Policy Exchange, which proclaims itself to be ‘Britain’s leading think tank’, has just published a paper by David Frost. Lord Frost is now a regular columnist for the Telegraph, a guru for the Conservative right, and rumoured to be in line for a key role in any Liz Truss Cabinet. Reality-based politics and sustaining the Brexit revolt is therefore worth reading as a guide to what might drive a Truss government.
Frost’s version of reality
Frost sees a different reality to that which non-Telegraph readers live in. He writes as if he is offering advice to a new government coming into office “to change the prevailing mood of defeatism” – rather than a change of prime minister within a party at war with itself.
“The underlying reason for Boris Johnson’s departure”, he notes, “was his government’s seeming inability to craft a convincing economic and political programme” outside the conventional wisdom “defined to a large extent by its enemies”. He has not noticed that Johnson broke constitutional conventions and ethical standards. For him, Brexit gave Britain back “full democracy”, and Johnson failed to make the best use of it.
The Brexit revolt, for Frost, was fundamentally against the collectivist ethos of our oversized state, in favour of enterprise, free markets and lower taxes. He explicitly compares the political moment of 2022 to that of 1979, with quotations from those who advised Margaret Thatcher on how to defy the entrenched establishment and revive Britain’s dynamism.
He in his turn declares that “there is no alternative” to free market economics, lower taxes, and a smaller state. He hesitates to suggest that Brexit voters knew that was what they were voting for, but urges the incoming government to surge ahead, “to change the climate of opinion” and “persuade the public that this alternative route is actually possible”.
Conspiracy theories of the liberal elite
There’s an underlying conspiracy theory behind this, already much promoted in Brexiter circles and the right-wing media. In spite of having Conservative prime ministers for the past 12 years, Britain – he asserts – is still governed by “elites… suffering a psychological hangover after EU membership”, sustaining “a deep-seated intellectual environment” which is “highly collectivist”.
He decries “a general anti-capitalist mood across the West” against which free market proponents are the insurgent outsiders. In this alternative reality, the BBC, the universities, the law, the civil service, the intellectual classes in general – what Michael Gove calls “the Blob” – still set the tone of British political and economic life. He implies that the insurgent right should use whatever means they can find to overthrow it.
The anti-rational tone of his argument is most evident in his assertion that “climate collectivism” is a front for over-regulation and state intervention. “The current evidence does not support the assertion that we are in a climate ‘emergency’”, he replies. He dismisses electric cars as “unsatisfactory”, wind-power as “mediaeval technology”, putting his faith instead in fracking and nuclear power.
He also portrays the reaction to the Covid pandemic as a collectivist nightmare, in which British citizens over-accustomed to following government instructions “went along with obviously ineffective symbolic ‘Covid theatre’ measures like mask wearing”. Worse, citizens now accept nannying advice from the state. “It no longer seems strange for ministers to lecture us about healthy eating and exercise, just as Winston Smith was hectored through his telescreen every morning.”
Frost’s answer to Britain’s current problems is to cut back “the vast intrusive regulatory state”, to bring the proportion of national income raised in taxation back to that taken by John Major or Thatcher, to slash bureaucracy and set business free. “There is no other way for our country to succeed.”
There’s no reference to the impact of our ageing population on public spending, the challenge to free markets posed by state capitalism in China, the higher investment our competitors are putting into scientific research, the reluctance of British business to invest in education and training for our under-skilled workforce, or other awkward factors.
Nor to the UK’s neglect of public infrastructure, from reservoirs to transport – though he wants to cancel HS2. The country is instead to be bound together by a more robust patriotism, a task which he urges his minimal state to teach vigorously. In Frost’s world, citizens will have fewer public services or state benefits, but more patriotic propaganda.
A dystopian vision
This is a dystopian vision, from a man who has gained the stature of a leading intellectual on the Conservative right. Its denial of evidence on climate change, on the complexity of modern economies and the underlying strains in Britain’s unequal society is extraordinary.
But he has Truss’s ear, and many supporters on the Conservative benches. Those of us whom he condemns as part of the collectivist consensus – or worse, the liberal elite – need to recognise where he and his friends are coming from. Frost thinks it reasonable to compare Britain today to George’s Orwell’s 1984, after years of Conservative government and financial austerity. How much more deeply would he and his followers want to cut the state to restore the deregulated freedom which is their ideal?