Is the Prime Minister best described as Red Theresa? Judging by May’s manifesto, she is more like a certain kind of blue. The blue of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour.
In an age of anxiety and anger, May and her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy are trying to renew a more traditional conservatism that can combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity.
The manifesto unveiled yesterday breaks not only with Thatcher’s settlement by stating that Conservatives “do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism”.
It also rejects Cameron’s version of progressive conservatism by dropping any talk of the Big Society and the emphasis on volunteering. Instead, May draws on Burkean thinking to argue that “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”.
Many will dismiss all this as nothing but warm words but it is so far the clearest expression of May’s guiding philosophy.
Both before and after becoming Prime Minister, May has resisted labels such as being “post-liberal” or “red Tory”. What is clear though is that she is the first party leader to acknowledge the limits of liberalism. More rights and individual entitlements will not provide a proper balance between personal freedom and social cohesion.
That is why she is calling for a greater recognition of mutual duties: “We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demand […] society is a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.”
But it is not just Burke that shapes May’s conservatism. Beveridge’s commitment to tackling the five giant evils gets an update too. The manifesto promises to correct a dysfunctional economy, deliver Brexit, heal social divisions, care for the elderly and harness the power of technology.
In each instance, the response offered by the Conservatives borrows both from the language and from many policy ideas developed by Blue Labour – the Labour group around Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas who argue for a common good politics based around work, family, decency, community and country.
Far from merely copying Ed Miliband’s policy platform, May’s team have embraced Blue Labour’s emphasis on ordinary working families. Part of the problem with Miliband was that he only ever talked about the rich and the poor, which ignored the vast majority of people. The Conservatives are pitching for what they call the mainstream – people with Blue Labour values who choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change.
While specific policies undoubtedly matter, the point about the manifesto is how the party sees the country. And the Conservatives are redefining the centre-ground away from the elite consensus of the past four decades towards the British mainstream. That means rejecting both the socialist left of Corbyn and the libertarian right of Farage in favour of the ‘common good’. That includes the ‘just about managing’ who struggle to make ends meet and the precious bonds uniting the peoples of the four nations.
However, May’s communitarian Conservatism looks set to run into contradictions. Ever-more global free trade is likely to hurt the very workers that May claims to defend when she speaks of a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. The focus of the Tories’ industrial strategy on greater specialisation in cutting-edge high-tech sectors offers nothing to more traditional sectors and local supply chains in support of people and communities they live in.
What is missing is a Conservative challenge to the power of centralised finance in the City of London combined with the Blue Labour idea of establishing a network of sectoral and regional banks that can channel capital into the productive activities of small- and medium-sized enterprise.
There is an even deeper problem with May’s mantra of creating a Great Meritocracy, which is narrowly focused on trying to boost social mobility. By definition, higher social mobility involves both winners and losers, and the point about the Brexit vote is that the losers from globalisation want a new settlement that works for everyone.
State support for upward mobility fails to recognise that most people will never “win”, or never succeed very far in pure liberal, free-market terms. Arguably, a true Conservatism requires higher economic success and more social esteem for non-academic qualifications and employment, for example BTECs.
Britain needs a wide range of high-level technical colleges that provide proper vocational training, as Blue Labour has argued. It also requires new hybrid institutions for engineering, law and finance where young people not only acquire some academic knowledge but also learn a trade and its ethos.
And why not create Royal Colleges for professions that will matter more going forward, especially carers but also cleaners and caterers? Amid all the talk about automation, the Tories are silent on these and other jobs that involve human qualities of compassion, patience, humour and adaptability, which machines will never possess.
Thus May’s vision is steeped in the blue traditions of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but her conservatism is beset by a fundamental contradiction between global free trade and national solidarity. The Tories are the party of capital and the moneyed interest, and they seem committed to a purely buccaneering approach to Europe, which drags the country back in a neo-liberal direction.
The failure to build a strong settlement at home will weaken Britain’s ability to shape a new global economy that benefits those who are experiencing economic and cultural insecurity.
Herein lies Labour’s chance. If the party recovers the Blue Labour values of work, family, community, country and support for the poor, then it can once again become the force of national renewal.
May has parked the Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn, but the battle over the new centre-ground is far from over.
Adrian Pabst is the co-author (with John Milbank) of “The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future” (Rowman & Littlefield).