In The Matrix, the lead character, Neo, is offered a choice by Morpheus, the leader of a rebel band. Neo can take a red pill, and discover that the world around him is an entirely false construct. Or he can take a blue pill, and wake up in bed, blissfully unaware that everything about his life is a fabrication.
Of course, we are not living inside some artificial reality, like in The Matrix, controlled by powerful forces without even realising it. But if Western citizens were presented with a choice of pills, and opted for the red one, they would see that the world is not as they imagined. Many aspects of life they were told were unavoidable and universal, inevitable and irreversible are really no such thing at all.
We have grown used to being told that globalisation, in the form we have experienced it, is an irresistible force, the product of inexorable progress. We have been told that the nation state – and the collective identity, democracy and solidarity it makes possible – must be subordinated to supranational governance. We have been told that international market forces are impossible to shape, mass immigration is impossible to stop, and the destruction of culture is impossible to resist. We have grown to accept that markets trump institutions, individualism trumps community, and group rights trump broader, national identities. Legal rights come before civic obligations, personal freedom beats commitment, and universalism erodes citizenship.
These things have become the norm not because they are the natural order of things, but because our world is a construct of ideology. That ideology is not as extreme as those our leaders like to reject, like communism or fascism. But it is an ideology nonetheless, and its name is ultra-liberalism. Like all ideologies, as its contradictions and failures mount, ultra-liberalism is growing illiberal and intolerant towards dissenters, and retreating into delusion and denial.
Consider for a moment how the political classes did what they could to thwart Brexit. How, when it comes to public services, the answer is always to turn them into a market. How politicians insist we need more and more immigration. And think about how those who disagree with them are smeared as bigoted, deplorable and incapable of understanding the complexity of the modern world.
My new book, Remaking One Nation, sets out why things have got this far, and what conservatives can do about it. We need to counter ultra-liberalism, and develop a new conservative agenda that respects personal freedom but demands solidarity, reforms capitalism and rebuilds community, and rejects selfish individualism while embracing our obligations towards others. In rejecting ultra-liberalism, however, conservatives must be careful to defend the essential liberalism that stands for pluralism and our democratic way of life.
Essential liberalism is what makes liberal democracy function. It requires not only elections to determine who governs us, but checks and balances to protect minorities from the ‘tyranny of the majority’. It demands good behaviourial norms, including a willingness to accept the outcome of election results.
And it requires support for free markets. Essential liberalism does not seek to turn every aspect of life into a market, but it knows that economic freedom is closely related not only to personal freedom but other values including dignity, justice, security, and recognition and respect from our fellow citizens.
The power of essential liberalism is that it does not pretend to provide a general theory of rights or justice or an ideological framework that leads towards the harmonisation of human interests and values or a single philosophical truth. It respects political diversity and allows for all manner of policy choices, from criminal justice to the tax system.
And it understands that human values and interests are often in conflict. My right to privacy might undermine your right to security, for example. A transsexual’s right to be recognised as a woman might undermine the safety of women born as women. We need institutions, laws, and a limited number of legal rights to handle those conflicts. We need customs and traditions to maintain our shared identities and build up trust. Maintaining the fragile balance between conflicting values and interests is a delicate and difficult job, and this is why ultra-liberalism can be so dangerous.
Of course there is no single ultra-liberal agenda. The ultra-liberalism of Tony Blair may, despite party divides, be similar to the beliefs of Nick Clegg and George Osborne. But it is very different to the form of ultra-liberalism pursued by the left-wingers who have recently dominated the Labour Party.
Blair and Osborne stand for elite liberalism. Their beliefs are shared by most members of the governing classes, but not the general public. And so, despite public opposition, and changes in ministers and parties in government, Britain continues with policies including mass immigration, multiculturalism, a lightly regulated labour market, limited support for the family, and the marketisation of many public services.
And then we have the ultra-liberal ratchet: beliefs that are not shared across the party divide, but which keep propelling liberalism forward. On the right, market fundamentalists think mainly of the economy, while left-liberals pursue their agenda of cultural liberalism and militant identity politics.
One side might attempt to reverse some changes made by the other, but in the end most remain. And market fundamentalism and left-liberalism reinforce one another: both leave us with economic dislocation, social atomisation and a state that is left trying to pick up the pieces.
The trouble with all these forms of ultra-liberalism is that they are based on a conception of humanity that is not real. Right from the beginning, liberal thought was built on the false premise that there are not only universal values but also natural and universal rights.
Early liberals made this argument by imagining a ‘state of nature’, or life without any kind of government at all. They argued that in the state of nature – life in which was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – humans would come together to form a social contract setting out the government’s powers and the rights of citizens.
This meant, from the start, liberalism had several features hard-wired into it. Citizens are autonomous and rational individuals. Their consent to liberal government is assumed. And rights are natural and universal.
This is why many liberals fall into the trap of believing that the historical, cultural and institutional context of government is irrelevant. Institutions and traditions that impose obligations on us can simply be cast off. All that matters, as far as government is concerned, is the freedom of the individual and the preservation of their property. Liberal democracy can therefore be dropped into Iraq, and made to work like in Britain. At home, we can be given legal rights without any corresponding responsibilities. Our duties to others are merely unjust hindrances.
Liberals ignore the relational essence of humanity: our dependence on others and our reliance on the institutions and norms of community life. They take both community and nation for granted, and have little to say about the obligations as well as rights of citizenship. The nation state can therefore hand over its powers to remote and unaccountable supranational institutions. Transnational citizenship rights can be bestowed upon foreign nationals. Public services should be freely available to those who have never contributed to them.
With later liberal thinkers came further flawed ideas about humanity. The great Victorian, John Stuart Mill, devised the ‘harm principle’, in which the liberty of the individual should be restricted only if his actions risk damaging the interests of others. Even then, however, there could be no encroachment on liberty to ensure conformity with the moral beliefs of the community, to prevent people harming themselves, or if the restriction was disproportionate.
The problem with the harm principle is that it fails to acknowledge that all our actions and inactions to some degree affect those around us. And, precisely because human values and interests conflict with one another, we will never agree about what clearly constitutes harm. And yet ultra-liberals today echo Mill’s harm principle when they behave as though the use of hard drugs has no consequences for anybody but the individual user, or when they are reluctant to force fathers to meet their obligations to their families, or refuse to take action against serial tax-dodging individuals or businesses.
Mill and other liberals sometimes made the case for pluralism and tolerance on the basis that the trial and error they make possible leads to truth and an increasingly perfect society. It is this teleological fallacy – this assumption that one’s own beliefs stand for “progress” – that can lead liberalism towards illiberalism: its intolerance of supposedly backward opinions, norms and institutions can quickly become intolerance of the people who remain loyal to those traditional ways of life.
This illiberalism is a particular problem on the ultra-liberal left. And here, left-liberals are influenced by postmodernists such as Michel Foucault and the mainly American thinkers behind the rise of identity politics. Discourse, Foucault argued, is oppressive. People are not in charge of their own destinies. Their social reality is imposed on them through language and customs and institutions, and even the victims of the powerful participate in their own oppression through their own language, stories and assumed social roles.
Because oppressive discourses work to favour those at the top of exploitative hierarchies, we should not simply remove the hierarchy but penalise those who subjugate others. Equal political rights are therefore not enough: because historically power lay with white men, today whiteness and masculinity must be attacked. Because we do not understand how our social roles are constructed, we do not understand the meaning of even our own words. Those who hear us – particularly if they are members of marginalised groups – understand better than we do the true meaning of what we say. Because discourse is itself a form of violence, free speech is no longer sacrosanct, and it is legitimate to meet violent language with violent direct action.
On the ultra-liberal right, support for the free market can turn into extreme libertarianism. Struggling communities shorn of social capital, deprived of infrastructure, and lacking opportunities for young people are simply ignored, in the belief that the “invisible hand” of the market will come to the rescue.
Instead, policy energy is devoted to deregulating the labour market and marketising public goods. Friedrich von Hayek, a hero to many ultra-liberals on the right, argued that no political system, not even a democratic one, nor even a very small and local one, can accurately reflect collective choice in the way a market does. For his disciples, it follows, therefore, that the National Health Service cannot be the right way of delivering healthcare, since consumer choices and real pricing do not drive decision-making. And the same goes for other public services, from public transport to schooling.
In Remaking One Nation, I argue that it is time for a decisive break with ultra-liberalism in all its forms. There are signs that under Boris Johnson the Conservatives are shifting away from both economic and cultural liberalism, but time will tell if this marks a lasting change. I certainly hope it does so, for there is more to life than the market, more to conservatism than the individual, and more to the future than the destruction of cultures and nations. It’s time for us to take the red pill, see the world around us for what it is, and fight for a different future.
Nick Timothy was Chief of Staff to Theresa May PM. He is a columnist for the Telegraph, a Visiting Professor at Sheffield University, serves as a Non-Executive Director in the Department for Education and is a member of the 2022 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee.