By openly declaring war on the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, Theresa May reveals that she cannot tell the difference between defending the nation state (good) and shoehorning the state into every aspect of citizens’ lives (bad)
Why does British politics suffer from the scourge of unambitious, technocratic centrism which does more than anything else to drive voter apathy and disengagement?
Largely because of the enthusiastic and approving reception that such acts of ideological cross-dressing as we saw from Theresa May at Conservative Party Conference yesterday receive from Tory-friendly Westminster journalists who seem to care far more about whether the Conservative Party gains and keeps power than what they actually do with that power while in office.
From Matt Chorley’s Times Red Box morning briefing email today:
Theresa May used her impressive speech closing the Tory party conference yesterday to make a direct appeal to the Labour voters which Ed Miliband used to think he could count on.
Perhaps she just forgot but it was quite something from someone who had been in the cabinet for six years to suddenly declare herself the agent of change. (She used the word 29 times).
The PM promised to go after rogue bosses, tax dodgers, rigged markets and powerful companies giving people a bad deal. “I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more.”
She boasted that the Tories were now the party of workers, the NHS and public servants, claims which would have had Labour HQ spluttering on their lattes. The call for state intervention where government can “do good” will have brought some Tory traditionalists up short too.
The high-wire act was all the more impressive because it also had Ukip fuming about her stealing all of their ideas too. Much of the language might have been to the left but the policy, including grammar schools and tackling immigration, was lifted from the right. May ranged across the political spectrum. Because she can.
While Times columnist Philip Collins notes:
This is a clearer endorsement of state activity than David Cameron would ever make. Throughout the speech there are paeans to the power of government to make the world better which makes for a paradox. “The elite” politicians have featured early on as the problem yet here, ten minutes later, they turn up as the solution.
Typically, political journalist types are impressed with – and subsequently choose to focus on – what they see as clever political manoeuvring rather than matters of substance. They are interested in the game of politics, not its higher purpose.
So never mind that Theresa May’s rhetoric and wholehearted embrace of the state effectively puts the final nails in the coffin of Thatcherism, the ideology which saved this country from previous national decline – instead we are to fawn over the new prime minister for spotting a wide open political goal in the absence of an effective Labour opposition and deciding to shoot left instead of right.
And “semi-socialist Tory” Tim Stanley immediately proceeds to do so:
May understands what Corbyn understands, that people want to be a part of something. Oh the capitalist gifts of a Starbucks mug and a cheap flight to Ibiza are nice, but what about identity? Community? The most appealing parts of Labour’s programme reach back into folk memories of Attlee and the world of unionised factories.
[..] But her sympathies do lie with a Britain that is more suburban or rural than metropolitan, more ancient than contemporary. What is wrong with this? Often I’ve heard Remainers – who will be as irrelevant in a few years’ time as Corn Law advocates or the NUM – saying that Britain risks becoming smaller in outlook. Good! There have been too many wars. Too much hypercapitalism. Too little of the local, of the familiar, of building the kinds of bonds that you get when people know each other and take responsibility for each other. Far too little Christian socialism – which, in the British context, was always more Christian than socialist.
How utterly depressing. It is entirely possible to promote that sense of community and belonging for which people yearn by doing a better job promoting British values and the cultural integration of thousands if not millions of people who have made their homes here yet have no intention of regarding themselves as “British”. Wouldn’t this be a good place to start, rather than responding to the Brexit vote by co-opting Labour’s collectivism and elevation of the state?
As my Conservatives for Liberty colleague Chris Manby laments in his new blog:
Mrs May wants the Tories to be the party of “ordinary working-class people”. That is an admirable ambition, one best delivered through a strong economy.
Libertarians hate poverty too. But we know it is not government that creates economic growth, jobs, and prosperity. It is the actions of millions of individuals living in a free society under the rule of law. Want to eliminate poverty? Free up markets, cut taxes and enforce the damned rule of law.
We’ve been down this road before. The social-democratic consensus of the postwar years left British industry stagnant; British democracy under siege from militant trade unionism; and the British economy a high inflation, high unemployment laughing stock. It took Margaret Thatcher’s hard-fought revolution in the 1980s to restore national confidence. That revolution was left half finished.
The government already does far too much. We pay nearly half our income in taxes. Britain’s tax code is so long and complicated it rewards big business who can afford to pay shrewd accountants and lawyers. Planning restrictions and cheap money drive up the cost of housing and penalise saving. State investment in renewables drives up energy bills. Government borrowing is still out of control.
The problem with staking out the “centre ground” of politics is that you allow your opponent to control the terms of debate. There can be no compromise between good ideas and bad ones. The last female Tory Prime Minister grasped this point. I fear that Mrs May does not.
While Allister Heath warns:
Thirty years [after Thatcher and Reagan] free-market ideas are in retreat. The drift began well before the financial crisis, and was at first camouflaged by the ongoing march of globalisation, technology and consumerism. New Labour increased spending and intervention; likewise George W Bush, who also subsidised sub-prime mortgages; central bankers injected moral hazard into everything; and David Cameron introduced new workers’ rights, property levies and environmental rules. He increased far more taxes than he cut and bashed bankers. Sir John Major’s government was the last to make, if falteringly, the case for markets, competition and choice; and Michael Howard was the last Tory leader to advocate capitalism.
It is in this context that Theresa May’s speech needs to be understood. It was as emphatic a repudiation of the Thatcher-Reagan economic world-view as it was possible to get without actually naming them: time and again, she said that government was the solution, not the problem. She took explicit aim at small-state libertarians: the subtext was that collectivist, paternalistic Christian Democrats, not individualistic classical liberals, are back in charge of the party. She believes in a large, powerful, aggressively interventionist state that can, she feels, regenerate the country and protect ordinary workers. It will have helped Lord Heseltine get over Brexit; ironically, her vision of conservatism is very continental.
And makes an important and welcome rebuttal to Theresa May’s declaration of war on the libertarian wing of her party:
Yet the speech went further than toughening language or extension of policies. Cameron’s Big Society was based on the correct notion that society is separate from the state; May blurs those concepts. Classical liberals and libertarians believe in voluntary action; they believe in the family and communities, in charities and helping those who cannot help themselves. It is a basic error to confuse their philosophy with atomism or extreme selfishness.
Peter Oborne, though, sees Theresa May’s speech in an altogether more positive light:
Here is another, crucial difference between Mrs May and her predecessor. David Cameron was, in essence, a liberal prime minister. Mrs May marks a reversion to traditional conservatism.
She intends her premiership to challenge the liberal internationalism of Cameron and Blair. They assumed that nation states — including Britain — count for less and less in the modern world.
They accepted the liberal dogma that nations are essentially powerless against huge international corporations, mass immigration, the relentless advance of communications, and untrammelled free movement of international capital — the cumulative process often known as globalisation.
But now Mrs May has rejected this consensus, and in doing so she is attempting to define what it means to be British. Her speech amounted to a passionate statement that she believed in the nation state, and she spelt out her reason: that it has a fundamental role in supporting the weak and vulnerable.
I’m not unsympathetic to a lot of what Oborne says. This blog has been banging on about the need to defend the nation state as the primary guarantor of our fundamental rights and freedoms for years now, and I’ll take no lectures in that regard. But supporting the nation state and acknowledging the negative effects of globalisation does not inherently require adopting more left-wing, interventionist policies. Supporting the nation state should not mean advocating for its involvement in every aspect of our lives, especially when small government conservative policies have been proven time and again to be a much better generator of wealth and better for working people.
Furthermore, a full-throated embrace of capitalism needn’t be at odds with the politics of community and national identity. Just look at the United States, that exemplar of capitalism, where small government is celebrated (in theory if not always in practice) yet there is open pride in the flag, the national anthem, the military and shared national holidays and traditions which transcend ethnic or religious lines.
Americans embrace capitalism and have an inherent cultural distrust of an overbearing centralised state, yet they also stand and pledge allegiance to the flag at school, stand for the national anthem before even school sports events and celebrate Independence Day together whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. And one of the reasons that the American national identity is strong is because the state does not insert itself into every aspect of life, meaning that there is then more respect and appreciation for the state where it is visible.
What a devastating pity that Theresa May seems (from her hugely concerning conference speech) unable or unwilling to reconcile support for markets and capitalism with support for community and identity. She is turning British politics into a zero sum game, forcing conservatives to choose which core principle – economic freedom or a strong and cohesive sense of nationhood – they wish to preserve. And many voices in the conservative-friendly media seem more than willing to enable the prime minister in her destructive, short-termist scheming.
No good can come of forcing conservatives (or the wider country) into making the arbitrary and entirely unnecessary choice between a strong nation state and freedom from the state in our personal lives – and Theresa May is making a grave mistake by interpreting the Brexit vote as a call for bigger government.