Oct 19, 2016

Tough Tory Theresa May buries Margaret Thatcher’s legacy

The transformation in Western politics gains more momentum with the historic speech of British Prime Minister Theresa May to the Conservative Party conference — it is the burying of the Thatcher-Reagan pro-market revolution and the resurrection of state power in the hands of a tough, revisionist Tory leader.

May declared the vote by the people for Brexit was not just about Britain leaving the European Union — it was a vote “for a change in the way” Britain works. Calling this movement a “quiet revolution”, May declared “this is a turning point for our country”.

She has come to bury Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. And David Cameron’s legacy, despite her praise for him. She is dumping the free-market economic liberalism of the past generation and a half. May stands for faith in government, curbing the abuses of free markets and a new polity based on fairness and decency.

A formidable woman fully aware she governs at a pivotal moment, May seeks to inaugurate a new political age. An angry Britain has voted for change and May declared with relish: “A change has got to come — and we are going to deliver it.” It is her central organising principle.

She presides not just over the separation of Britain and the EU but a re-conception of Tory relations between the state and the people. Whether her vision endures and what it ultimately means defy prediction. The task now is to document the risky, revisionist path on which she has embarked knowing her recasting of conservatism will resonate from Britain to Australia.

May seeks to construct a new political centre. She assaults the “socialist Left and the libertarian Right” and says it is time to embrace “a new centre ground in which government steps up — and not back — to act on behalf of all of us”. The key to successful change, May says, lies in “the good that government can do”.

Rhetoric that Thatcher dismissed as 1970s failed paternalism has now become a compassionate necessity. May has read the mood and gone big and bold. She says the view of the British people that “the world works for a privileged few but not for them” is largely justified. She says her revolution is deep rooted and rests on her pledge to make the economy “work for everyone.”

She is speaking to the disadvantaged, the aggravated middle class and the alienated. She is with them. Her purpose is “to deliver the change people want” because without action “resentments will grow, divisions will become entrenched”.

May declares the Tories must become the party of the workers, of worker rights, the party of the National Health Service, the party of total immigration control, hunting down tax dodgers from the big end of town, and the party that repudiates the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship with little loyalty to Britain.

She speaks as a patriot and for community. She admits the failures of globalisation. She targets the elites. She blames them for the chasm in Britain where “too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street”.

Her political strategy is obvious. Facing a crippled Labour Party, she intends to raid its disillusioned supporters while appealing to the populist Right, notably the UK Independence Party backers. Her methods are patriotism, state power, border control, economic justice and social fairness.

Her most famous line was her denunciation of the winners from the Thatcher-Reagan revolution: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means” — a message that provoked the accusation of xenophobia from the pro-EU globalised liberals. On the way through she put the human rights lawyers on notice — Britain won’t be their playpen any longer.

Just to bend your mind, consider her comments on Britain’s NHS in the light of Bill Shorten’s stunning 2016 campaign attacking the Coalition for privatising Medicare. In an aggressive assault, May slammed British Labour’s claim to a “monopoly on compassion” and punctured what she called its “sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority”.

“At every election, they say we want to privatise the NHS,” May said of Labour. “And every time we have protected it.” She said it was the Tories, not Labour, that put more money into the NHS. And it was Labour, not the Tories, that had put more private sector resources in the NHS. May said the Tories loved and respected the NHS because it “reflects our values, our belief in fairness” and our support “for the thousands of doctors and nurses that work around the clock to care for their patients”.

Warming to her theme, May said Labour’s ideological fixations meant it had “given up the right to call themselves the party of the NHS, the party of the workers, the party of public servants”.

In an evocative declaration May aspired to the moral high ground: “We succeed or fail together,” she said. “And when one among us falters, our most basic human instinct is to put our own self-interest aside, to reach out our hand and help them over the line. That’s why the central tenet of my belief is that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations. My mission and the mission of this party is to build a country that truly works for everyone, not just the privileged few.”

As Martin Wolf wrote in The Financial Times, this can only be seen as May’s rejection of Thatcher’s philosophy embodied in her immortal remarks: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it ... There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

From Thatcher to May, the wheel has turned nearly full circle.

May attacked bosses who earned a fortune but failed to look after their staff and directors who behaved improperly, saying “this can’t go on any more”. She would fight the “division and unfairness all around” on display today. While government would support free markets it would demand everyone live by the same rules. That meant shifting the balance “decisively in favour of ordinary working-class people”.

Fairness would be at the heart of the Tory agenda. Britain, she said, would not repudiate globalisation, but ensure its benefits “are shared by all”. She backed free trade but would ensure its benefits were properly spread and this didn’t happen “by itself”.

That’s why she championed an interventionist industry policy to promote those industries — finance, tech, aerospace, car manufacturing, life science — of special value. Backing strategic industries would be tied to backing regional cities. Government would intervene to provide more land to tackle the high price of houses.

What is May’s overall plan for Britain? “A plan that will mean government stepping up,” she said. “Righting wrongs. Challenging vested interests … To stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong.” So sweeping is May’s language, so specific are her claims, so determined is she to redefine the Tory government that only one conclusion is permitted: free markets, deregulation and economic liberalism are in rampant retreat post-Brexit. The same applies in the US in the Trump-Clinton contest.

The key to politics is listening. May follows the popular mood. Yet there is logic in her tactics — if globalisation, free markets and economic liberalism are to be saved, the unqualified condition must become more protection for losers, new policy to spread the benefits and admission of past mistakes. This is what she is doing. May assumes the luggage should be ditched to keep the ship afloat.

Yet May has made a second, specific declaration of her purpose as PM — she has decided, in effect, on a “hard Brexit”, another proof her core motivation is pure politics. She has chosen to fast-track Britain’s separation from the EU by signalling her intention to trigger article 50 — the negotiation process — which means that after two years Britain, by early 2019, will be out of the EU.

May wants to show she is acting decisively as the Brexit champion. She is playing to a majority of the Tory party, proving she will take control of immigration and reclaim British sovereignty. These goals are given priority over the economy. The cost will be frightful.

The people never voted for a hard Brexit. They never voted for the certain economic damage and hardship the markets will inflict. Britain is exposed in a weak negotiating position with the EU, hostage to the currency markets and facing an inevitable economic slowdown. The wild dreams of that small section of the Brexit lobby that quitting Europe meant a glorious pro-market liberated future for Britain will become one of the greatest and saddest jokes of the new century

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