It was a stroke of genius for Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, to begin his Brexit roadshow to talk up Britain’s “new golden age” in Manchester.
The city’s name serves as a metonym for free market economics: “Manchesterism.” It became so closely identified with laissez-faire that Pius XI referred to it in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. “Manchesterian Liberals,” Pius tut-tutted, hold the inimical view that “whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength.”
Economic historian W.D. Grammp, noting this pejorative continued into the 1960s, called the Manchester School “a policy that relies on the market as much as it can and (even to today’s classical liberals) somewhat more than it ought.”
Such was not the original intent of its founders, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who were focused in the mid-1840s on repealing the Corn Laws, legislation that protected British landowners from cheap foreign wheat, a competitive advantage that made bread unaffordable for the working poor. Instead, Grammp observed, Manchesterism “had much less to say about the principle of economic freedom than about the likely effects of its practice in foreign trade.”
Mr. Johnson steps into this breach, for he is intent on emphasizing how Brexit leads to greater freedom and prosperity for both individuals and the nation. Call it “leveling up.” Instead of the redistributionist policy whereby equality is achieved through less for everyone, free market innovation and entrepreneurship expand both opportunity and the economic sphere.
Already, America and Australia are eager to conclude bilateral free trade agreements with the UK — working groups are preparing the ground in anticipation — once it is freed from restrictions imposed upon all EU members. What is true for economic freedom applies even more to political independence.
“I recognize that when the British people voted to leave the European Union, they were not just voting against Brussels,” Boris said. “They were voting against London, too, and against all concentrations of power in remote centers.”
Before this renaissance can fully begin, however, the UK’s exit from the EU is the requisite first step.
“Leaving the EU is a massive economic opportunity — to do the things we’ve not been allowed to do for decades, to rid ourselves of bureaucratic red tape, create jobs, untangle the creativity and innovation for which Britain is famous.”
The economic opportunities Brexit promises are only one side of the coin; personal freedom is the other. Put another way, free markets are necessary and complementary for individual liberty. Without the one, the other is a sham.
Such was a core argument of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. “Strictly speaking there is no ‘economic motive’ but only economic factors conditioning our striving for other ends,” he wrote. “What in ordinary language is misleadingly called the ‘economic motive’ means merely the desire for general opportunity, the desire for power to achieve unspecified ends.”
The 2016 referendum result to leave the EU encompassed both of these ends, whether expressed as freedom for Britain to negotiate its own trade deals, secure its borders, or enact its own legislation.
To his credit, Boris Johnson acknowledges the full import of the Brexit promise. “Taking back control doesn’t just apply to Westminster regaining sovereignty from the EU,” he told his Manchester audience. “And I do not believe that, when the people of the United Kingdom voted to take back control, they did so in order for that control to be hoarded in Westminster.”
“I have seen myself the changes that you can bring about in towns and cities and regions, when local people have more of a say over their own destinies,” he said.
No one can doubt the challenge before the Conservative government to make Brexit happen on October 31. EU officials, opposition parties in Parliament, and even Remainers within the Tory caucus — all have a vested interest in Britain’s failure to leave.
The impetus to succeed is no less strong, however. The cause of British independence and the future of the Conservative party hang in the balance, as does the faith of the British people in their democratic institutions. Already, as the new Cabinet has demonstrated, a fresh wind of optimism wafts through the House of Commons and the country.
Boris’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I campaigned to leave the EU because I believed it was a chance to change the direction of the UK and make us the best country in the world to live.” If Brexit comes to pass, it truly will be a new golden age for Britain.
Stephen MacLean maintains the blog The Organic Tory.
Video of Manchester speech: