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A week has passed since The Freedom Association held its sixth annual Freedom Zone at the Conservative Party Conference. At Bridgewater Hall, just a stone’s throw away from the Conference “secure zone”, The Freedom Association was proud to welcome a number of esteemed commentators, politicians and professionals to contribute to the packed schedule. In total, twelve sessions were held with panels of experts commenting on important issues such as Britain’s future relationship with the EU, Internet Regulation, the City of London and the divide between the Conservative Party and UKIP. The sessions themselves were held in the fine ambiance of the Barbirolli Room at Bridgewater Hall, which is normally reserved for classical music performances. We hoped that our discussions and debates would also hit the right note.
Our first session was entitled “The City Fiddles while the UK burns”, which featured four panellists who are all contributing authors of our new publication “In Defence of the City.” This new book is an essential read for all those interested in the role of the City of London in the UK economy. It also includes an introduction by Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute for Economic Affairs, who describes it as an “excellent collection of essays.” The panellists – Alex Deane, Duncan Flynn, Anthony Wilkinson & Abhishek Majumdar – outlined the enormous contribution that the City does and should make to the British economy while warning about the problem of stigmatising the financial services industry. It remains a vital part of the economy and any attempt to reduce or replace it would be foolish. Nevertheless, the persistent issues of admission of guilt or ethics within the banking system provided heated discussion in the questions, which followed. One of the main themes of the debate was the problem of regulation: it is misguided, excessive and has a hugely negative influence on the ability of the City to function without fear of reprisals. For more details on the new publication all about the City of London, please visit our website.
The following session, entitled “Porn, Perverts & Predators: Who in their right mind opposes Internet regulation” also attracted a similarly illustrious panel of Nick Pickles, Paul Staines, Matt Warman, MP John Whittingdale and was chaired by The Freedom Association’s own Dia Chakravarty. The overriding consensus was a deep scepticism both about the desirability and the effectiveness of internet censorship. The panel was in agreement over the need to discourage or limit certain areas of the internet, most notably in reference to child pornography. However, the point was raised that there are other means to do so such as prosecution of those who manage these illegal websites and the role of the market in banning them through commercial tools such as parental filters. There was deep worry about setting a precedent of internet regulation by a free, democratic state, which might be used as a justification for authoritarian governments around the world to do the same. The debate was an extremely thoughtful one, which acknowledged the need for a solution but also questioned the effectiveness and method of any solution.
The next session was the most popular and controversial one of the week. The Freedom Association welcomed Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, for a short talk followed by questions from the audience. The session was in very high demand meaning that the room was absolutely packed, and we had to turn people away at the doors. Some people had queued for up to 40 minutes just to get a seat. Mr Farage was his usual eloquent self and he used his speech to criticise the government and propose some of his own policy ideas. He talked about some of the questions that had arisen at the Conservative Party Conference – the possibility of Tory-UKIP pacts in certain constituencies, the pan-political appeal of UKIP and of course the many problems of the European Union. Mr Farage also criticised government proposals for HS2, low levels of defence spending, reckless aid spending, the “quangocracy” of British politics and the potential threats to the EU referendum.
The TFA also hosted a discussion of the UKIP/ Tory divide entitled “Why I left the Tories v Why I’m staying.” This debate offered a fresh discussion of the shortcomings of both parties in respect to their dealings with their rivals as well as an opportunity to acknowledge their divergent views. The panellists included the editor of Conservative Home – Mark Wallace, Roger Helmer MEP, Robert Halfon MP, Councillor Donna Edmunds, Chairman of Conservative Future – Oliver Cooper and James Delingpole. While people may differ on whether the Conservative Party really represents traditional British values or whether UKIP is the only party for Eurosceptics, both parties feel aggrieved by the others’ attitude towards them. UKIP feel they are treated disdainfully and are treated as the “lower orders” by the Conservatives, while the Tories feel they are unjustifiably categorised as no better than Labour. While these problems will rumble on, there is likely to be increased tension over the proposed EU referendum as the Conservatives claim to be the only choice for a realistic chance of a vote on the EU, thereby suggesting that a vote for UKIP during the general election would be in fact counter-productive.
On Tuesday afternoon, The Freedom Association held two debates on Britain and the EU, the first of which was named “The EU: In/ Out/ Shake It All About” and featured a very open debate with both sides well represented. On the “out” side were Dr Lee Rotherham, Daniel Hannan MEP & David Campbell-Bannerman MEP while on the “in” and “shake it all about” side were Christopher Howarth and Dr. Charles Tannock MEP. The debate was expansive and focussed on numerous areas of debate and various proposals for Britain’s future with the EU. Among the proposals were David Campbell-Bannerman’s proposal for a Norway-lite position and Dr. Charles Tannock’s preference for limited reform of the EU from within. As is expected from such a debate, there was much audience interest and contribution in the question and answer session. The second EU debate: “Trade with Europe, Trade with the World” was a more general discussion on Britain’s potential future outside of the EU and how British commerce and industry could adapt. There was much focus on Britain’s commercial strengths and its historic links with Commonwealth and Anglophone countries, which was proposed as an alternative to further European integration. The debate acted as a rebuttal of the fear-mongering used to quell the Eurosceptic movement: Britain does have the strength to be an economic and political entity. With the 6th largest economy in the world and enormous advantages such as the use of the English language, its geographic location, its legal tradition and many more, it is no longer viable to suggest Britain would not cope outside the European Union. For more information about how Britain has been affected by its membership of the European Union, visit our Better Off Out campaign.
As well as all the fantastic talks, there was a boat cruise on board the Emmeline Pankhurst along the Manchester Ship Canal on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. All guests received a complimentary drink and nibbles, while travelling down the canal and seeing the sights of Manchester. From the city centre to the lavish taxpayer-funded BBC media city in Salford, we saw all the sights of Manchester in all their splendour. Of course there was a talk every evening to focus on one of the issues at the Freedom Zone – Monday evening saw David Nuttall MP championing the EU referendum, which he had helped to put on the agenda, on Tuesday we heard from Roger Helmer MEP and Ewen Stewart talking further about the great burden of the EU, while on our final night we had the pleasure of hosting David Campbell-Bannerman MEP on board. All of these nights were great evenings with familiar Freedom Association supporters, both young and old, socialising and admiring the sights.
The Freedom Zone was an enormous success and shows the growing relevance of freedom issues, particularly the European question and state regulation of the private sector, in the political mainstream. We were very happy with the level of interest in the discussions and debates we held, and we hope that next year will usher in an equal level of interest and reasoned discussion. We thank everyone who came along and contributed to such a fantastic few days at The Freedom Zone. Join us next year in Birmingham for more of the same!