation – abandon the family and the neighbourhood too – leave those things to sentiment and the private sphere while the state gets on with public management.
And everyone would get richer. Everything would get nicer. We’d be more equal. More at peace. More free. That was the promise. In fact we’re all poorer. Less equal. Less free. Less at peace.
How has this happened? It’s partly economic and it’s partly cultural. We’ve had twenty years of cheap credit, cheap labour, cheap imports. An economy based on professional services, especially financial services: the butler economy as Michael Gove describes it; servicing the wealth of others without being too scrupulous about how they made it.
The people beyond the City meanwhile were useful only as consumers. The pound was propped up by the City of London so we could afford foreign goods while our own manufacturers starved, and entrepreneurs set up businesses just so they could sell them as fast as possible to a foreign buyer.
And for the jobs that need doing – in hospitals and factories and shops – we imported cheap workers from abroad. Eight million more people added to our population in this century because of immigration. Depressing wages. Imposing huge demands on the health system. On housing. On our future pension bill.
So this is the economy of the 21st century so far. Stagnant living standards.
Low growth. Chronically poor productivity. The most spatially unequal country in the developed world
The Government recognise all this and I applaud their efforts – on skills, on capital investment, on public services. They’re doing the right thing, and tacking problems decades in the making.
Who’s to blame? I blame the Labour government for opening the floodgates on immigration; for crashing the economy and then bailing out the banks with public funds – when we were already chronically indebted.
I blame the Bank of England since 2008 for printing money, suppressing interest rates and stoking inflation; and now they’re risking choking off the recovery by raising rates too much and for too long.
And I blame us – us Conservatives – for an economic and social policy between 2010 and 2019 that didn’t do nearly enough to correct these mistakes and in some ways made them worse.
As the Party that led the deindustrialisation of the North and Midlands when we were last in office, we failed to help those communities – neglected and taken for granted by Labour – to recover. To find a purpose and rebuild their local pride.
Yes, we had to balance the books after Gordon Brown’s debt and spending spree. But we hollowed out local government and we failed to grow the local economy: the high street, the small business, the local manufacturers.
We just kowtowed to China and turbocharged the City of London. The one truly good idea of those years – the Big Society – never got beyond schools and welfare. The chance to transform the country around civic responsibility; public services accountable to local people; the economy of a neighbourhood – well, that chance died of neglect in Whitehall and indifference by our Party.
And meanwhile – perhaps worst of all -on our watch we let grow the great cultural confusion that is bewitching our times. The weird medley of transgressive ideas that is now threatening the basis of civilisation in the West.
We have overseen the radicalisation of a generation In the name of a new ideology, a new religion – a mix of Marxisim and narcissism and paganism, self-worship and nature-worship all wrapped up in revolution.
It’s grown on our watch and we need to fight it. Now, part of me respects this new radicalism. It’s a reaction to the emptiness of liberal culture and the failure of the progressive promise. Let us not reproach our opponents for having an idea, some alternative better world. Let us not reproach them, most of all, for believing in identity – in some human quality that is sacred – outside the cash nexus, beyond worldly power.
Let us not reproach them for thinking the state and the law have a role in the production of meaning. Because we think that too.
Nevertheless, they are wrong and they are a lethal threat. Because to build their new Jerusalem – their pagan city on a hill – first the old one must be destroyed. Everything must be undermined. Dismantled. Swept away.
Everything must conform at last to the imagining of John Lennon: No countries. No families. No religions (except this one). Nothing to live or die for. No history, just a bland progressive present.
And over all of it – benign, omniscient, omnipotent – the progressive state.
Do you doubt it? Is this some dystopian fantasy? Always remember Covid. You saw what they did – what we did, we Conservative MPs – at that time. And many good conservatives and communitarians supported it.
We supported it because at first it was about duty. About putting the old and frail first for once. About stopping the relentless commercial world while we looked after our neighbours
But in the end it wasn’t about that, was it? It was about ‘the science’. The effective suspension of Parliament. The suppression of free speech and dissent. Closing schools. Closing churches, so that not even a solitary priest in his own church could give Holy Communion to himself
The first line of Magna Carta says this: the Church in England shall be free. But Magna Carta didn’t matter. During Covid the Church in England was not free. It was shut.
And you see what is coming next. Digital ID, digital currencies. There are good practical reason for these things, and I see how necessary and useful they could be. But I see almost nowhere in Government or in Parliament a conversation about liberty. About the dangers of giving Government or some shadowy quango the power to control us through digital means.
We are empowering the machine and the cost will be the loss of both liberty and community.
Because what do we live for, each of us? What holds us together, gives us meaning and purpose? The answer is our families, our communities and our country. And none of these things the machine loves. The machine is interested only in us as individuals.
It sees me, and each of you, only as a unit. To be numbered. Sorted. Counted. Costed. Analysed for its utility. Improved in its efficiency. Equalised. Aggregated – unrelated but undifferentiated. The same as everyone but knowing no-one. Serviced. Sanctioned. Surveilled. And then told that we are free.
What is to be done? The tech revolution is destabilising the world. Old adversaries are finding new tools to threaten us. New adversaries are arising. British society feels insecure, under threat; and we feel confused about what to do.
The risk is that we go back to the millennial idea. Here in the heart of Westminster you can hear the civil servants giving that advice to ministers in every department in these streets. Retreat to the progressive promise. Revive the managerial project. Put the grownups back in charge – the most irritating expression of the decade.
They want to reanimate the corpse of the 2000s and the 2010s. Blow air into those dead lungs. Let’s not do that.
Let’s do something else. And that is something is what we’re discussing here this week. This is the conversation we need to have. How to revive a truly national conservatism, that honours the decision of 2016 and 2019; respects the people and the places left behind by the 21st century so far – consistent with our past but rising to the challenges of our time, especially the great challenges of tech,
A real alternative both to progressive management and to the new religion that is infecting the West.
I don’t need to waste time defending National Conservatism from its detractors. We’ve seen in the last few weeks how little liberal commentators understand their own country, let alone conservatism.
But I do want to recognise and face squarely the tension within national conservatism, within this conference itself. It is a tension in each of us – between the desire to belong and the desire to be free. In political terms, it’s the tension between social continuity and the doctrine of the free market.
And this tension is real. Marx was right in the 19th century when he said that capitalism causes all that is holy to be profaned and all that is solid to melt into the air. John Gray was right in the 1980s when he said Thatcherism would eat itself – that the free market depends on social institutions and habits that the free market itself undermines.
But it is also true that in a well-organised society the free market – and personal responsibility, and private property – that these things help sustain the social order. They make possible prosperity and the virtues that we need to maintain the old ways and adapt them to the present.
But while Conservatives will always argue about the right balance between freedom and belonging – and we’ll always argue about how much government and how much market we need – let’s not argue about which came first.
We were not born free. We were born attached. Before we make our own way in the world, we belong to a family. We are related before we are alone.
And so Conservatism is not a philosophy of liberation. It is grounded in a recognition of our responsibilities to each other.
And so I want to end with a series of truths as I see them: three home truths that strengthen our relationships; truths that we need if we are to navigate these difficult times.
These truths are, I think, rooted in the attitudes and habits of the people of this country. They are national and they are conservative.
The first truth is that the job of government is to defend the interests of its citizens and indeed to privilege its citizens over those of other countries.
We have our foremost loyalties and obligations to people we know. That means we cannot give sanctuary to all the world’s poor or even to all those rich or strong enough to travel to our shores. The basis of our generosity to the world – and I want the UK to be the most genuinely generous country in the world – is that we control our own borders.
The second truth is that the normative family – held together by marriage, by mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children and the sake of their own parents and for the sake of themselves – this is the only possible basis for a safe and successful society.
Marriage is not all about you. It’s not just a private arrangement. It’s a public act, by which you undertake to live for someone else, and for wider society; and wider society should recognise and reward this undertaking.
And the third truth is this, that ties the other two together. The further job of government – after defending and privileging its citizens and supporting families – is to build an economy and a civic realm, a civil society, that nurtures good people.
Government can’t fix society. It can’t deliver social justice. But it can strengthen the conditions for justice – the conditions of virtue, that make us behave well to one another.
That means an economy built around the household. Where housing is actually affordable – not costing over half a family’s income as it does now, but more like a third as it used to.
My answer to that is Community Land Trusts – housing owned in trust for local people, so every town and village can build the housing it needs and get the benefit of it themselves.
An economy built around the household means jobs that are well paid – enough for a full time or two part time salaries to support a family. Where jobs are close to home.
Yes to the services economy – including financial services, one of the UK’s great advantages. But yes too to manufacturing. A genuinely local economy.
We see this happening – fitfully and in part, but unmistakably. I see it in Wiltshire, where thanks to the internet and to new tech-based businesses towns and villages left behind by industrialisation are becoming viable economic centres once again. Places of trade and craft and innovation, and all the ordinary jobs that sustain a community.
Here’s a metaphor. We see new tech-enabled models of agriculture that offer yields that rival the productivity made possible in the 20th century by pesticides and artificial fertilizers – but this time in a way that doesn’t wreck the soil and the water.
In pockets the insects and the birds are coming back to the land – and so are the people. In pockets agriculture is reviving. Manufacturing is reviving.
We need to rely less on imports and more on our own resilience. Most of all we need men and women to live lives of purpose. Where your responsibilities to your family and your community have as much status and fulfillment as the work you do for pay.
We need public services that are accountable to local people, built on relationships, where prevention is better than cure, where we can reduce the size of government – the vast bureaucracies of the welfare state – because we have reduced the demand for government help: because people are better, families are stronger, society is healthier.
We need young people encouraged and incentivised to seek meaningful, useful, practical trades – the vocational jobs our society needs. That means switching from funding nearly half of all school leavers to go to university and instead paying more young British people to be plumbers, electricians, engineers.
We need investment in people and also in technology. That means not just reducing but reversing the growth of immigration. Whether it’s a million or half a million net migrants last year that is hundreds of thousands too many.
We need strong borders and we need a bigger Army. I find it incomprehensible, facing the threats we do – and seeing the simple importance of military mass in the war in Ukraine – that we are reducing the size of the British Army.
Overall, we need to be ready. Ready to seize the opportunities of our extraordinary times but also ready for disaster. A Conservatives we are disposed to be gloomy. But the secret is that if we prepare for the worst, if the worst doesn’t happen or even if it does we will survive and thrive. And here in the UK we can be that inspiration to the world we privately know we are. People around the world look to us as the source of the ideas and institutions of liberty and prosperity – the source of conservatism.
So if the dark day comes when some new threat arises – war or plague or some tech-made disruption – let us in these islands be prepared. And the basis of that preparation is in John Bright and Benjamin Disraeli’s insight.
Let us trust the people. Let us try the nation.