“When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we will prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
So Theresa May in her first speech as Prime Minister, generally to great scepticism from the liberal media. It may be that the liberal media’s narrative of ‘posh boy Tories’ grinding the poor into the dust is so ingrained that it cannot accommodate such words from a Conservative Premier; it may be that it is simply as sceptical of such words from the political Right as it is credulous when the political Left uses them; or it may simply be that too many journalists are so historically ignorant that they have never heard of Disraeli, Joe Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan and ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. But it is there is the DNA of the Conservative Party, and many of the reforms which have benefitted the wider electorate have come from Conservative sources. It was the Tory Shaftesbury who persuaded the Tory Peel to enact legislation to restrict the hours people could work in factories and to ban children working down the mines – the liberal objected to such restrictions on the freedom of people. It was Disraeli’s government which brought in legislation on food purity and working hours – the Liberals did not want to interfere with the market. It was Joe Chamberlain who wanted to bring in tariffs to protect home industries, and Liberals who wanted free trade.
Mrs May belongs, to the clear discomfort of Thatcherite purists, to that Tory tradition which sees a role for the State in preventing inequalities of wealth growing to the point at which they become dangerous for democratic consent; which sees that alongside welfare reform, you still need welfare; and which seeds education as important in providing life chances for the poorest. It isn’t that the Thatcherite tradition does not see these things, it is that is often gives the impression that it believes in untrammeled ‘freedom’ first. As the Referendum debate seems to have illustrated, there are too many in our society for whom the word ‘freedom’ has a hollow ring. What does freedom mean when you can’t afford to feed or house your family because house prices are beyond your reach and wages low? Where is the freedom of choice if your educational opportunities have been limited by your social class? We can debate the causes of the decline of social mobility, but in the meantime it exists and seems to be worsening. If ‘the many’ in a democratic polity feel hard done by, they will not, forever, take the ‘few’ telling them that that’s the way things are for ever.
If a majority of people had felt the EU was theirs and had done something for them, if they had felt ownership of it, it would not have been necessary for the last Prime Minister to try to coerce them into voting for it by ‘operation fear’. If a positive case was made, many of us missed it. The Referendum became an opportunity for ‘the many’ to tell the political elite they were hurting, and the EU became the scapegoat for all those hurts. It seems Mrs May has picked up on that message. The extent to which her rhetorical commitments can be translated into practice at a time when, thanks to Brexit, the economic conditions will be unstable, is open to doubt. But at least she realises that a different rhetoric is needed. Austerity is all very well, but taken too far for too long, and in a climate where the very rich seem to be getting even richer, and in an economy where the bankers who crashed it walk away scot-free, something more is needed. If Mrs May can provide it, she will confound the sceptics and establish herself as the woman of the hour. If not – well let us hope we don’t have to go there.