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Free Markets and Nationhood – a Cure for the UK’s Malaise

A policy based on economic and political freedoms, nationhood and patriotism will help cure this country’s malaise resulting from prolonged membership of the EU, argues Lord Frost in this edited extract from his Politeia analysis, Free Markets, Competitive Business and Nationhood.*

The UK is still suffering from a malaise brought about by its long membership of the EU. Membership did not have the same effect on France or (maybe) Germany because they saw the EU as their project, one they had to invest in and think strategically about if it was to work.  We never did.  The UK never sought to rule the EU, at times sought to shape aspects of it, but by the end sought only to resist it.  Now out, the UK finds it hard to think strategically and systematically about how the country should be governed – and people can see it.

That does not mean Brexit was the wrong thing to do.  Brexit is the way to stop genteel decline, not the cause of it.  Brexit is a necessary, but of course not sufficient, requirement for tackling the UK’s problems.  To do that a deeper malaise must be dealt with.

How?  First the focus must be on the fact that politics in this country now involves two sets of issues: economics and values.

The first, economics, is well known.  There is a spectrum of views, from free markets at one end through to social democracy and socialism at the other.  Conservatives are fairly distinctively found at one end of this spectrum, socialists at the other.

The second issue, values, needs more comment.  It is a spectrum at one end of which is nationhood and community and a sense of place, a belief that the best way we have found of organising a democracy, with all the arguments that come with it, is within a nation state with some established traditions and conventions.  Patriotism, established institutions, a degree of social conservatism, control of borders and migration, family, history, religion, duty, are all part of it.

At the other end of this spectrum is ‘globalism’.  The word may already be tainted but, used in a non-pejorative sense, it perhaps means a belief that the main forces in modern politics are not nation-state based and do not depend on tradition, but rather are about personal autonomy and fulfilment, and about non-geographically based communities, regional or global ideas, norms, regulations, and institutions.  There is a belief that barriers to these things are in principle undesirable, if sometimes necessary in practice, that the ideas themselves can be constantly reinvented, and that established ways of doing things can and should be overturned if there is a justification for it.

Conservative politics does not at the moment appear to be in the right place on the economics and the values spectrums. Since 2010, there have been, to differing degrees, free market policies with a large element of globalism and social liberalism; followed in the 2017 administration by elements of social conservatism, nationhood and economics seeming to drift leftwards into social democracy and the belief that a cohesive nation must necessarily have high levels of government tax and spend too; then followed by the final delivery of Brexit, then Covid, accompanied by a rhetoric mixing all the above elements.

Overall, there seems to be a very heavily embedded belief that if you are a free marketeer, you must be a globalist, and if you are a social conservative, you must also be a social democrat. This is mistaken. There is another approach, and unless the UK adopts it, the country will not be able to achieve the changes needed to make Brexit a success.

That other approach is to see free markets and nationhood, not as contradictory, but as mutually reinforcing.  The way forward for Brexit conservatism is free markets in the economy and nationhood and social conservatism in values – at one and the same time.  If nationhood and social conservatism are ignored, all the things that make a country a country are ignored.  Equally, if free markets are ignored, economic decline follows.  Both are needed.    Indeed, the more emphasis there is on free markets , the more social conservatism is needed: only the sense of community and nationhood makes the constant churn and change of free markets in any way tolerable.

Why is the government not putting this mix on offer?  First, there seems a very strong ‘business liberal’ view within the Conservative party, and beyond. Second, there has grown up a strong current of support within the Conservative Party for an ‘active state’, a state which does not just do its core job but gets assertively into areas like industrial policy and skills policy. Third, and finally, and this is the most difficult problem, there is the very marked devaluation of the idea of  freedom in Western societies.  The model of the self-reliant individual is in rapid decline.

The government should resist these pressures. As the custodian of economic and political freedoms, and of nationhood and patriotism, the government and its political leadership should move from its defensive crouch.  If there is to be a bonfire of controls, ‘control’ must be become a bad word again, and ‘freedom’ a good one.

*This is an edited version of David Frost’s Free Markets, Competitive Business and Nationhoodnow published by Politeia to follow his recent Politeia address

David Frost

David Frost (The Rt Hon Lord Frost CMG) served as Minister of State at the Cabinet Office in 2021 (March-December) and before that was the UK Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union, 2019-20. He is a Conservative peer, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a senior Fellow at the think tank Policy Exchange.  His earlier career was as a diplomat and civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He has been the UK Ambassador to Denmark, EU Director at the FCO and Director for Europe and International Trade at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He was elevated to the House of Lords as a life peer in 2020.

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