Theresa May: A Lost Opportunity for Social Democracy?

In British politics, it’s possible to have an entire conversation about the center ground without mentioning a single policy—and for good reason: most of the time we know exactly what we’re talking about. With a few minor exceptions, the centrist prospectus can be boiled down to social and economic liberalism, wrapped up in a profound, yet mostly symbolic, affection for the European Union. The fact that the Liberal Democrats espouse all three views, self-identify as centrist and are already a political party (although you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise) hasn’t apparently helped. In most political circles, this truism of ideological geography has gone mostly unchallenged.

Contrary to political wisdom, polls show that the real center ground (the point in policy terms where opposing ideological factions can find common ground) would be something resembling a Blue Labour/Red Tory policy platform: socially conservative, but economically interventionist. The majority support policies of both the left and right, including more spending on the NHS, less immigration, more investment in schools, a crackdown on benefit fraud, and nationalizing the railways and public utilities. At present, only one senior UK politician embodies this tendency: our Prime Minister, Theresa May.

Early on in the race to succeed David Cameron, May made it clear that she would strike a different tone from her predecessor. In her first (and only) proper speech in the contest, she turned heads when she said:

Because right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home. (read in full here).

These words, which she repeated nearly verbatim on the steps of Downing Street, after she eventually won, were part of a debut speech that was left-wing even by the standards of the Labour Party. More radical than simply pointing out many of Britain’s social ills (including such lefty favorites as those involving race, class and gender), May went on to list how she might amend some of them. But, instead of the usual bread-and-butter fixes—lower taxes, less regulation and lower public spending—May’s offer was decidedly more radical:

The fourth way in which I want to make our economy work for everyone is by getting tough on irresponsible behavior in big business. Because yes, we’re the Conservative Party, and yes we’re the party of enterprise, but that does not mean we should be prepared to accept that anything goes.

The FTSE, for example, is trading at about the same level as it was eighteen years ago and it is nearly ten per cent below its high peak. Yet in the same time period executive pay has more than trebled and there is an irrational, unhealthy and growing gap between what these companies pay their workers and what they pay their bosses.

So as part of the changes I want to make to corporate governance, I want to make shareholder votes on corporate pay not just advisory but binding. I want to see more transparency, including the full disclosure of bonus targets and the publication of pay multiple data: that is, the ratio between the CEO’s pay and the average company worker’s pay. And I want to simplify the way bonuses are paid so that the bosses’ incentives are better aligned with the long-term interests of the company and its shareholders.

Remarkably poignant for any senior politician, let alone a Tory one, May’s speech was a blistering critique not just of business, but of the government’s attitudes towards it over the last several decades. This was radical stuff for a politician on the Right, whose instincts are almost always to let big business lead, if not dictate, most of the economic discussion. Through this speech, May became the first leading British conservative in a generation to talk not only about the state’s moderating functions, but the bad behaviors of business too—and how one might fix the other. May believes business does great good, but she is aware of and concerned about its excesses, a view that has the potential to shake the foundations of right-wing thought.

Her passage about the “long-term interests of the company” could have come from a center-left economist like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman or Mariana Mazzucato, the author of The Entrepreneurial State and a favorite of programs like Newsnight. As May acknowledged, hers is a “different kind of Conservatism” that “marks a break with the past”: “We don’t hate the state, we value the role that only the state can play … We don’t just believe in markets, but in communities … We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society.” This is a stunning reversal of the infamous Thatcher line that “there is no such thing as society.” Although it may not seem like it now, two years ago May went to war with the Tory past, and won:

What made May so appealing to so many for so long was not only her zest for social responsibility, but for its application to society’s most powerful. Like Tony Blair, another very popular PM (although his popularity was to last much longer), May challenged people’s perceptions of her party and was rewarded with a double-digit lead in the polls. Despite many Tory misgivings about her flirtation with lefty sentiments, MPs chose her as leader after she made those speeches—not before. But, if some Tory parliamentarians had secretly hoped her progressive talk would evaporate on the steps of Number 10, they were, for a time, sorely disappointed.

Unlike others in the Western world who challenge conservative orthodoxy—Steve Bannon’s isolationist, anti-trickle down economic nationalism and Poland’s Law & Justice party, for example— May’s instincts to re-orient capitalism in favor of the worker are more nostalgic than revolutionary. Moderate, parochial conservatism of the English vicar variety (the profession of her father): conservative, yes, but with a steely, quiet passion for fairness and a firm belief, rooted in Christianity, that the most fortunate among us have a responsibility to those who don’t share their luck. Fundamentally, this is a reassertion of the social contract, something that runs counter to the conservatism that has dominated the English-speaking world for the past forty years.

May’s interpretation of conservatism might seem odd to those who are young, or have short memories. Many will only remember the quasi-libertarianism (or monetarism, as it was known to Thatcher and her contemporaries) of the modern, post-1970s Tory party: lower taxes and less regulation; the loosening of employment legislation (the result of a more flexible labor market); the selling-off of nationalized public utilities; a strong emphasis on the role of the individual; and a robust, often jingoistic, advocacy of national defense. Ronald Reagan in the US, and conservatives like John Howard in Australia and Brian Mulroney in Canada created a new right-wing politics, rooted in social conservatism, personal responsibility and—most importantly of all—a smaller role for government in the economy. Despite the presence of Theresa May and others, this vision dominates the right to this day.

May’s rejection of this 1980s-style conservatism should, however, be unsurprising. Twenty-two when Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she was most likely already politically aware by the time monetarism became the hot new thing. In so many ways, her idea of conservatism predates the radical laissez-faire ideas of Thatcher, Reagan and their contemporaries.

Much like mid-twentieth century Conservatives, May is far more patrician and interventionist than her backbench MPs. During the post-war consensus, there was a quiet agreement on both sides of the aisle on the importance of government, and on the fact that the state could not only be used to fix social ills and injustice (a central tenet of the left) but could encourage a sense of obligation to country, community and family—usually wrapped up in a soft Anglican Christianity (a much more Tory idea). Labourites and Conservatives of the post-war era were united in many of these creeds, if not all of them. Journalists of the day even coined the term Butskellism to describe the nearly identical economic outlook of two chancellors from opposing parties—Hugh Gaitskell and Rab Butler, who were Labour and Conservative respectively, but both recognizably Keynesian.

Although the Tories’ philosophy differed from the more explicitly redistributionist and atheist Labour tendency, the commonalities were clear: government wasn’t bad—in fact, in many cases, it could do great good and that good didn’t necessarily have to be in profound opposition to the interests of business. This was a tendency that, until the Tory leadership race of 2016, went largely unmentioned in public.

Mayism represents a relatively controversial take on social democracy. By switching (in the eyes of some, quite wildly) from Remain to advocating for Brexit, as prime minister, May has stuck two fingers up at a few key tenants of the faith that, otherwise, she seems keen to convert to. Her opposition to—amongst other things—membership of the European Union, an essential creed of social democracy on the continent for at least two decades; and a more liberal policy on immigration (and the free movement of labor within Europe)* challenges social democratic orthodoxy. For these reasons, May’s peculiar mix of left and right will always smell off to a significant minority of Brits, a disproportionate number of whom are young, university educated and living in the country’s major cities.

Mayism is constrained, too, by May herself. As any watcher of British politics will know, the constraints and fallbacks of Theresa May’s time in Number 10 have been many and obvious. The continuing headache of Brexit negotiations; her habit of valuing loyalty over competence; and the constant jostling for position by senior members of her cabinet have paralyzed her premiership. Add into the mix the fact that, to many observers near and far, she doesn’t appear to be that good at her job. Consistently verbally stunted and awkward in public, tactically and strategically lacking (calling an unnecessary election which reduced her power in parliament must rank as one of the biggest blunders in modern British politics) and unable to anticipate public relations disasters, May often appears to be her own greatest enemy.

Without her former chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, both political bruisers who were able to force the PM’s agenda through the government and civil service (and both, helpfully, believers in her Red Tory agenda), she lacks the institutional support needed for the long, hard slog that reforming the Conservative Party would take. Obvious character flaws aside, her old lieutenants would have been vital allies against the party’s spiritual necessity to oppose anything that might make things harder for business and employers (except, of course, Brexit).

As a result, in a slow but predictable fashion, many of her most radical policy plans have disappeared into the ether. Either ignored thanks to the demands of Brexit, stunted by lack of courage or smothered by other angry Tories, the vision May fleshed out on the steps of Number 10 in June 2016 has simply not materialized. Placing workers on boards and making companies hold annual votes on executive pay? Both axed. Her claim that “austerity is over”? Questionable, at best. Her energy tariff cap? Okay, that’s happening. Depressingly, for those on the Left, her interventionist noises look like just that—noises. And, despite her liberal talk on race, gender and inequality, her critics say that she presides over a party that is increasingly racist and out of step with the country (for examples, see the Windrush Scandal and their London mayoral candidate’s odd views on social issues).

But, despite these failures, leftists, liberals and progressives have, at various points, willfully misrepresented her intentions, especially with regard to the infamous citizens of nowhere speech, delivered at her first party conference. Aimed at the Philip Greens of the world—immensely rich individuals, who use their fortune to move their wealth and business activities to whatever jurisdiction requires the fewest social obligations—but taken as an attack on internationalist, progressive Remainers, what should have been a rally against the jet set CEO class was misconstrued as something far more toxic. That was wrong and it provides an example of the Left’s failure to recognize the common ground between May’s worldview and their own—and, more importantly, to exploit those similarities to create good policy.

The UK Conservative Party, probably the oldest democratic party in the world, and almost certainly the most successful, is in many ways a party of right-wing social democrats—in fact, if not in instinct and conviction. Almost all Tory MPs favor an NHS that is free at point of use (something unheard of in American conservatism) and most—if given the OK by party leadership—would probably vote for policies like increased childcare provision for working families, paid for by the state, and more action on climate change. The instincts of most Tory MPs are influenced more by career prospects, pragmatism and the loudest concerns of their constituents than abstract theories like monetarism or libertarianism. Under these conditions, there is a space for Mayism to grow, briefly.

This doesn’t change the fundamental instincts of this right-wing party. Ambitious Tories with eyes on the leadership are openly vying for the chance to lead the party back in a more market-friendly direction, safe in the knowledge that May’s premiership—and, with it, her brand of conservatism— will likely end as soon as Brexit has been safely dealt with.

Among the current favorites to take over as prime minister are Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary and an avowed libertarian; Sajid Javid, who observes an annual ritual of reading a passage by Ayn Rand; and Liz Truss, an energetic advocate of more austerity and of a sort of modern, tech-friendly libertarianism, who seems to believe that if you mention Silicon Valley and lower taxes enough times in the same breath it will spontaneously cause the social media generation to vote Tory (it won’t). Boris Johnson, perhaps too divisive to make it past the first round, is famous for concocting eccentric rhetorical flourishes and is in favor of unleashing capitalism.

There’s also Jeremy Hunt—Foreign Secretary and previously the longest-serving Health Secretary— who, for six years, with a quiet (and some would say unusually ruthless) determination, oversaw the longest squeeze in NHS budgets in its history. His slick, PR manager appearance and apparent social liberalism can make him feel like a moderate, but in a post-marriage equality climate, in which social liberalism looks less progressive (and, by extension, less impressive to the general public) than ever before, this type of prestige carries less and less weight. Almost all plausible candidates for Tory leader look certain to bring back what May called the anything goes mentality with regard to big business.

With most of her more radical positions off the table, the hope that May would be an Ed Milliband in blue has almost entirely faded. But her recent speech at the party conference and her reaching out to the left-liberal Observer newspaper a couple of weeks ago, suggest that her ambition to find a new, creative middle ground hasn’t faded. In the twilight of her short reign, she appears to want to give new life to her premiership. It is in the interest of the Left to realize the commonalities they share with her peculiar brand of Toryism, in order to achieve policy objectives whilst still—for the moment—out of power.

In the end, those of a generally left-wing persuasion may find that, when she eventually departs from Number 10, they miss Mrs. May, a woman who, despite her numerous faults, shares many of the objectives and methods of the left, if not their attitudes. When she leaves the political stage, a turbulent period for the Conservative Party will come to an end, and so too will the chance to re-integrate social democracy and ethical capitalism into the Tory DNA. And, when an inevitably more right-wing prime minister emerges from the fog, the Left will soon realize that, despite all the battles they’ve been fighting, they’ve scarcely started fighting in earnest yet at all.

*Edited. A previous version of this sentence stated wrongly that Mrs May supports the free movement of labour in Europe.

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