As I write this article, the opinion polls are suggesting that the Conservatives could win their biggest landslide since 1983. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance radical free market policies that can turn post-Brexit Britain into a world leader in innovation and opportunity. However, instead of seizing the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May is using the weakness of the Labour Party to move to the Left in order to steal Labour’s voters – and too often its policies.
Many of us who believe in free-market economics wonder at this. How can a conservative party allow itself to be convinced to increase taxes, increase regulation and put up barriers to innovation rather than reducing them? How, despite global evidence of the efficacy of free-market economics, can the response to any problem still be calls for more government regulation or punitive taxes on those seen as doing “too well”? The reason is that we are losing the public argument, and too often have simply abandoned the intellectual battle to the Left.
More than half of us believe that the rich have got richer and the poor poorer – despite real disposable incomes doubling for poorer Britons
This must change, because we have an excellent story to tell. In 1957 Harold MacMillan famously told the British electorate – with a measure of certainty and confidence that no Conservative leader would dare to match today – that they’d never had it so good. And he was right! By the 1950s, Britain was richer, healthier and better educated than it had ever been.
But what would Supermac, or any politician from the 1950s, think of where we are today? In the past 50 years, the size of the UK’s GDP has almost quadrupled in real terms. The number of students staying in full-time education beyond 16 has more than quadrupled. The real incomes of the poorest in Britain have doubled since 1977. We are working fewer hours for more pay, and Britons are now living 10 years longer than in 1960. All this is largely thanks to the liberal economic policies espoused by Mrs Thatcher.
But this isn’t simply a domestic success. The Chinese are 77 times richer and live 30 years longer than in 1960. But it took real policy changes to bring about these incredible improvements. In country after country, the real gain came only after free-market reforms. Between 1960 and the late 1970s, the per capita wealth of Chinese people almost doubled. But in the 38 years since China embraced more capitalism and globalisation, it has increased by an almost unbelievable 4,300 per cent.
So why does no one seem to acknowledge what has happened?
According to polling, only eight per cent of people in Europe and the United States of America believe that world poverty has declined at all over the past 20 years. Swedish academic Hans Rosling carried out a study asking Britons multiple-choice questions about how much the world had improved. Pathetically small numbers got the answers correct. Both average Britons and university graduates performed worse than the chimpanzees that were included as a control.
More than half of us believe that the rich have got richer and the poor poorer – despite real disposable incomes doubling for poorer Britons. If we do not confront this ignorance, then we cannot hope to succeed.
But we also need to change the climate of the poverty debate on our side of the political fence. Free-marketeers are caricatured as having no interest in the human effects of our policies. Conservatives supposedly believe that people on low incomes should be content with the bare minimum – that complaints about an inability to get ahead, to buy that flat-screen TV and Sky Sports, are just whingeing.
Theresa May is using the weakness of the Labour Party to move to the Left in order to steal Labour’s voters – and too often its policies
That cannot be what conservatism and free-market liberalism are about. We must fight to open up avenues of improvement and opportunity across the income spectrum. More than anything, we should welcome this aspiration among the poorest in our society – not bang on like Monty Python’s famous Yorkshiremen about how much worse it was in our day. Just because people don’t need to “lick road clean wit’ tongue” doesn’t mean they are able to achieve their full potential.
Britain desperately needs a significant reduction in the size of the state, a radical tax overhaul and a deregulatory agenda. That is how Brexit will truly free our economy from the dead hand of Brussels, rather than simply moving it over here. But before that can happen we must get back in the ring and fight the battle of ideas against anyone, from any party, who would cripple our economy and reduce opportunities for the poorest with higher taxes or more regulation.