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.