Alex Massie

Theresa May’s preachy government is on a mission to restore our confidence

Theresa May's preachy government is on a mission to restore our confidence
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Every political moment is informed by, and a reaction against, its predecessor. The Age of May is no exception. David Cameron’s successes were founded, at least in part, on the vague appreciation that he seemed like a nice enough chap. Theresa May’s victories are built on the fact that she isn’t. 

Being a 'bloody difficult woman', if also a bloody dull one, has its advantages and not just in terms of paying a measure of homage to the great ghost of the Iron Lady. Theresa will stand for no nonsense, you understand, and things will be done properly and with a sense of order and purpose. What you see is what you get and there’s no need to like it; you are simply asked to respect it. 

So of course there is such a thing as 'Mayism' even if the prime minister asks us to think there isn’t, and even if much of it might also be considered 'Timothyism'. It is always tempting to assume that behind every leader there lurks a 'brain' without whom the elder could barely function but in the case of Nick Timothy, the Tory leader’s co-chief of staff, there really is a brain, and it is difficult to underestimate his importance to the May project. 

Even so, May’s Conservatism is doggedly traditional. The details of any manifesto are relatively unimportant being, in any case, likely to be derailed by events. What matters, however, is how a party sees and presents itself. This is the framework within which it will operate; these are the lights that will guide it along its journey. In this instance, the manifesto unveiled today was unusually interesting:

'We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.'

'True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together; an insight that change is inevitable and change can be good, but that change should be shaped, through strong leadership and clear principles, for the common good.'

'We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals. We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demands. We understand that nobody, however powerful, has succeeded alone and that we all therefore have a debt to others. We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.'

It is easy to view this as a repudiation of Thatcherism or, at any rate, a retort to a caricature of Thatcherism. But that is too easy, too simplistic, a view. Thatcherism was never as radically free-market as it is sometimes remembered as being. She was constrained too. Nonetheless, just as Thatcherism was a response to the failures of the 1970s, so Mayism is a delayed reaction to the failures of the 2000s.

It takes time for shockwaves to work through the system and it’s only when they have done so that the process of rebuilding can take place. Mayism should, I think, be understood as a response to the great crash of 2008 and all that has followed since. 

The consequences of the crash are still felt, not just in terms of rocketing public debt and astringent budgets but, more generally, in a vague but pervasive sense the game is not being played fairly; that it might even be rigged. That, in any case, something, somewhere, has gone badly awry. For the first time in decades, parents worry that their children will have fewer opportunities than those enjoyed by their own generation. This is an age of anxiety. 

In those circumstances, laissez-faire loses some of its appeal. Shrugging that this is just the way it is and it cannot reasonably be any other way is an ineffectual response. For all that the left shrieks about an out-of-control, hard-right, Tory government the truth is that May’s priorities and the principles that guide her government lie firmly within mainstream Tory history. There is little in the passage above that would frighten Michael Heseltine or Harold Macmillan. Or even Winston Churchill. 

Indeed there is a Burkean element to Mayism too, not least the stress on the importance of institutions and the inter-generational contract. These, she suggests, are the permanent things; the tentpoles supporting the work government – and society – do. Protect them and order – and solidity – can be maintained. 

Her scorn for the libertarian right will disappoint, and even anger, some Conservatives; but the Tory party has never been a libertarian party. Moreover, classical liberalism is not, for all its elegance, an election-winning proposition. May’s conservatism is of the big tent variety, recognising that in the current circumstances voters have in any case few other places to go. 

May evidently seems to believe that her greatest task is that of restoring confidence. That means a chivvying, even scolding, government that will intervene – and interfere – without feeling constrained by a dogmatic attachment to intellectual purity. That purity, she suggests, should be anathema to proper Tories anyway. 

So, a brisk, let’s get to work, Toryism that accepts these are difficult times for many and makes a virtue of its lack of style. Indeed, the lack of style is part of the point and, in some way, proof Mayism is grounded in quotidian concerns. Unavoidably, this is a reaction against Cameronism too, rebuking it for being too smooth, too concerned with what others might think, too urbane, too damn comfortable. May’s people, by contrast, are the grumbling many, not the happy few. 

It’s why she understands Brexit. This might, in time, prove a disastrous miscalculation, but it was a vote predicated on identity, not economics, and, now that the matter has been decided, the people want a government that will just get on and do the damn thing. Conveniently, this plays to some traditional Tory strengths too: strong and stable government in the national interest, putting Britain’s interests first and so on. The Tories, once more, are the patriotic party and, as ever, this gives them considerable licence. The flag always offers cover and protection. Brexit, while introducing great uncertainty, was also a response to international uncertainty and the creeping sense that too much power had been sacrificed to international institutions and other non-state bodies. That includes, it scarcely needs saying, multinational corporations. 

Still, this is a government that will allow you rights but make more of your obligations. A preaching government I suppose. We are, if you will allow it, all in it together but this time that might, if May has her way, be for real. That at any rate is the theory even if, as so often, the practice turns out to be rather different. 

But in a storm, any tent looks good and when it’s the only tent available it looks better still.