Michael Gove is Secretary of State for Levelling Up, and is MP for Surrey Heath.
The world is changing at breakneck speed, and our politics must follow. As we enter the middle of the twenty-first century, parties of both left and right in the UK must adapt to meet new challenges.
As we set out in our Levelling Up White Paper, structural weaknesses in our economy and our society need addressing as existing models run out of road. As the position of the UK in the world evolves, alongside other developed democracies, conservatism will need to change too.
The Prime Minister says that Conservatives must seek to govern not reactively to short-term pressures but in the country’s long-term interests. He is absolutely right. He is right too that the politics of the last three decades must change too.
In the first of three reports for its commission on the Future of Conservatism, Onward launched, a week ago today, The Case for Conservatism, which lays out a vision for how to do just that. The authors, Nick Timothy and Gavin Rice, make the case for a uniquely British renewal.
Conservatives have much to be proud of. Our party transformed a stagnating, sclerotic economy into a dynamic, prosperous one in the 1980s. We re-asserted British power during and after the Cold War. We restored fiscal balance and responsibility after the 2008 crisis, have led the way on the environment, pioneered vital educational reforms, overhauled our welfare system, and led the world in standing strong beside Ukraine.
After the momentous vote to Leave the EU in 2016, only a Conservative government with an overall majority proved willing and able to implement the democratic will of the British people, taking us out of the European political project with a bespoke Free Trade Agreement.
But conservatism is about pragmatic change in the national interest, and new times call for new approaches. As the Prime Minister has argued, there are long-term domestic and global challenges Britain must face – challenges we see across the West. The decision of the British people to leave the EU was a vote for sovereignty, but it was also more than that. It was a call for change from those for whom our existing economic model was simply not working.
The aftermath of deindustrialisation and ultra-globalisation has left the UK highly dependent on a narrow range of sectors. Global offshoring has disrupted communities and increased regional divides. Voters in these communities deserve better – and that’s why levelling up is the defining mission of this Conservative government.
The compact between social classes is also under strain. Younger people need support to get on the housing ladder. Economic growth needs to be spread more equitably. Migration brings benefits, but the pace of cultural change can disorientate, while also increasing pressure on public services and pushing down wages for lower earners.
These are pressures facing every developed nation – but the UK can continue to be the best country in the world in shaping a more genuinely inclusive future. That means improving labour productivity, stimulating wage growth and showing strategic leadership in industrial and economic modernisation.
It also means sensible family policy – providing the new homes, higher-paying jobs, safer high streets and answers to social care which enable families to flourish and bring up children in security.
We must also stand up for British voters in the face of rapid social and cultural change. Respect for the values and experience of all our citizens also means tackling those ideological actors who seek to divide our society. That means upholding pride in the places people love and confidence in our inclusive culture. As conservatives, we know history does not march in one direction only. We have a choice – this is the gift of democracy.
The UK has significant underlying strengths. We retain a leading role in advanced manufacturing, life sciences, research and innovation. We have globally competitive service industries. We are a country people want to come to live and work in, enjoying a level of freedom and security others can only dream of. We have a history of which we can be proud. We champion the beliefs of freedom, tolerance and liberal democracy, rooted in the bonds of nationhood, community and the common good.
But our nation state does not need to wither before impersonal global market forces, or be out-competed by hostile trading partners and aggressive powers. It is possible to achieve both faster growth and a fairer social contract. Individual freedom can only find its fulfilment in the bonds of community. A state that is active, not absent, need not lead to the stagnation of welfarism. Rather, it can enable the kinds of private sector growth that will lead to better jobs and prosperity across all regions, communities and classes.
We believe conservatism has the intellectual resources and the strategic pragmatism to embrace change and provide new answers. Our well-tested beliefs, applied to new contexts and challenges, will prevail. Prosperity and fairness can co-exist. Individual, community and nation depend upon one another.
A modern, reformed conservatism can achieve such a vision. By fostering a British renewal, with the flourishing of our national community at its heart, we hope and believe to lay the foundations for a brighter, better politics of tomorrow.