Theresa May will inevitably be remembered for the Brexit farce, but it may not turn out to be as harmful as some of her other legacies.
In her resignation speech she claimed to have led ‘a decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government on the common ground of British politics’. She said that our country was not ‘just a family of four nations, but a union of people’. We stand together, she said, ‘regardless of ‘our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love’. As prime minister she believed she had fought ‘the burning injustices that still scar our society’ by introducing the race disparity audit and gender pay reporting to shine a light on inequality ‘so it has nowhere to hide’.
But gender pay reporting and the race disparity audit have not created unity or overcome injustices. They have been the Government’s contribution to heightening the atmosphere of animosity that is the hallmark of identity politics. To some extent these initiatives have invented victimhood where none existed.
One of the consequences of the weakening of class conflict during the post-war years was that new sources of automatic party allegiance were sought. Voting inevitably relies on appeals to sentiment and when social-class allegiance declined then identities based on race and gender were found to be useful substitutes.
But there are two basic kinds of sentiment: combative and humanitarian. Combative sentiment can turn into hatred and you would expect one-nation conservatives to appeal to unifying sentiments that called attention to our common humanity. But, despite her claims, Theresa May did not ask for political support based on the things we have in common. She drew attention to the things that divide us. She based her appeal on the combative assumptions that underpin identity politics: our society should be seen as a collection of groups identified by their victim status, each with a corresponding oppressor. It could be black versus white, men versus women, gay versus straight, or disabled versus able bodied.
Under this perception of the political process, parties offer themselves as the agents of the victims against their oppressors. That could be fine when there really are victims. But what is Mrs May’s record? She said in her resignation speech that she had tried to give ‘a voice to the voiceless’, but as Home Secretary she presided over the Windrush scandal. Here were some real victims of injustice: people who were deported as illegal immigrants despite having every right to be here.
Her contribution is better understood as an effort to invent victimhood or embellish claims of victimhood with government statistics. This is where gender pay reporting and the race disparity audit fit in. The most common device for inventing victim status is to compare an identity group, such as a race, with the general population and then to argue that all disparities are the result of discrimination by the oppressor. If 20% of prisoners are from ethnic minorities that make up only 10% of the population, it must be because of discrimination by white people. Or if 11% of the population belong to ethnic minorities, then 11% of high court judges, or university lecturers (or any other sought-after occupation), should be from the same groups. If not, it must be because of discrimination by white people.
In truth, such figures may reveal discrimination but it can’t be the automatic assumption. There are many other possible explanations. For instance, the average age of ethnic minorities is much lower than that of the white population and so they have not yet had enough time to reach senior positions in workplaces.
By highlighting the gender pay gap and establishing the race disparity audit Theresa May made politics an appeal to the combative sentiments and not their humanitarian opposite. She did the same thing at the Home Office by labelling as racist the police tactic of ‘stop and search’. The result was to legitimise animosity to the police and to weaken their effectiveness, which has contributed to a rise in violent crime.
Gender pay reporting has also legitimised the sense of grievance, when there was no justification for it. The reporting of the statistics highlighted workplaces where the average pay of men was higher than that of women and assumed discrimination against women. Hardly any attention was paid to the minority of workplaces where the average pay of women was higher. But above all, the whole exercise ignores how people live. It treats the earnings of each man as solely his own, when the vast majority of men live with a woman with whom they share their income. Often they have children who are also supported by their income.
Both gender pay reporting and the race disparity audit feed off our combative sentiments and they foment false divisions, which are the very opposite of one-nation conservatism.
It is, perhaps, unfair to put the whole blame on Mrs May. She merely reflected the prevailing politics of grievance. It remains to be seen whether her successor will follow a more conservative path and reject the politics of fabricated victimhood by basing the party’s appeal on our common humanity.