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Last Exit to Freedom? Britain After Brexit and the Future of Conservative Politics

brexit momentus day
Written by David Frost

Nation states are the best way we have found to manage our affairs as human beings and to achieve collective decision-making within a single political community. Successful countries are successful nation states. Brexit was a vote to recreate the democratic nation state, with all the freedoms, opportunities, and challenges that go with that.

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This is the text of the speech given today (12 May 2022) by Lord (David) Frost to the Heritage Foundation, Washington DC.

Thank you Nile.  It is a great pleasure to be here.  I was last here at Heritage as political adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary. It is great to be back in my own right, and indeed to follow the extremely distinguished set of Conservative politicians you have welcomed here in the last few months  – notably Oliver Dowden the Conservative Party Chair, Brandon Lewis the NI Secretary, and Priti Patel the Home Secretary.  Their presence here symbolises the very close ties, personal and intellectual, that exist between our politics and our thought worlds in the US and the UK.  They are also a tribute to the huge role that Heritage, and you personally, Nile, here at the Margaret Thatcher Centre, have played in this.  You’re doing a great job.   Long may it continue.

I am a politician of a different sort to those I have just mentioned.  I haven’t been elected to anything – so far – though I am a member of that constitutional curiosity the House of Lords.  I’m best known – if I’m known for anything – for being UK Chief Negotiator on Brexit and then Cabinet Minister responsible for EU relations.  Before that I was a professional diplomat and ambassador before making the transition to politics as Boris Johnson’s political adviser after our Brexit referendum.

That career path has its pros and cons.  It is certainly unusual in UK politics.  Many people seem to have found it particularly curious that I have worked in, and emerged from, the pro-European Foreign Office bureaucracy as a convinced advocate of our exit from the EU.  To judge from social media, it has enraged an even larger number of people that I then went on to actually deliver that exit from the EU, when it seemed impossible, and then negotiate the biggest, and broadest ever free trade agreement, in the shortest ever time.  In a way our critics are right to be cross, because they know that without the team put in place by Boris Johnson, the team of him, myself, and yes Dominic Cummings, we would probably still be in the EU.  That’s our place in history and we will be judged by it.

Today though I want to look forward not back, and set out three things:

first why our exit from the EU is important and significant beyond Britain and Europe, or should be;

second, how we are doing so far and what needs to come next; – and finally what that means for the future for centre-right politics and politicians – by which I mean politicians who believe not only in free markets, but who also believe in the nation, in tradition, in standards and excellence – and who believe in the West and what it stands for. I believe the Conservative Party can and should have a special role in this, and that we in Britain can, if we get things right, lead the way.

Why does Brexit matter?

So, first, why does Brexit matter to anyone other than Brits?

Let me begin by looking at the title of my talk.  It’s called “Last Exit to Freedom”, somewhat provocatively some might think.  Not so much because of the word “last” – although I do think we were certainly close to time out as an independent state – but because of the word “freedom”.

People who opposed Brexit don’t seem to like the “freedom” word and often react strongly when we talk about Britain being “free again”.   Of course I don’t mean civil liberties, which are as well, or as badly, protected across Europe as in Britain.  What I do mean is the constraints on national democracy and freedom of choice.  EU member states cannot change a lot of things through their elections – trade policy, fiscal policy, energy policy, environment policy, increasingly foreign policy, for Euro members monetary policy with all its immense consequences.  This inability to make real choices and changes is surely part of the reason for the disaffection with mainstream politics very visible across Europe, the growth of fringe movements, the disintegration of the traditional party structures.

That is no longer true in Britain.  For better or worse, we can now change everything again.  British elections mean something.  Our culture of vigorous, indeed aggressive, debate can find an outlet.  I don’t think it is coincidence that fringe movements have never got established in Britain, that  the British party structure remains the traditional one – and that it came closest to collapsing when the British government seemed at its most ineffectual, in early 2019.

There is a second point to my title.  Some of you might suspect, and rightly so,  an allusion to Hubert Selby Jr’s famous, indeed notorious book from the late 1960s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”.  Not because the book’s contents are in any way relevant to modern Conservative politics, or at least not the bits I’m involved in, but because the book itself was the subject of the last attempt by the British government to ban a book as unsuitable for the general population.  Indeed it was thought to be so shocking that the trial judge refused to allow women onto the jury.  The attempt failed and produced the collapse of British censorship laws.

I make that allusion because there were – and are – too many people who see our exit from the EU in the same way – an issue that is not to be discussed in front of the children, one that was too difficult and too sensitive for ordinary people, one that should have been left to technocrats and those who know best.

I believe this is a profoundly wrong analysis.  Of course it is possible to come to different views on the merits of Brexit.  But it is wrong to suggest that such big political decisions are not suitable for people who are not professional politicians.  Everyone is able to have a view on how and by whom they are governed.  Indeed if big decisions are to stick they have to have popular buy-in, there has to be an understanding of why they are taken and what they mean for the country.  That means the right way to handle the big issues facing the country is to be honest about them, to debate them, to argue them out, to explain the trade-offs, and to try to take people with you.

So what is the best forum for these discussions?  I believe that the best forum we have so far found is the nation state – people with a shared national loyalty, but different political views, arguing them out, with consent to the system overall.  Nation states are the best way we have found to manage our affairs as human beings and to achieve collective decision-making within a single political community.  Successful countries are successful nation states.

This formula has been fundamental to Western success.  The consistent denigration of the nation state in favour of a vague internationalism or a very much less vague and more intrusive European ideology has created political disaffection.  As politics has got more distant, it becomes harder and harder for the average voter to make choices that affect their own lives.  Worse, because human beings want an identity, if they can’t have one that is based around a nation, they will retreat to other forms of identity politics instead.  If we are not careful this will turn all our politics into a zero-sum exercise of group rights more reminiscent of the worst parts of the developing world than of the formula that made Western success possible.

This is why Brexit matters.  It was fundamentally about democracy – the determination that, as far as possible, decisions that affect Britain should be taken in Britain.  It was a vote to recreate, in Britain, the democratic nation state, with all the freedoms, opportunities, and challenges that go with that.

That is also why its significance matters beyond our borders and why it should matter particularly here to our friends and allies in the US, at least to those of you who still believe in a special role for the US as leader of the West.  Brexit is – or should be – the first sign of a potential renewal of self confidence in the West.  It’s not a throwback – it is a move forward. It is the renewal of the formula that made the West successful – democratic states deciding their own affairs domestically and defending their security together against external enemies.

How are we doing so far?

Of course this renewal won’t just happen naturally.  We have to make it so.  So how are we doing?  Is post-Brexit Britain delivering on these grand promises?

The honest answer is that the record is mixed, but I think fair to say also beginning to improve.

I want to make four points.

First, it’s crucial to understand – it follows logically from what I have said – that Brexit is not an end in itself.  It is a door, a gateway through which the country must pass to emerge, blinking, in the light of freedom.  Thereafter, it’s up to us.  Unfortunately  the titanic effort it took to accomplish our exit from the EU, followed immediately by the pandemic, has encouraged too many politicians to slump back into the old armchair and say “that was enough for now, we’ll do the rest later”.

Second, we have of course not entirely escaped the EU’s orbit and that is having an effect.  This is most obviously true in Northern Ireland, where the EU, knowing we had no “walk away” option because of the actions of our own Parliament, has insisted that Northern Ireland must be treated as if it were quite simply part of the EU customs union and single market for goods – regardless of the protections and balances in the famous Northern Ireland Protocol.

The effect has been to inhibit energetic deregulatory action by the UK Government for fear of widening the regulatory gap with Northern Ireland, and to put the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of peace in the province, onto life support.  The Protocol arrangements could only have worked with delicate handling, but they have not had it.  Unless the EU now agrees to renegotiate the Protocol, I think the UK Government will have no option but to act unilaterally to correct its weaknesses.

I know the Administration is following this closely.  I urge them to be cautious in what they say and what they do.  I am not convinced the niceties of Northern Ireland are well understood by this Administration and I hope they will think hard before telling a friendly government how they must act to protect the unity and territorial integrity of their own country.

Third, our record and our plans on economic reform are mixed.  We have not yet moved decisively to remove some of the most egregious EU legislation that we argued against when we were a member state – though there are some signs this may be changing in this week’s Queen’s Speech.

Finally, fourth, our record on foreign policy and defence, the area where many sceptics of Brexit argued we would find it the most difficult to make a difference, is in fact arguably the most positive, the area where a new direction has been most clearly marked.  We decided a year ago to push up defence spending to well above the 2% target.  We have shifted our policy significantly on China – though arguably there is further to go – and we have put in place a generous policy toward Hong Kong refugees, recognising our historical responsibility.  The AUKUS arrangements show that we still bring strengths and capabilities to foreign and defence policy that others do not.  And most obviously, and recently, we got Ukraine right earlier than most, judging correctly that arming Ukraine would make a difference to the outcome, and, with our Central and Eastern European friends, have spoken up most clearly about the principles involved, in contrast to the equivocation from elsewhere. The agreements we reached with Sweden and Finland yesterday show that British policy, and British capabilities, still matter.

Supporters of Brexit always argued that, in this area, the gain from being able to act decisively around clear principles, and to lead and encourage others, would outweigh the loss of influence on the EU’s collective policy.  I think this has been amply proven.  We have not had to spend endless hours in the EU’s foreign policy and energy Councils seeking, vainly, to persuade others.  We have acted, and very often others have followed.

What that means for centre-Right politics

Where does this leave us, looking forward?  In particular, what does it mean for the Conservative Party in Britain, the party of Brexit, and the party that stood for the firmest free-market and Atlanticist principles in the past?  Are these principles still relevant today and if so how do we take them forward?

I believe they are still relevant.  Indeed it is time to renew our commitment to solutions that have worked in the past and which made the West economically, politically, socially successful.

But in doing so we must be honest about the situation we find ourselves in.  It is common to all of us in the West.  The whole Western world has slid into economic dysfunctionality.  Although the symptoms are different country by country, the underlying problems are the same, and indeed have the same cause.

We have historically low growth, low productivity, a decline in inventiveness and innovation, and a mentality that is about acquiescing in these problems rather than solving them.

The economic policy errors that followed the financial crashes of 2000 and then 2008 have produced durably low interest rates, a dysfunction in the working of the economy manifest in huge asset price inflation hitting the young in particular, a squeeze on savers, too many zombie companies, and a mentality that government can be asked to bail out any losers.

Our collective anxiety over climate change feeds the mood of miserabilism and low ambition.  For a decade or more we have all been told we have to make sacrifices to save the planet. Stop travelling, live local, eat less, stop eating meat, turn your lights out, stop being a burden. As most of us are generally reluctant to do this as individuals, the state has had to step in, in Britain at least with smart meters, heat pumps, low-traffic-zones, unsatisfactory electric cars, tailored taxation measures, and “nudges”. We have all gradually got used to this, so that it seems normal to be hectored about the moral aspects of virtually every choice in our everyday life.

And we have had the pandemic.  The lockdowns and restrictions on normal social contact were unprecedented. Twenty years ago they would have been impossible. But in an environment in which we had all grown used to “living local”, taking money from the government, and being told what to do, they seemed somehow expected, perhaps even inevitable.

Increasingly we are fearful of the new, fearful of events, fearful even of the future – as our demographic decline illustrates all too clearly.

All this has come together to produce a collectivist mood, to create groups within society who think the system offers them nothing, and a huge set of formidable problems which governments seem frozen in the headlights about.

There is no way forward for the centre Right without being honest about this situation.  It is the necessary prerequisite for setting a new direction.  We need clarity about what is wrong and what we are trying to do.  As Seneca wrote, Ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est – if you don’t know where you are sailing to, no wind is favourable.

If we don’t get a grip and don’t set a course to change things, we will just be carried along by the Zeitgeist, tinkering, trying to mitigate the consequences of forces that are taking us in a direction fundamentally opposed to what we believe – the direction of modern-day, modernist, collectivist socialism in which no-one is really responsible for anything, including the government; human aspiration and ambition is repressed; and what you get in life depends on your identity group rather than your own capabilities.

It is not too late.  Far from it.  Although things have gone a lot further in this direction in the US than I thought would ever be possible, the attachment of many Americans to free markets, to growth, to the West and to freedom is still remarkably, and reassuringly, strong.

In Britain too, many people sense deeply that something has gone wrong but aren’t sure why.  They still believe in the strength of Western society and are ready to get back on track, even, I believe, at some cost to themselves.

It’s the job of conservative politicians to strengthen this group, to enlarge it, and to offer its members hope that things can change for the better..

As I say, that involves having a credible policy prescription that acknowledges the difficulties and shows a way forward.  But it also means we must not cede the intellectual ground to our opponents, but instead be ready to talk about the moral and economic value of a free society where people can save, create, and flourish.  We must explain why we can’t spend money to solve every problem, why we can’t endlessly put in place palliatives to correct the symptoms of a fundamentally dysfunctional economy.

How this is done will vary from country to country in line with its own political traditions.

For us as Conservatives in Britain, it means we must take our voters seriously.  We must not come to believe that those people who voted for us for the first time in 2019 in the so-called Red Wall ex-Labour areas in Northern England are “really” Labour voters and that only sub-Labour high-tax high-spend policies will satisfy them.  Going down this road will force the Party away from Conservatism and away from our natural supporters, whether they are in the Blue or the Red Wall.  The Red Wall is not different from the rest of the country.  We will grow our supporters there  by showing that Conservative policies work, not by being embarrassed about them.  They want public services that work – who doesn’t?  They want the government to do its job properly – enforce law and order and control our borders.  But they also want businesses that succeed and make profits – indeed some polling suggests they are more pro-business than in the south.  They want to be able to keep more of their own money, to be able to afford to turn their heating on, and to be allowed to say what they think and pursue their own hopes for their lives.   That is what we need to deliver.

More broadly,  it seems to me the fundamental elements of a renewal of conservatism must include the following.

First, honesty.  We must level with people about the problems, the magnitude of the difficulties, and what the solutions involve.  We mustn’t pretend they are pain free.  As I said at the start, I believe honesty, free debate, engagement with the issues, will produce the right results.

Second, economic normalisation.  We must get back to a normal level of interest rates.  If that is to be done without collapsing the economy, we need a huge jolt to productivity growth. In the British context anyway, that will require dramatic deregulation far greater than anything that has been considered so far, tax cuts and investment incentives so as to change expectations about profitability of investment, and a much more rational energy policy.  People must think that the future will be better than the past, and that working hard, building a family, creating wealth are worthwhile activities.

Third, a sense of agency.  We need to renew our confidence that these tasks can be tackled and that our countries, our nations are viable entities that can deal with these problems.  That means accomplishing key non-economic state functions properly – law enforcement, migration management, and so on.  And it involves pushing back against those whose agenda seems to be to rubbish everything we stand for: our state, our history, our achievements.  Our nation state must be greater than any of the identities which make it up.

Finally, and fourth, assertiveness.  For all our weaknesses, the West is still very strong – as our collective reaction to the Ukraine war shows.  We are right to stand up for justice and for right.  I have been hugely struck by the sympathy for Ukraine’s cause all around Britain and by the pride many of us feel that our country has done the right thing and is recognised for it.  That too is a crucial part of being successful as a country.  None of us felt great about the shambolic evacuation from Kabul.  Let’s not forget that Thucydides rightly said, at the very beginning of Western historical writing, that states were motivated by “fear, interest, and honour”.  Doing the right thing – honour – really matters.

Free markets, aspiration, self-esteem as a country, facing difficulties rather than avoiding them – those are the routes to success.

I believe Britain, and our Conservative Party, is well placed to lead the way down this road.  Our country has never shied away from difficult challenges – indeed overcoming the impossible is built into our history as a country, one reason we were collectively able to overcome the deadlock in 2019 and finally deliver on the decision of the Brexit voters.

Our highly adversarial political culture means we are used to debating vigorously but also getting behind plans when we have made our mind up.

And, crucially, Brexit means we have the levers in our hands.  Almost uniquely among European states, we can take for ourselves the decisions we need to succeed.

The political task of the next year or so, in the run up to the next British election, is to develop a plan for the full revival of the British nation state.  That means making what is unambiguously necessary, politically possible.  It means taking  people with us.  And it means  honesty, openness about the trade offs, and clarity about why the tough decisions are worth it.

Pitt the Younger famously said after Trafalgar that “England has saved herself by her exertions and, will, I trust, save Europe by her example.”  I would not be so presumptuous today about Britain’s ability to show Europe the way.  Many Europeans don’t seem to think they have anything to learn from post-Brexit Britain.  But the EU has its own problems: the existence of the Euro means that many EU members face a particularly virulent form of economic dysfunction, one which will make economic normalisation peculiarly difficult, unless they are really willing to turn themselves into a genuine federal state.  We shall see.

But meanwhile of course we have other friends.  You in the US who believe in freedom, self-reliance, and Western values have huge battles to win too, though I have no doubt you will do so in the end.  I hope, indeed I know, we will be able to support each other, fight the intellectual battles together, and together put our countries onto a better path.  We have done it before, and I am confident we can do it again.

Thank you very much.

Lord Frost is Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange in London

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About the author

David Frost