Tom Harwood: Classical Liberalism in the Media
Updated: Mar 17
This summary was written by Matteo Baccaglini, President.
On Friday 29 November 2019, we were delighted to welcome Tom Harwood, political reporter at Guido Fawkes, to speak to the Oxford Hayek Society at Merton College on the subject of: 'Classical Liberalism in the Media'.
You can find a YouTube video of Tom's introductory remarks and the start of the follow-up question-and-answer session below.
Tom delivered a fascinating talk on rumour and intrigue in Parliament, his predictions for the upcoming election, and the future of classical liberalism in Britain.
Rumour and Intrigue in Parliament
In his introductory remarks, Tom noted that recent political events have happened at a dizzying pace. The timeline of Britain's departure from the European Union, dotted and dashed with event after event - from the Lancaster House Speech to the Chequers resignations and from Theresa May's coronation to Boris Johnson's prorogation - has meant that what would once have constituted decades in politics has now come to constitute a mere few weeks.
For Tom, this has made being at the heart of politics in Westminster evermore exciting. In his work over the past two years at Guido Fawkes, the most-read political blogsite both in the country at large and in the corridors of power, he has been in the foreknowledge of major political events, intraparty infights, defections and breaking stories.
As another of its reporters opined when Guido leaked YouGov's final pre-election MRP seat projection five minutes before the official release: "Once again...you're either in front of Guido or behind."
Tom's work at Guido has reaffirmed his distrust of the political class. After talking about receiving emails on party-political squabbles, he lamented:
"It's the nature of politics: it's filthy. People are really jabby. You can uncover and unpick how unbenevolent the people who tend to set the rules are and really, if anything, working at Guido has confirmed my belief that these people should have as little power as possible.
"And the more you get to know politicians, the more you think: 'hang on, why are these people in control of anything?'"
The Election Campaign
Tom spoke in the run-up to the 2019 general election, which will be held on Thursday 12 December. Therefore, many of the follow-up questions inevitably focussed on the Conservative campaign, which Tom publicly endorsed - and which Tom predicted would reward the Conservatives with a sizeable majority.
Tom conceded that the Conservative manifesto promises much higher spending than one with which many classical liberals and libertarians would be comfortable. However, he argued that consecutive post-recession governments have shown that the Conservatives can be trusted to reduce the deficit as a proportion of government spending - from £1 in every £4 at the height of the recession to about £1 in every £38 today.
Tom also noted that even the lauded pro-market administrations of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US ballooned the public deficit while setting the macroeconomic framework for their successors to reduce it significantly.
Tasked with the question of why free-market supporters shouldn't vote for the Brexit Party, he answered that, whatever either manifesto says, the leadership of the incumbent Conservative administration contains politicians that have consistently argued for free markets and limited government - whereas the same pro-market tradition is not alive in the Brexit Party. Instead, the Brexit Party is only likely to poll higher than the Conservatives in a handful of seats, threatening to let pro-Remain Labour candidates win seats that would otherwise be winnable for pro-Brexit Conservatives.
Tom also suggested that the Conservative campaign since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister has been planned. Even if not all of the planning has been successful in the short-term and intermediate period, for example over Parliament's prorogation or the date of the election falling after Brexit, the Conservatives are more or less where they hoped they would be at the outset of Boris Johnson's first ministry.
Analysing the campaign headlines so far, Tom mused that the Conservatives have run a more effective campaign, which has successfully set and maintained the agenda of the campaign on Brexit: Labour's predominant attack line on NHS privatisation has failed to penetrate deeply in voters' minds, whereas the Conservatives have pushed more varied, harder-hitting headlines.
On this front, Tom praised the genius of some of the Conservative campaign, for example through how the Conservatives manufactured the factcheckUK row, which dominated headlines for two days and drowned out the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto - even though much of the public outside the commentariat and political activist classes do not use, follow or care much for Twitter.
The Future of Classical Liberalism in Britain
Asked about the event, many attendees particularly praised Tom's optimism for the future of classical liberalism in the UK - which struck a very different tone to many of our recent speakers.
Tom argued that political scientists are too quick to mischaracterise young people as anti-market and pro-state. Tom sad that this claim has been made for every past generation of young people, none of which seem to have grown up into voting Labour.
Indeed, Tom noted that ours is the generation of Uber riders and Amazon customers: our generation receives more from free markets and sees more of their effects first-hand than previous generations of young people have been able to do so.
The last audience question made for an uncomfortable turn, asking how eurocentric views on liberty could survive immigration from cultures that are more accommodating of authoritarianism.
Tom confidently rejected the premise, making a passionate plea for welcoming immigration and rejecting the belief that ideas are contingent on any region of the world.
Migrants have a "get-go spirit" and are incredibly more entrepreneurial than native workers, making them more receptive to the virtues of free markets and free societies than those that do not heed economic incentives to migrate. Many migrants flee authoritarianism, rather than seek to export it.
At the same time, ideals of liberty, free markets and limited government can be found in every culture, just like the ideals of socialism, collectivism and state planning have failed in every culture in which they have been tested - whether in Russia, Cuba or Venezuela. Thus, Tom argued that it is unhelpful and wrong to confine ideas to regions of the world, like the question attempted to do for classical liberalism.
All in all, it was a real delight to welcome such a distinguished and influential speaker to the Oxford Hayek Society. Tom's talk made a wonderful conclusion to our speaker events for the term and was followed by a very merry trip to the college bar for further topical and liberty-themed discussion.
Tom Harwood is a journalist and commentator. He rose to prominence after his viral and anti-establishment bid to become Durham's NUS Delegate, following which he led the student wing of the Vote Leave campaign. Tom is now a reporter at Guido Fawkes, one of the UK's leading political blogsites, and publishes a weekly article in The Telegraph. In 2019, he was rated in an LBC expert panel survey as one of Britain's 100 most influential Conservatives.