Theresa May’s manifesto reveals more about her plans to refound the Conservative party than her plans to run the country. Her programme for the Tories would read as a heretical document to many in her party, brought up on a diet of state-shrinking, me-first Thatcherism. Instead, Mrs May talks about rejecting the “cult of selfish individualism” and says her party does not now believe in “untrammelled free markets”. To see how big a leap this is. consider how much the Conservative party of the recent past changed the temper of Britain, fostering a mood of materialistic individualism. Mrs May consciously jettisons this individualist heritage because she knows that the public associate Thatcherism less with an unleashing of economic virtue than an unfettering of the social vices of selfishness and greed. It has contributed, as Mrs May has long contended, to the Conservatives’ reputation as the “nasty party”.
In many ways Mrs May is swimming with, not against, the political tide. No classical liberal party is contesting this election. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have moved leftwards. By proposing to cancel key Lib Dem achievements – such as the constitutional reform of fixed-term parliaments – Mrs May signals that she wishes to wipe out traces of “Liberalism” from government.
There’s a mood afoot in the country against free markets and a cultural change in favour of a politics that combines greater economic justice with more social concord. Mrs May taps into this when she talks of the NHS as part of a system of solidarity that is more than mutual self-interest. This sits awkwardly with the harsh reality that the NHS is under the worst financial pressure it has ever faced. But if Mrs May can persuade voters that she can be trusted with the NHS then she will have succeeded in capturing key electoral terrain with what appears to be very little extra money.
There is also a significant break with her predecessor David Cameron, who claimed “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. For Mrs May there is such a thing as society and it needs a state. Her industrial strategy includes an unlikely proposal to modernise the shipbuilding industry. This is in part about resetting today’s liberal market society, where the maximum amount of social coordination occurs through market mechanisms. Instead Mrs May proposes to intervene when she thinks the government can do better than the market. Conservative apostasy, maybe, but it is also smart politics.
The ambition to break with four decades of market liberalisation could easily be thwarted by Brexit, further free-trade deals and sweeteners to the City of London. The weakness of her philosophy is that it rests upon a nationalistic response that raises unrealistic expectations about what this country can do alone. In Mrs May’s Britain, certain events galvanise brief intense interest and political engagement. One of these is Brexit. The most powerful driver of her support is the false perception that Britain is under attack by either internal or external enemies. It drives Mrs May to openly promote the worst possible outcome for Brexit Britain: walking away from the EU without a deal. Sometimes realism triumphs over idealism. While she is sticking by her pledge to reduce immigration to the “tens of thousands”, there will be exemptions for skilled workers in “strategic industries”.
Like Tony Blair in 1997, Mrs May is where the majority of voters are: to the left on the economy and to the right on social issues. She plays to this mood, a political judgment that risks society closing in on itself rather than opening up. She is surely sincere in saying she wants to change Britain for the better. But she missed opportunities here. The proposal, for example, to put the burden of paying for social care at home on the pensioner rather than the state undermines the solidarity she rates so highly. The need for care because of, say, dementia, is just the kind of random act of chance the state should insure against.
In favouring meritocracy, she erodes her recognition that success is mutually created. Meritocrats believe their own myths about succeeding on their own. It is why Mrs May has ended up with a wrong-headed obsession with grammar schools. Flourishing happens in complex webs of relationships. The counter to inequality is community, but it is also complexity and cooperation. Simplistic solutions risk entrenching privilege rather than challenging it. Forward Together, says Mrs May, but where to? Nobody knows.