“Our first and most important duty is to get Brexit right.” So vows Prime Minister Theresa May at the conclusion of the Conservative conference at Manchester. In the early 19th century, this northern English city nurtured faith in free trade. Led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, the “Manchester School” rose to protest agricultural protection against imports of cheap foreign wheat from feeding England’s working poor. In time, Manchester came to represent the principles of free trade and economic liberty; so much so that, according to one economic historian, “Manchester liberalism has come to mean a policy that relies on the market as much as it can and somewhat more than it ought.”
(As October is anniversary to the infamous “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a topical aside: Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War and founder of the Victorian Order of Nurses, spoke out in favor of a strong British army; she thus castigated the Manchester School’s pacifism that wished to cut army expenditures, which “made a deity of cheapness.”)
Yet little of the ghost of the Manchester School walked among Tory conference delegates, whose sympathy for interventionist welfare economics influences the party much as it did before the era of Margaret Thatcher. Only the conference’s Brexit segment gives cause for encouragement, with two stand-out performances.
For International Trade minister Liam Fox, Brexit means the moral imperatives of market economics, whereby the UK “trades its way to prosperity, stability, and security.” He promises “an end to micromanagement from Whitehall,” while giving entrepreneurs “with the intuition and understanding of international markets the freedom they need to do the job that this country needs them to do.” As Britain will be freed of a sclerotic EU bureaucracy on a large scale, so will millions of individual British enterprises enjoy liberty from “red tape.” Brexit for Britons.
Mr. Fox was in his element, channeling the Manchester School’s “peace through economic liberty” doctrine: “People can trade their way out of poverty rather than simply depending on aid;” conversely, “putting up barriers to trade… leads to higher prices and less choice” and “a less competitive economy that delivers lower living standards.” The international reach of free trade “encourages and develops social cohesion, underpins political stability” that is “part of the framework for our global security.”
Mr. Fox’s sober case for Brexit can only be surpassed by the ebullient Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who didn’t disappoint. He summarizes the mood that darkens the UK. “As I absorb the general tone of the national conversation I don’t think I have ever known so many to be sunk in gloom and dubitation about Britain and the world,” Mr. Johnson admits. Remainers and their media enablers “make Eeyore look positively exuberant and across the world, it pains me to say, the impression is being given that this country is not up to it. That we are going to bottle out of Brexit and end up in some dingy ante-room of the EU, pathetically waiting for the scraps but no longer in control of the menu.”
BoJo will have none of it. “Wherever you find enterprise and initiative and start-ups and innovation and economic growth, it is where people have followed our ideas that were pioneered by our party and by our country” — then dutifully paying tribute to the conference host — “and in this city of Manchester.” Brexit will bring the United Kingdom “back” to this promising future. “It is time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle or an inexplicable aberration by 17.4 million people. It is time to be bold, and to seize the opportunities and there is no country better placed than Britain,” Mr. Johnson says.
And Theresa May? Only the absence of a successor keeps the Prime Minister in office. Read in isolation, one is forgiven for thinking her conference speech comes from the pen of Tony Blair and his New Labour cohorts. Her repeated invocation of the “British Dream,” directed by government initiatives, evokes nightmares among enemies of statism. “Let this party celebrate the wealth creators, the risk takers, the innovators and entrepreneurs… who generate jobs and prosperity,” but she qualifies her remarks: “Because we understand that it is the wealth creators whose taxes fuel our public services. It is their success that funds the things we want to do” — economic growth merely a cash cow for government to milk.
It was Mr. Johnson (and Mr. Fox) wot saved the day, in Manchester, for the “Brexit dream” of freedom. As Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg enthused, the speech was like “a tonic, a gin and tonic” for long-suffering Brexiteers and party faithful. “Conservatives,” Mr. Johnson reflects, “have been privileged collectively to be placed in charge of this amazing country at a critical moment in our history.” He then brings Conference to its feet: “There are people say we can’t do it. We say we can,” Mr. Johnson exclaims. “We are not the lion. We do not claim to be the lion. That role is played by the people of this country. But it is up to us… to let that lion roar.”