On Tuesday, 6 October, during the Conservative Party Conference, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Member of Parliament for Chelsea & Fulham, Greg Hands, contributed to a panel discussion at a fringe event organised by Reform, an independent and non-partisan think tank whose mission is to devise a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity.
Also speaking on the panel were Andrew Haldenby, co-founder and Director of Reform, Xavier Rolet, Chief Executive of the London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG), and Tim Hames, Director General of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.
Greg Hands’s contribution came in the wake of Reform’s publication of his article titled “When making the case for the Free Market, we need to do more than just win elections”. The panel’s discussion covered a range of topics, from the respective vote-shares for the Conservative Party and the combined anti-capitalist parties in the recent General Election, to the dramatically larger population of London when compared with the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham.
Speaking after the event, Greg Hands said: “It was a great honour to attend this year’s Conservative Party Conference, our first in eighteen years as a majority Government. However, we must not rest on our laurels; we need to do more than win the next General Election; we need to re-win the case for capitalism.
“These days, it can be hard to find a proper anti-capitalist opponent, and one would have to travel to Caracas or Pyongyang, for example, to do so. It is therefore more difficult to make the case for capitalism without such an immediate threat, although the new Labour leadership is a cause for concern. Accordingly, I would like to thank my fellow members of the panel, as well as the audience, for a thought-provoking discussion as we seek to maintain support for the free market.”
A copy of Greg Hands’s article follows below:
Rt Hon. Greg Hands MP: When making the case for the Free Market, we need to do more than just win elections
At the time of writing, “Corbynmania” is in full swing in the Labour Party, the SNP is vying to be the flag-waver for “anti-austerity” and a new LibDem leader is vowing to move his Party to the Left as well. Tube strikes are continuing and the political influence of militant trades unions seems to be stronger than at any time since 1990. Britain’s second, third and fourth parties all seem to be moving to the Left, and there is a danger that the “centre left” in Britain may disappear entirely, at least for a parliament.
A common theme of all of these trends is to question the workings and efficacy of the free market – nationalisation, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ companies, punitive taxation, etc.
To some of us, there really are similarities here with the 1980s, at least in some aspects. The main difference to the 1980s is that those of us defending the free market had a real, existing example of the opposite phenomenon – Soviet-led socialism. In 1989, one could travel approximately three hours from where I am sitting now to find oneself right in the middle of it, in, say, East Berlin. Indeed, I did, I went 48 times to the old East Germany between 1985 and 1989, and saw for myself the grim experience of so many in what was the Eastern Bloc’s most advanced state, and how conformity, the lack of private ownership, the lack of privacy, the destruction of individuality and economic stagnation did to both people and prosperity.
In 2015, it takes a long time (and some expense) to see Pyongyang, Havana or Caracas in person. The BBC don’t seem so keen on reporting from those countries either. So our challenge in this decade is to make the case for the free market without an easy illustration of the opposite phenomenon. We should not take it for granted that electoral success for supporters of the free market that we saw in May 2015, or indeed across most Western countries in recent years, necessarily means we have won the argument for the free market more generally. It is worth remembering the words of Margaret Thatcher, who told us that Blair and New Labour were one of her greatest achievements, “We forced our opponents to change their minds.”
Labour is even considering reviving Clause IV of their constitution. It is worth stating its precise words: that the Labour Party should “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
Common ownership. Distribution. Control. Such phrases are wholly at odds with the spontaneous order of the free-market economy, which most of us on the centre right assume is a proven success story. The hard left may be ridiculous, counter-factual and ahistorical, but they are also dangerous, and supporters of the free-market economy should be concerned.
Fortunately, we have some solid foundations on which to build. I was impressed during the election how well David Cameron and George Osborne framed the central argument about public services, namely that one needed a strong economy to fund strong public services. This wasn’t always an argument we made well in the 1980s. Even for parts of the public who aren’t natural enthusiasts for the free market, this argument can be very powerful. Namely, that we need strong businesses to create jobs, to pay the taxes which we need to fund the public services which so many people depend on. Distilled into its simplest form was the slogan “You can’t have a strong NHS without a strong economy”.
I would like to see all of us on the centre right take time out of our busy schedules to make the case more strongly for the free market. If socialism returns to government in this country, our children may not forgive us if we hadn’t.
This article appeared in the September 2015 magazine of the Reform think tank