An audience with the ex-Defence Secretary Liam Fox

12 Feb

 

Liam Fox, on the bishops’ opposition to welfare reform legislation – “There are only two countries in the world that have non-elected bishops – Britain and Iran… Draw your own conclusions.”

 

Liam Fox spoke to a group of young Conservatives in a small room above the Westminster Arms pub about debt, the nuclear threat today, and lessons we can learn from history.

 

Ben Howlett and Philip Smith of Conservative Future (CF) had organised the event hoping that the former Defence Secretary would shed some light on defence issues, particularly in the Falklands Islands, as “interests close to the heart of a lot of CF members”. Yet Liam Fox seemed more interested in single-handedly solving the country’s economic problems, finally getting to grips with current military issues when prompted during a question and answer at the end. He made some dire predictions about a nuclear domino effect in the Middle East, and stated categorically that Iran “must not be allowed to become a nuclear weapon state”.

Working the room in the half-hour before his scheduled speech, Fox gave the impression that he had a packed week ahead of him: a speech at Eton the next evening; speeches abroad in the US at the end of the week linked, he hinted, to the election campaign. A more long-term forecast incorporated the charity work he was planning for a military charity, for the widows of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was self-deprecating about the anticipation surrounding his appearance, saying “I simply get shipped out to do party events all over the place… it’s something to fill in the diary.”

He began his speech with the corollary that it was a “rehearsal” of comments he intended to make in an upcoming trip to Washington, which raised the tone of the event above a simple drinks reception. A comment about the Scottish campaign to lower the voting age to 16 led neatly onto a soundbite about what he believes is the only real qualification to vote: getting to the age where people start earning enough to realise, and resent, that “(they) will take a large chunk of your money.” Loud cheers sounded from the young Conservatives.

Moving on to another burning issue, he started on debt. He was critical of the economic policy of the people in power, and was clearly no advocate of quantitative easing –  “spending your way out of debt is like trying to drink your way out of alcoholism.” Quite how else he proposed to maintain investor and consumer confidence is unclear, deflation being, economists believe, an equally unpalatable option. While credit was made too readily available before the crash, surely cutting it off would simply stunt the possibility of recovery.

He was stronger on commercial and industrial policy, stridently criticising the “delusion that Europe is still the centre of the world,” and drew an analogy with the fact we still all run on Greenwich mean-time. Or rather, they are running on an outdated timescale. He observed that it was necessary to invest more effort to “make and sell things into what they bizarrely call ‘emerging economies”, because otherwise they may overtake us. The US is reportedly at a crossroads, where they still manage “to maintain their position of global pre-eminence,” but Britain clearly needs to stop being blinded to the reality of its own decline.

The speech veered off and towards the fact that all world currencies had inflated over the past 30 years, at a fairly constant level – “The price of oil compared to gold has gone in a straight line.” Of course, the average 2% per year inflation rate he criticised so vehemently is believed by professional economists to stimulate growth, providing living costs remain roughly concordant. Where economics failed, history provided an answer. “History is littered with examples of what happens if debt gets out of control… the Bourbon monarchy… the Ottoman empire..”

The recent “credit binge”, he claimed, had been initiated by Richard Nixon when he took the US off the gold standard. Which is not entirely true – the UK’s national debt was more than twice as high at the end of WW2, but there were of course mitigating circumstances. He continued stridently, “It is unsound… to debauch your currency… and tell people they can still spend with impunity.” No one saw fit to ask him whether he would take this argument to what seemed its natural conclusion and advocate taking Britain off the gold standard. The audience listened on and were satisfied when he ended with the ideological Conservative staple, “Government doesn’t create prosperity – only individuals can create prosperity when the government creates the right conditions.”

One of the attendees stuck up his hand and asked what he thought Barack Obama’s policy should be towards Iran, in the event that it gained nuclear capability. He replied that “when Iran crosses the threshold of nuclear capability…” well, this he did not consider a viable option because if it happened there would be a “nuclear arms race in the Middle East”, starting in Saudi Arabia, then extending to Turkey and probably Egypt. He was ambivalent, though, about the prospect of making defence cuts: while he recognised that “everyone’s having to do it”, he admitted he found it “difficult being tough on spending and tough on defence”.

And finally, a question about his stance on welfare reforms prompted a cutting comment about the obstructive stance of Britain’s bishops towards the bill. “There are only two countries in the world that have non-elected bishops – Britain, and Iran… Draw your own conclusions.” Well, he may be on the back-benches now but Liam Fox hasn’t forgotten how to pull his punches.

Disclaimer: the author has no set political affiliation and endorses no one political party.

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