Where are the buds of May's Conservatism?

Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years and she spent over a decade in the Conservative shadow cabinet. It might seem curious then, that, despite so much time in the public eye, the media had to print hurried profiles summarising her political beliefs, when she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Often these articles centred on aspects of Mrs May’s personal history and observations about her style of management, more than questions of philosophy, economics or ideology. Journalists and commentators struggled to summarise the ideas that inspired her to get involved in politics. The new Prime Minister was described as a pragmatist, who prefers “doing” rather than “talking”.

That’s not particularly satisfactory for newspapers, but it’s actually a rather conservative approach.

Based on little more than party and gender, May found herself compared to Margaret Thatcher, who reputedly once told a Tory policy meeting “this is what we believe”, as she brandished a copy of The Constitution of Liberty, by free market philosopher, Friedrich Hayek. Mrs Thatcher was not a typical Tory and Tory Prime Ministers have rarely been so ideological.

Mrs May says she is a ‘one nation Conservative’, which associates her with people in the party who reject Thatcherism in its purest form. She takes care to emphasise her commitment to social justice, claiming she will put the Tory party, “at the service of ordinary working people”.

Of course, these sentiments can be interpreted in different ways. Thatcherites believe that freeing markets from government regulation is the best way to increase social mobility. No-one openly opposes justice, social or otherwise, and Conservatives all claim to care deeply about the aspirations of “ordinary people”.

Many of David Cameron’s speeches and policy announcements covered themes similar to those developed by Mrs May in her first few weeks in office. Mr Cameron was another Prime Minister who usually preferred pragmatism to ideology.

The Conservatives are sometimes described as a coalition between free market liberals, whose archetype was Mrs Thatcher, and ‘compassionate’ or ‘one nation’ Tories, typified by Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan or, in more recent times, Ken Clarke. 

At a stretch, you might argue that fault-lines between some of these traditions still exist within the Conservatives, but that’s not a particularly useful way of viewing the modern Tories. May names Thatcher among her Conservative heroes. Similarly, David Cameron, though he was keen to cultivate his credentials as a ‘progressive’, spoke about a deep belief in “supply side economics”, which is an important component of Thatcherism.

Margaret Thatcher’s economic views have largely been accepted and absorbed across the Conservative Party (and beyond). Thatcherism now describes, not merely policies enacted by the former prime minister, but rather an ideological commitment to push free market reforms further, drive inflation lower and remove any remaining constraints on producers of goods and services.

It seems Mrs May doesn’t take this unrestricted view of the market. She has talked about plans to impose restraints on executive pay awards — binding businesses to decisions made by shareholders — and legislating so that employee representatives sit on company boards. Her proposals are modest, but those who think that government has no place telling private businesses how to order their affairs are likely to disapprove.

Mrs Thatcher’s controversial assertion that “there is no such thing as society” is often cited to illustrate the supposed callousness of her ideas. She was explaining her belief in the importance of individual responsibility, because “people have got entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations”. Many “one nation Conservatives” would agree with the latter remark, but disagree with her initial bald statement about society.

After David Cameron won the Tory leadership contest, he adapted Thatcher’s quote in his victory speech, attempting to distinguish the brand of Conservatism he hoped to promote: “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”. During his time as leader, this theme developed into the “Big Society” — a concept that proved difficult to explain to voters.

The principle was that government should hand back various responsibilities to people within communities, who would be motivated to do a better job than their counterparts from the public sector. It drew on Edmund Burke’s belief that societies are made up of “little platoons” of engaged citizens, bound together by common interests.

The underlying ideas set out a strong case for Conservatism concerned with community, or ‘fraternity’, as Cameron’s special adviser, Danny Kruger, preferred, in his influential essay On Fraternity. In theory, the Conservative desire to decentralise government would complement a strong commitment to social responsibility. In practice, it was difficult to translate the intellectual case into workable policies, particularly during an economic recession.

The result was an ill-conceived hodgepodge, implemented almost exclusively in England. Cameron’s government introduced a bank to fund local projects and awards to recognise schemes which showed the Big Society spirit. A Localism Act offered community groups the chance to carry out council services and young people could volunteer for ‘citizen service’.

The Big Society’s most meaningful policy gave groups of individuals the chance to set-up “free schools”, outside the control of local authorities. Inevitably, this power held particular appeal for religious denominations and it resulted in high-profile controversies, such as the head-teacher who used school funds to make personal mortgage payments.

David Cameron quietly dropped the phrase “Big Society” before the last election and it is unlikely to be revived by Theresa May. The Tories might say that localism, community spirit and civic responsibility are important aspects of Conservatism, but they proved difficult to instil through legislation. Perhaps unfairly, Cameron’s time as prime minister will be remembered for “austerity”, welfare cuts and “Brexit”, rather than ‘one nation’ Tory policies.

Politicians like to talk about ‘values’, when they discuss the ideas that motivate them to do their jobs. Values are certainly preferable to ideology, but they should guide and imbue policies, rather than becoming an end to be realised by government.

Conservatism (small ‘c’) is more about a philosophical temperament than a set of preferred outcomes. Conservatives (small ‘c’) are sceptical about ambitious schemes that are supposed to make the world better and they’re inclined to place more value on the existing virtues of our society. 

In time, it will become clear whether Theresa May intends to pursue ‘one nation’ social policies, free market economics or, more likely, a mixture of the two, but her low-key, pragmatic approach suggests that her style of government will, in any case, be deeply conservative.


Phil Larkin said…
A very interesting and largely accurate article, Owen. I totally agree with your comment about Margaret Thatcher not being a Tory in the truest sense: Edmund Burke himself had argued that Tories should not really have an ideology or doctrine, but rather allow their approaches to social and economic issues grow naturally and incrementally. If anything, Thatcher was really a mid-19th century Liberal, a proponent of individual liberty but also moral duty on the part of the individual. In a sense, she admitted this herself, not just in the incident you mention above when she brandished the copy of Friedrich Von Hayek, but in her autobiography when she mentions that her father was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. She also stated that her father really classed himself as a Liberal, before, in his view the party succumbed to collectivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She absorbed so much of the lessons which she learned at the feet of Alderman Roberts, that it would be ridiculous to deny that she was cut from the same cloth as her father.

It is true that Theresa May has been somewhat reticent about appearing overtly ideological, and is regarded as (and perhaps regards herself) as a pragmatist. Maybe this is no bad thing, and I was somewhat relieved that she put herself to some extent in the "One Nation" Tory camp, with whom my own sympathies would more naturally lie.

Even though I am a left-of-centre Labour voter, it would be churlish to contend that the Thatcher Governments did not introduce many useful reforms, and she left the UK a richer and more efficient country (although probably a less socially cohesive one) than she found it. However, in my view, the biggest blind spot which she had in government was in her approach towards the industrial sector of the economy. Unlike Germany has consistently done, the UK under Thatcher did not provide young people with proper modern skills training for careers in industry and production. While, as I have written elsewhere, there was bound to be a vast restructuring, and perhaps some scaling down of British industry during the early 1980s, the seed corn was not provided from which new and profitable industries could flourish in areas affected by industrial decline. The UK's youth was directed largely towards training in careers in various service industries, and while I do not seek to denigrate the importance of the service and finance industries, too many young people were left on the scrapheap of life on the dole, or in dead-end careers in places like South Wales, Northern England, and, of course, Northern Ireland. Investment in research and development was also scaled down greatly during the 1980s, which was extra disappointing given Thatcher's own background as an organic chemist. To an extent, New Labour Governments under Tony Blair compounded this mistake by promoting the idea that at least 50 per cent of school leavers should go into higher education: too many of these ended up in pointless courses with little prospect of good employment afterwards. Not only that, but they ran up large debts in the process.

It was therefore heartening to hear Theresa May hinting heavily that she was going to carry forward the Cameron/Osborne policy of promoting apprenticeships in areas such as engineering. She has my full support on that. Similarly, her announcement of the creation of a team to create a "proper industrial policy" is very welcome. To me, this is the best way of securing the social mobility that the Conservatives have always talked about.
Owen Polley said…
Thanks Phil. As insightful as ever.

I suppose, that while Thatcher is more accurately described as a liberal, the tenets of Thatcherism have become part of the Britain that conservatives now try to preserve. I do get irritated though with the type of Tory who thinks Conservatism begins and ends with free market economics and social libertarianism.

There are two takes on May’s reticence. You can argue that her pragmatism is a strength and that she hasn’t become too closely associated with one school of Conservatism because she’s not doctrinaire. At the moment I lean toward that interpretation. On the other hand, people will say that she is a ‘professional politician’ who has taken care not to alienate parts of the party in order to get to the top.

Largely I concur with your analysis of the Thatcher government’s reforms and the lack of emphasis on industry. I’d love to publish your thoughts on how industry could’ve been protected and modernised, if you ever get a chance.

Apprenticeships are certainly the right model, but I wonder are they working as they should? I get the sense that, although it may be changing, the cultural idea that young people must get a degree is quite deeply embedded (I know that some apprenticeships are now at degree level). Is the uptake of apprenticeships at a high enough level? I also wonder about the thoroughness of the training, when apprenticeships are government funded, without input from businesses or sectoral organisations (in general).

These impressions could be way off-beam, because it’s not an area I can claim to know much about.
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