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“Some people have lost sight of the fact that political differences are not everything”, Theresa May told Conservative party conference this week.
Labour, she pointed out, is not “The Jeremy Corbyn Party”. Past Labour governments had “some basic qualities that everyone should respect. They were proud of our institutions, proud of our armed forces, proud of Britain.” This was the worthy party of Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle and John Smith, not of antisemitism (“What has it come to when Jewish families today seriously discuss where they should go if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister?”) and kowtowing to Putin’s Russia (“We cannot outsource our conscience to the Kremlin”). “The Jeremy Corbyn Party rejects the common values that once bridged our political divide”, she continued.
This from May was not so far from Obama’s eulogy at John McCain’s funeral: “We never doubted we were on the same team”, he said of the Arizona Senator. “For all of our differences, we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched.” The same team indeed. “So much of our politics … can seem small and mean and petty trafficking in bombast and insult,” he continued. For ‘Trump’, read ‘The Jeremy Corbyn Party’. Not on the same team indeed.
But beyond a call for decency, it’s hard to divine what if anything constitutes May-ism. The central portion of the speech featured a series of bland, affirmative statements of the facts of British life: we have a National Health Service (she was pro); there are four countries in our Union (great); and our armed forces do their job (excellent).
It is impossible to avoid the feeling that May-ism does not amount to much.
Indeed, May’s politics are much thinner in substance than those of her former key advisor Nick Timothy. When he worked for May as her chief of staff he advocated communitarian blue collar Conservatism. His heroes were social and civic reformers.
Timothy’s philosophy marked a departure from the two public faces of Cameroonism, the environmentalism of the early years or the fiscal conservatism of Cameron and Osborne’s years in government. There was not a mention of climate change in May’s speech and she still has little of interest to say about the economy.
Her relative paucity of thought looks like a product of a lack of intellectual vigour, veiled only by the catch all gloss of governing in ‘the national interest’ – a suspect phrase she repeated four times.
Yet reform matters. Every significant British political party has been at its most successful when it has positioned itself on the side of progress, reform and liberty. The Tories sank their chances of gaining seats in Scotland for a generation after opposing the 1832 Reform Act, for example, which led to the Gladstonian Liberal hegemony of the nineteenth century.
In the twentieth century, we had Attlee with the extension of state welfare and Thatcher’s root and branch economic reform. Blair promised investment and reform of the public realm. Each in their way advocated potent manifestos for change to meet the challenges of their day.
If the Tories do want to be reformers and to represent more than either a Brexit popular front or the conceptual nullity of May-ism, there is plenty scope for manoeuvre. After May they’ll need to look at proper penal reform for example, wholesale reform of our mangled local governance, further devolution to the UK’s constituent nations and its cities, and much more.