Big Tent 2018

11th May 2018

Big Tent Ideas Festival


Launch at:

The Other Palace Theatre, 12 Palace St, Westminster, London SW1E 5JA

George Freeman MP



Good Evening. And thank you for turning out tonight. It’s great to see so many of you here.

For those expecting to catch Jacob Rees-Mogg, try the third door down on the left.

But, seriously. We all know it’s hard to get a crowd in politics these days.

Ask UKIP. Now even they call themselves the Black Death. While the Lib Dems battle the Spanish flu and Labour approach the Great Leap Forward.

No – politics ain’t what it used to be. Which is why we need The Big Tent.

I want to begin with a story of one of my first encounters on the doorsteps.

I was a young, fresh-faced PPC in Stevenage. I visited an inspiring addiction Charity call The Living Room, set up by Janis Feely.

It was a good cause. But in a Labour Town, with a Conservative Council, she was finding it difficult to raise the money they needed. So I offered to help.

She took me into a room to show me one of her clinics. I could see two empty chairs in the circle.

Once each client had given a contribution of their harrowing stories, she turned to me and said, “So what’s your story?” Suddenly, I was on the spot.

Looking round, I realized they expected the usual answer of the Tory politician.

So, instead, I decided to be upfront. I stated my own personal case as a child of addiction and described how I was incredibly lucky to get the level of education I did. Teaching me that with a better ability to share this story and help others, came greater responsibility to make sure I made a difference. At which point they began clapping. In that moment felt incredibly humbled.

That same group, The Living Room, won the CSJ national award this year. They kept going, they kept fighting, despite all the difficulties they faced.

And I was incredibly proud to be there and see them receive an award they so richly deserved.

That story captures much of what’s driven me. My quest for a politics that can reunite, re-inspire and renew. A politics that gives us all a second chance in life. But the story also demonstrates what we’re here for tonight.

We all know that trust in politics has plummeted. That our political system is in crisis, locked in a seeming spiral of lost hope with no easy way out. As Yeats put it: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” 

For some, all we need is another lick of paint, moving the furniture around. Refreshing our parties then carrying on as normal.

But, at The Big Tent, we believe the breakdown of public trust demands a new forum to break the Brexit stalemate. We need a whole new channel for a whole new conversation.

Between the people on the inside and the people on the outside. Between people on the centre Left and people on the centre Right. And between people who voted Remain and people who voted Leave.  

Because think about it. Where do they go at the moment? Twitter? Facebook? The reality is dismal. There is nowhere to have this conversation. Until now!

The Big Tent has been set up by a group of us who share a deep belief in the importance of a New Conversation. Something innovative. Something new. Something beyond the usual Westminster bubble.

And, yes, we’ve endured our share of mockery. They called us the Tory Glastonbury. They said a start-up ideas festival would never work. That in a country that takes over sixty years to build a new runway, we could never put on a festival in six weeks.

Many believed it was impossible. Frankly, at times, we all wondered. But we did it because we believed in the idea, and in the power of a small team to make a difference.

But would it work? One of my abiding memories in politics is the first few hours of the festival last September. The army of political journalists descending on a field in Berkshire. Scenting blood. The gleam of an easy kill in their eyes. Tweets already written. Ready to send. My political career – and those of my fellow travelers – about to go to a place of no return.

And then something happened. As the speakers started speaking, and the audience started joining in, the strangest sight emerged. The elite of the lobby, the Navy SEALs of the British press corps, slowly began lowering their mobiles, putting up their hands and asking questions too – in the tent and online.

We ended up trending on Twitter and, thankfully, my political career survived another day. So did the dream of The Big Tent. And this year we’re going to do it all over again. But Bigger, Better, Bolder.

Because by any measure, this is a defining moment in our politics and our history.

We’re at one of those intervals in the drama of our national story. As happens between acts in a theatre, the lights are off. The curtains on stage are closed. The lights will come on again. But the set will look very different to what’s gone before.

So the fundamental question is simple. Who will shape the next act? Who will shape the future? What our country is, and what our country looks like.

To answer that, we have to turn to the institutions that have shaped us. Parliament, the free press and free speech, the judiciary, the BBC, monarchy, our armed forces, our entrepreneurs and our great artists.

The institutions though which our values are nurtured, cherished and recycled for each sector. Except many of them are struggling too.

Moments of crisis shape a new order. Shaped by the people who have the courage to dream.

In 1905 the Liberal Conservative administration set up National Insurance and Pensions to see off the threat of revolution. In 1945, Attlee and Beveridge set out a post-war New Deal and the start of the Welfare State.

In 1975, Margaret Thatcher and the team around her reshaped Conservatism and Britain with it in the radical participation and de-industrialisation of the 1980s.

And so the Big Questions we face today, questions that go to the heart of who we are as a country – what our citizenship means, what our role is in the world, what our new economic model will be – can’t be answered by business as usual. At moments of great upheaval, we need to lift our heads up for a moment.

Yes, Government – and Brexit – is all consuming. But this political transformation means that we don’t just have to drive the Government car. We have to look up at the far horizon and think about what’s ahead.

Now some say this is the wrong time for new ideas. That we need to focus on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of the Brexit deal. That anything else is just an indulgence.

But I think that argument couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is, if we don’t ask these questions now we’ll miss our chance.

Brexit is the biggest change for this country since 1945. What was supposed to be – and sold as – a moment of catalysing renewal has instead become a stalemate.

We need to recast Brexit as a moment of national renewal that inspires all – perhaps especially – those who didn’t vote for it.

And we must always remember one other fact. Beveridge and the others began shaping the Post-War order while the bombs still dropped from the skies.

They knew that the work of rebuilding had to begin. That the challenge was so vast, the obstacles so profound, that no time could be wasted. It is a lesson we must learn too.

The traumas of the crash, debt, Iraq, and now the Brexit stalemate have broken many traditional assumptions in our politics. But they have also shown a nation trying to have a new conversation. A conversation that doesn’t fit neatly into the limits of traditional party politics.

The change is clear. Our old-fashioned model has stopped working for most people. Party loyalty is an analogue phenomenon in a digital age of direct democracy. Broken apart by the enterprise revolution of the 1980s and the cultural liberation that followed.

People are not comfortable with a one-party message anymore. The new tribes of British society are reflecting the old tribalism.

Their loyalties are different. Their hopes new. Which means we need to do better. We have to renew our democracy, renew our economy, renew our social contract and create a platform to do that.

So that’s what The Big Tent aims to be. A new platform. A new conversation. And a new way forward. For the democrats who dare to dream. For voters who dare to answer back. And for those who dare to think about renewal to take their message to a wider audience.

But let me be very clear: every Party has a part to play. And, as Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, I’m delighted to be leading the work of grassroots policy renewal for 21st century Conservatism.

But The Big Tent is not party political – it’s for people of all political persuasions, and none. We have set up The Big Tent to be that platform for the New Conversation.

It’s Big, which means being open and accessible. Asking the Big Questions and developing the Bold Ideas. It’s a Tent: getting out of the cauldron of Westminster and away from the party conferences format. And it’s a Festival, showcasing the best Ideas and the people and places behind them.

From housing to homecare, energy to enterprise, from the Highlands to Hove, this year’s festival at Hatfield will bring together people on the frontline of successful renewal. The inspiring entrepreneurs, community leaders, military leaders and sports and arts pioneers who’ve done it.

Celebrating the SPIRIT of enterprise. The creativity, the humour, the experimentalism and the courage of entrepreneurs. Ambitious, optimistic and generous.

Which is why I’m so delighted to announce our plans for the second festival this September.

Yes, you heard me. We asked the 300 who came to the launch event last year if we should do it again. And everyone said yes. 500 registered on our website to be part of the conversation. So we’re back!

On Friday the 7th and Saturday the 8th of September at stunning Hatfield House in Hertfordshire – one of the finest historic houses of England, a place at the heart of the Elizabethan Renaissance and today a venue for high-growth business within the Gold Triangle – we’ll be holding Big Tent Ideas Festival 2018.

It’s going to be ten times bigger. Ten times better and ten times bolder than last year. Open to the public and non-party political with speakers of all political persuasions and none. And we’re filling up spaces as we speak. Max capacity is 3,000, so don’t miss out and book early!

We’re going to have our world-renowned Politics, Economy and Society Tents. Along with new tents too. Our Global Britain Tent, Innovation Tents, Speakers’ Corner, our Culture Tent, debates and creativity workshops. And an evening of performing arts, with new ideas for promoting wider participation in visual and performance arts, plus the importance of a vibrant arts sector in a vibrant democracy. 

But the real Programme we want to shape is the Beyond Brexit Programme for Britain.

A Programme of hope to break the stalemate of the Brexit logjam. A coherent economic, societal, cultural, and political vision supported by investors and business creators and capable of being implemented politically by a group of people committed to a common policy and political outcome.

That’s why we’ll be publishing the new 2020 Conservatives Book at the Festival, a first draft of the best ideas for the future.

And it’s why we’ve set up the Capital Ideas Foundation, finding ways to renew popular support for capitalism and for the wealth-creators, job creators, and inspiring role-breakers. Those who dare to dream of a better way of doing things and then take a risk and do it. Making enterprise something worth celebrating again.

And it’s why I’m so delighted to welcome the vital groups behind The Big Tent project here tonight. The Big Tent Festival Team, our donors and founding friends. As well as our ten brilliant Think Tanks: Demos, the Centre for Social Justice, the Adam Smith Institute, Respublica, the Entrepreneurs Network, Chatham House, the Institute for Economic Affairs, WPI Strategy, the British Foreign Policy Group, Bright Blue and the New Economics Foundation.

Representing the best ideas from across the political spectrum. Here as Big Tent Partners to help translate our ideas into policy so we can make a difference in Government.

Alongside free thinkers from all the mainstream Parties. The 2020 Conservatives, moderate Labour thinkers like Liam Byrne and Maurice Glasman, Orange Book Lib Dems and campaigners from all other tribes and causes too.

The CIF isn’t a Think Tank – we’re a Foundation to provide leadership and funding to Think Tanks and the Big Tent.

Because a serious Beyond Brexit Programme needs to be coherent. It needs to pass the Churchill test and be a lighthouse not a shop window.

And it needs to have game-changing ideas at its core. For me that means: an innovation economy, soft power in emerging markets, public sector enterprise, a decentralised state, post-welfarism and a new social contract and a new contract of citizenship.

But Big Tent is about shaping that Programme with the people who will be needed to deliver it. YOU.

Because Britain faces a big choice. It isn’t Brexit or no Brexit. But something far more fundamental. It’s success or failure. Will we remain divided – locked into a political Civil War, wasting our talents and turning off investors – or will we come together?

Determined, generous, fair to all. Doing the right thing the right way for the right reasons. That’s the Big Question we face tonight. In 20 years’ time, what will we be saying to our grandchildren?

Will we say, you had to be there. It was the best of times. We smelt the coffee, tackled our woeful productivity, unleashed innovation, tapped into emerging markets, embraced a global mission and unleashed a new cycle of growth.

Or will it be the worst of times instead? A nation divided, political civil war, distraction not direction, investors losing confidence, debts overcoming us, becoming an old people’s home and the poor man of Europe.

We know one thing for sure. Those big questions can’t be solved by small answers. The world’s mightiest economies don’t think like tiny islands.

So we must think big, not small. Work together in a tent, not behind the walls of Party Conference. Putting aside the worst of party politics, just as previous generations did before us.

This can’t be politics as usual. And Big Tent isn’t politics as usual. We’re living through a key moment in history and we need the best ideas in play.

Ideas from the radical centre, the centre left and the centre right. From those in Government and those outside Government too. Of all political persuasions and none. Not Left Wing.  Or Right Wing. But the Right Thing. The Right Way.

We must remember this. The Market - like Politics - is supposed to work FOR people. But in an age of connection political parties have gone “narrowcast”. Just when we need to be broadcast, instead.

And the result? People aren’t tuning in. Trust has gone and our politics is in crisis.

So, this September, The Big Tent Ideas Festival will kick off the traditional Conference season with a political event like you’ve never seen before!

Over the next few years we intend to become a new fixture on the political landscape. In five years, you’ll pinch yourself and wonder how we did politics without it. The launch-pad for new ideas. The platform for bold thinking. And the engine of renewal.

So let’s be brave enough and bold enough. Let’s dare to do things differently. Let’s have the courage to think outside the box and have the politics we all wish we had.

And let’s take the small gathering here tonight and make it the start of something much bigger.

Big Tent Ideas Festival

Politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. That’s why I launched the Big Tent Ideas Festival, aiming to tackle the most difficult policy challenges we face. The Festival has now run for two years. This year we hosted our first-ever Leaders’ Summit and brought nearly 2,000 people together for the main Festival across fifty events and eight different tents, discussing ideas to reform our politics, our economy and our society.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is part of the Capital Ideas Foundation, founded by a group of entrepreneurs to campaign for renewal in the radical centre-ground. Over the next year, we will be setting off round the country as the forum for the best new ideas in public policy. Click below and join us.

Read more:

Big Tent Ideas website


We are in the middle of a Brexit civil war. What is clear is that the existing options will not unite our country.

Chequers has been dismissed by Brussels and is roundly rejected by the ERG. The Canada option was also not designed for the circumstances we currently face. We are a European nation already heavily reliant on the single market - wanting ideally to retain access to the single market without being in the 'political' union.

That’s why I believe ongoing membership of the European Free Trade Association is now the obvious route. It would give us off-the-shelf access to the single market, allow us to take back control of our fishing and farming industries, control free movement and let us negotiate our own trade deals.

Unless we stand up and fight for a sensible moderate Brexit, we risk enduring a #HardBrexit. There is an alternative that we can embrace now. It is time to embrace EFTA.


2nd November 2018 George Freeman: There was much to cheer in the Budget. But now we need an inspiring programme for growth | ConservativeHome

8th September 2018 Without a positive vision for British renewal, Brexit will fail | Daily Telegraph

7th September 2018 People are sick of partisan political civil wars | The Times

19th August 2018 George Freeman: It’s time to choose between a Conservative Brexit or a UKIP one | ConservativeHome

4th July 2018 The 5-year Land Supply is beginning to undermine public trust | PoliticsHome

9th May 2018 We urgently need to turn the NHS from being a barrier to technology to being a champion | The House Magazine

13th June 2018 The time to reform Britain and tackle the generational divide is now, not after Brexit | Daily Telegraph

9th May 2018 We deserve more choice than the hard left of Corbyn or hard right of Farage | The Times

8th May 2018 How to fix the burning injustice that is Britain's housing market | CAPX

18th March 2018 Conservatives need to be as economically bold as Margaret ... | FT

11th January 2018 Brexit is an electrifying moment for renewing the NHS | Politico