Media appearances

SPEECH BY THE RT HON LORD FROST, Danube Institute, Budapest, 21 March 2024 – The right track: has British conservatism lost its way?

Note: this text has been lightly edited for publication purposes.

Thank you to the Danube Institute for hosting me tonight and allowing me to speak in this marvellous setting.  It is a particular privilege to be allowed to give my amateur thoughts about conservatism in a forum with John O’Sullivan, a man who has been at the vanguard of conservative thought and action across the West for so many years, and who continues to argue for freedom and Western civilisation at every opportunity.  Thank you John. 

I can answer the question in my title straightaway.  There's no doubt about it. British conservatism has certainly lost its way. That's not a value judgement. That's a judgement based on the polling that shows the party at 20 to 25% of the vote - the worst poll ratings for many years.  Polling has fallen from around 50% in early 2020 to, in the latest polls today, around 20% or even below.  As things stand the party is heading for a very severe defeat when the election comes later this year. So the question is not have we lost our way, so much as how and why have we lost our way, and what can be done about it.

Now it is easy and tempting to answer that question by reference to the specific failures of the last few years, and in particular the ousting of Boris Johnson, the unsatisfactory Liz Truss interlude, and the installation of Rishi Sunak as a Prime Minister without any sort of competition within the party and, as it seems, without much electoral appeal either.  Those factors do play a part.  But in many ways they are just symptoms of bigger, structural, political problems.  And it is those that I want to dwell on tonight:

-          first by setting out the challenges I think Britain faces;

-          second by explaining how the Conservative Party has generally failed to master these challenges

-          and third, and finally, by suggesting very briefly what we might do about them. 


Before I do, I want to make a couple of preliminary points. 

The first is to note that this lecture is focused on domestic politics.  While the past 15 years have been fascinating for observers of, and indeed people like me who have  participated in, British foreign policy-making, the issue of foreign relations - with the exception of Brexit - has not been decisive in what has gone wrong for the Party in recent years.   As always, all politics is domestic. 

The second is to note that, although I am going to say various difficult things in this lecture about the state of the UK and the Conservative party, they shouldn’t be taken in isolation and they don’t reflect a total picture.  Britain still has important strengths.  Crucially, we have restored our democracy and, at least potentially, removed our policy making from the dead hand of the big-state high-regulation EU model.  As a result we are better positioned than many EU member states, especially those stuck in the rickety and dysfunctional Eurozone, which you in Hungary have been so wise to avoid.  All the gloomy predictions about Brexit, still so widely and gleefully repeated by the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and others, have proven untrue: there has been no visible or meaningful economic impact from Brexit. We have world-class research, higher education, and services sectors, and it is well worth noting the export boom in services in the last couple of years. We also have remarkable political strengths. Britain was the first country to dig itself out, through its own strengths, from the pandemic lockdown psychology at the end of 2021 - the issue I resigned as a minister over – and it remains difficult to suppress debate on issues that public opinion wants to discuss.  In short, by European standards, Britain remains remarkably successful.  It’s just that European standards are not, nowadays, good enough. 

Moreover, quite a lot has also gone wrong and that is why we find ourselves where we are, facing a set of challenges that are as serious as any faced since the war. 

Part 1 - the challenges and stresses facing the UK

In my view the United Kingdom faces three big challenges.  Let me set them out. 

The first of the stresses is economic and it is most starkly illustrated by the slowing growth in per capita GDP over the last 15 years and its turning negative in the last two years. It has many causes: the extreme dysfunction of our planning system and the National Health Service; the regional and sectoral distortions created by the integration of the UK into the EU single market; the pernicious post-2008 consequences of zero interest rates with the resultant collapse in productivity, including the growth of a collectivist mindset, growth- and innovation-destroying net zero policies, and the psychological and economic legacy of the lockdowns; and the need for mass immigration as an unsatisfactory palliative for all these strains. The result has been to extinguish growth, to push up the tax and spending burden, and to turn Britain into an inefficient permanent collectivist social democracy. This is the economic problem.

The second set of stresses may be less obvious to overseas and particularly to continental European observers. It stems from the importation of broadly European governance methods into Britain’s unwritten and constantly evolving constitution over the last 50 years. Although the underlying causes can be found in membership of the ECHR and then the European Union, and indeed in the deep-rooted declinism of much of the British establishment since the war, the stresses did not develop in earnest until the late 1990s. From that time there has been consistent intrusion into the UK’s system from elements more familiar in European constitutions: a higher so-called “supreme” court which has pretensions to be superior to the national legislature; the restriction in practice of the traditional concept of parliamentary sovereignty; the growth of a set of national laws with semi-constitutional status, which we have never had before,; increasingly intrusive supervision of government actions by the courts; and the emergence of a civil service which sees itself not as adviser and implementer, but as a constitutional check and repository of ideological values in its own right. We also came to believe that the UK was not the unitary state that we all thought it was but rather a multinational creation of four separate entities, more like a federal state, with every part in principle entitled to secede. In short, confidence in the UK’s traditional ways of doing things has waned.  Moreover, despite our departure from the EU, many of those who rule us are still mentally in this technocratic world, and lack the confidence or desire to break out from it. This is the governance problem.

The third is the gradual replacement of classically Western values with post-modernist “woke” thought, a process which has dramatically accelerated in the last ten years, and one with which you in Hungary are extremely familiar. The most visible effects of this so far are the more intrusive constraints on free speech, the decline of the belief in objective truth, the chip on the shoulder about colonialism and Britain’s historical record more broadly, the growth of an actively anti-religious and anti-Christian culture from one that was merely neutral; the focus on group rights, diversity, and what divides us, including through the weaponisation of our Equality Act, rather than individualism, excellence, and national cohesion; and the reflex push by all institutions towards progressive societal change. This is the values problem.

The combination of these three problems is why we find ourselves where we are. Clearly all Western countries have been subject to these broad trends, and they have played themselves out in different ways, but they have perhaps been particularly dramatic in the UK, partly because our constitution was always idiosyncratic by European standards and so European law and foreign courts have had a particularly wrenching effect, and partly because the revolution in British economic prospects under the Thatcher government was so much based on the values of individualism, freedom and free markets, precisely the elements now under such significant attack. All taken together, this accounts for the sense that many in the UK feel of disturbance, of something having gone wrong in our political life, and - for many - frustration that this has all happened under a Conservative government.

The failure to get to grips with these problems is why so many Brits say "the Tories have been in power for 14 years and have achieved nothing". As I noted earlier, that's not quite fair, but it is understandable. And there is no point arguing with the electorate - they are always right. Instead we have to persuade them.  Our failure to do that accounts for the political problem we now have. Quite simply, it is that nearly two thirds of those who voted for us in 2019 won’t vote for us now. The political task is to bring them back. So far, we have failed.

Part 2: why has the Party failed to master these challenges?

In my view, there are five broad sets of problems that explain why we are where we are.

-          First, the deep ideological confusion in the party;

-          Second, the failure to get to grips with the economic problem I identified just now. It's not only that economic performance has been poor - it is that we have not tried to explain what is necessary to change it.

-          Third, the unwillingness to address the decline in state authority;

-          Fourth, our neglect of the values changes in the country over the last 20 years;

-          And fifth, and finally, we have persistently been tempted to pivot back to a narrow and insufficient social and geographical base for our vote, one that is not wide enough to win elections from.

Now let's take a look at each of those in turn.

First, we have got to a point where there is huge ideological flabbiness and confusion in the party.  This stems ultimately from a lack of hard thinking. It has of course always been true, and famously, that the Conservative party is a broad church containing many different kinds of opinion. That is true, but it still can't contain every kind of opinion.  Traditionally, the Conservative Party has had within it a range of views on economic policy, from strongly free market to a softer bigger-state conservatism, but it was always anchored by a strong collective belief in the nation, in standing up for the United Kingdom, and in social conservatism.  But this has changed in recent years. The accommodation to the trends of secular progressivism and liberalism, about which I shall say more in a moment, and the changes in the composition of the parliamentary party which this has entailed, have dragged the party to the left on social issues.  There is now a strongly socially modernising wing within the Party which, at times, and on the fringe, veers into active support of “woke” values.  So the Conservative Party is now all over the political spectrum, socially and economically.  It is no longer sufficiently distinct from the Labour Opposition either economically or socially.  No wonder strong conservatives are drifting away.

This ideological vacuousness has had major consequences in all areas - notably, the second issue, the fact that we haven't got to grips with what's gone wrong in the country's economic performance in the last 20 years. Although we may not always have been explicit about it, we took the view that there had been a durable shift to the Washington consensus, or to the left, if you like - they are the same thing. We took it for granted that economic growth could always be generated through these means, that the growth problem was essentially solved, and that politics was all about, as it was put at the time, “sharing the proceeds of growth". So we failed to explain that growth doesn’t just appear, but has to be created. And indeed it hasn’t just appeared - it has been weakened, by global trends, but also by our own actions.  We went along with the view, a heresy in the Thatcher era but reintroduced into the British body politic under Gordon Brown, that the state had to be deeply involved in the economy and in protecting individuals from risk. And we not only took for granted the society-changing policy of net zero, we chose further to double down on the socialist view that it could only be delivered by command and control, not by the market, and by a regression in technology to wind power rather than through advance to modern gas and modern nuclear power.

For all these reasons, we have found ourselves dealing with an increasingly serious economic problem with only a limited range of arguments, largely reflecting our opponents’ world view.  Instead of explaining how a modern economy works and why, and what the trade-offs are, we have accepted unchallenged certain progressive and socialist presumptions about the modern economy and the role of the state within it.  Since we have given the impression that growth prospects can be determined by state action, many voters conclude that since the economy is bad it must be the government’s fault.  All the pedagogical work that was done in the Thatcher era, which was necessary and which did change attitudes, has been lost, and we have no reservoir of arguments to make to the British people now that we face a genuine economic crisis, other than, as Boris Johnson put it, to promise that "the government will put its arms around you", a promise for which we no longer have the money.  Moreover, because in fact many people across the country do not accept those presumptions, and in fact want to see conservative policies, our vote has begun to fray away at the edges.

Our third problem is the failure to deal with state and governance weakness. Our ideological feebleness has meant that, to the extent that we have an appeal to the electorate, it is based on pragmatic administration of a given status quo and is about administrative competence. That is always a risky appeal for a conservative party, especially in a country where the establishment and elites are broadly progressive. And so it has proved for us.

If you come to the UK much, you will very often hear people saying something like “it feels like we can't get anything done any more”. I don't think they are wrong in thinking that. In fact I think it is very true and it has a number of causes. One of them is all those governance weaknesses I referred to earlier, the web of treaties and constraints and courts that clog up the business of government and exclude some policy options right from the start. There’s the refusal to reform our 19th-century civil service model, which significantly restricts elected ministers’ ability to control the government machine.  There’s the fact that our independent public institutions, the police, universities, and so on, are increasingly defining their own goals and acting as they wish rather than according to what the government wants - as we have seen in the loss of authority in policing the huge demonstrations in London in recent weeks. There is the way all our infrastructure projects get bogged down in red tape in planning law and in process and legal challenge. There is the inability to control our borders, most famously with the small boats problem on the south coast, where we are tied up in international legal commitments. And finally there is the huge, huge issue of legal migration where successive governments have made the promise to get legal migration down to under hundred thousand, and yet it is currently running at six or seven times that level - so there is a sense that whatever the government says and whatever it promises it simply either doesn't have the power or doesn't have the will to change the situation. Indeed if I had to identify one issue that is corroding the government’s and the party's prospects, it is that inability to control migration and deal with all its economic, social and cultural consequences.

The fourth problem, the failure to engage in the changes in values in wider society, is in part related. As I noted earlier, the Conservative party has always, at least until recently, been the party of the nation and of social conservatism. Until recently too, belief in those two things was so widely and deeply entrenched that we didn't feel the need to spell them out. For most of the Conservative party's history it has been possible to take certain things as read - a belief in Britain as a valuable and basically successful nation state, an understanding that our history was something to be generally proud of, and certainly something that had shaped us, an acceptance that the family was the fundamental basis of a free society, and behind that a view that individuals were expected generally to make their own way in the world and to get on with their own lives, and that the government did not have the right to interfere in certain areas. All that was so taken for granted that we never saw the need to make the case for it. To the extent that we spotted that a values change was happening, we saw it as a general social and political modernisation which we could safely go along with, rather than what it actually is, a Marxist ideological undermining of the basis of Western society.

So we didn't make the case for core conservative propositions around nationhood. When we woke up - and in our case it was mainly through Brexit and the connected debate about immigration - we realised that many fewer people believed in them than we thought. We discovered suddenly after our referendum that the German concept of the nation state, ie that it was a bad thing, had got very widely spread in Britain among the young and among the progressive establishment. We realised that many people simply did not believe in borders, thought that in principle anyone in the world had the right to come to the UK, and didn't agree that we had the right to stop them. We suddenly discovered that national heroes like Churchill had become controversial figures and that many people had a very partial understanding of the achievements of Britain. All this reached its apogee last weekend when we discovered that those responsible for rehanging landscape paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, one of Britain's greatest museums, thought that appreciating paintings of the British landscape could turn people into far-right sympathisers.

What all this means is that this Conservative party has to be ready to address those issues much more explicitly than in the past.  That includes setting out the case for Brexit much more assertively - but not just that. We can't just assume that people think the British nation state is a good thing. We have to persuade them. Unfortunately we've discovered that even some Conservative parliamentarians are uncomfortable with this and regard it as all a bit embarrassing. That's not going to be good enough. If we can't make ourselves do this, who else is going to?

The fifth and final problem is our pivot back to a rather narrow social and electoral base.  In 2019, the Boris Johnson government won on the back of a very wide coalition, and beat Labour in wide swathes of northern England, in the so-called “Red Wall”. Now, many people within the Conservative party seem to have felt that there was something artificial about this coalition, that voters who weren’t really Conservatives had been drawn in by the need to get Brexit over the line and by the deep unpopularity of the Labour leader of the time, Jeremy Corbyn. They drew the conclusion that we had involuntarily acquired some leftish voters and therefore we needed to give them leftish policies if we were to keep them - a conclusion that I have called the “Red Wall fallacy”. This produced a drift towards unconservative policies such as tax rises, higher public spending, and statist economic policy, which took us further away from conservative roots.

The tragedy is that this is based on a complete misapprehension. The 2019 coalition was absolutely in line with the tradition of the Conservatives as a national party. If you look back to the early Thatcher years, Margaret Thatcher won votes in very similar places in the north as Boris Johnson won in 2019. In fact, right back to the mid-19th century, whenever the Conservative party won elections, it won them by winning in these areas. What happened in 2019 was that, because of Brexit and Corbyn, we finally won over to the Conservatives people who by all normal markers of politics - income, lifestyle, family, job, housing - should have been Conservatives already. But the strength of Labour tradition and the folk memory of hostility to Margaret Thatcher had, until that point kept them Labour. So obviously, when they finally came over, what they wanted was Conservative policies, not socialist ones.

That is what we failed to deliver. Our unconservative and ideologically flabby approach drove our new voters away.  It then became a natural consequence to revert to our comfort zone of relatively well off voters in southern England.  Unfortunately it is precisely these voters who are disproportionately anti-Brexit, culturally and socially liberal, and generally not attuned to the Conservative Party.  Of course that had always been true to some extent, but we had kept these voters loyal in the privacy of the voting booth by a simple appeal to self interest - notably through low tax.  Now we are not even doing that.

In short, a lack of understanding of our new electorate, an intellectual failure to think through strategy, and a failure to deliver core conservative policies, has alienated voters across the country, both old and new. No-one is getting what they want – and that’s why they aren’t voting for us.

This has one other consequence – it is that we are doing almost nothing for young people. Our voters in southern England are disproportionately elderly, wealthy, and hostile to building houses and infrastructure – and our policies have reflected that. We are about 4 million houses short for our population and as a result we have the highest house prices in Europe. Young people are being priced out, are unable to leave home and form families. The normal shift of young people from youthful leftism to middle aged conservatism is not happening. We have only 7% of voters under 24 and, extraordinarily, only 14% of those under 50. That isn’t sustainable.

In short, we have an older, southern, privileged, property-owning voting base – largely, people who are doing alright despite all the challenges. It’s good that they vote for us, and I certainly don’t want to drive them away, but the problem is there isn’t enough of these people to win an election with. Worse, this perception weakens our national brand. Our opponents have always accused us of being the party of the rich and of not caring about the poor. Our actions are making this true once again. So we need to behave like a national party, and we mustn't retreat to our laager. That way lies strategic defeat.

Part 3: What is to be done

So what is to be done? The good news is that, in my view anyway, it is not too late to change the policy, change the approach, and bring at least some voters back – just as Boris Johnson did in 2019. If we don’t – and at the moment this seems unlikely – we will certainly have to have the argument after the election and in all likelihood in opposition.

But, whenever it happens, various things are a prerequisite for this.

First of all, we have to be honest with people. We have to say that we can't go on as we are, that there is no easy way out of this mess, but failure to tackle it only makes it worse. We have to gird ourselves for the challenge and get on with facing it.

We must also tell voters, and believe it ourselves, that there is no point in taking measures which may be politically possible, but can't actually solve our problems. Our task is instead to make politically possible the measures that are needed to resolve the problems of the country. Those are going to be radical, they are going to be difficult, and they are going to be far reaching. But there's no point in doing less than that because anything less than that will not solve our problems.

My view is that we need a huge reform programme on a scale that is not currently well understood, and over a 5 to 10 year period. We should have been making the case for this already, but the best time to start is now. And that programme involves both less state and more state, and that is one of the political challenges for getting it across.

As regards the economy, we need less state. There is no future for the country as a high tax high spend social democrat economy. We need to get tax-and-spend down. We need to reform the planning system. We need to reform our health system over time and we need to remove the crushing burden of net zero on energy costs and try and bring industry back to the country. And we're going to need a huge programme of deregulation of the labour market, of planning and environmental measures, and of the business environment. That is the only way we will get growth back and if we don't get growth back we are not going to solve all of our other problems.

At the same time we need more state in the sense that we need a huge improvement in state effectiveness in areas where the state has an actual job to do and needs to do it properly. We need a government machine that can manage institutions in line with the government’s actual priorities, and a system of governance with levers that ministers can pull and make things happen.  We need a state that can control the borders, fund defence properly, police the streets, defeat extremism, stand up for the nation and its history, and push back on post-modern woke ideas in public institutions.

In my view, these two things - less state and more state in the appropriate areas - are not contradictory. You don't get a successful cohesive nation state if you are not delivering acceptable levels of economic growth; and you don't get those  acceptable levels of economic growth if people don't feel they are part of a cohesive, supportive national project, because otherwise they won’t put up with the churn and change that are part of a successful market economy. The two have to go together.

And finally, and self-evidently, the Conservative party itself has got to decide where it stands on these questions and whether it is ever capable of delivering this kind of programme. Before too long it must narrow down the ideological options, and that is going to be painful given the starting point. But we have to get to a point where people understand what they are getting if they vote Conservative - not an ideological mess, but a clear programme directed by people who understand it and are capable of implementing it.


To conclude.  Every time we have offered a clear right-wing Conservative philosophy at elections, which has happened all too rarely, we have won handsomely - in 1983, in 1987, and in 2019. When we've not done that we have failed to win. This reflects the fact that there are large numbers of British people who still want to see traditional Conservative policies, who still believe in the traditional virtues of conservatism, economic, social cohesion, and want a party that delivers them. If we can persuade people we haven’t given up on that, we still have a chance this year. If we can't, I very much fear a very serious defeat and a lot of recriminations ahead.