Back to the Future? Or a Teutonic turn? An examination of May’s philosophy

7 October 2016

Theresa May used her first Party Conference as Prime Minister to set out the worldview that will guide her premiership. Although as Home Secretary, she had not displayed markedly ideological tendencies, it now appears that this because her approach is noticeably different to that of the Cameron-Osborne team, and indeed to Conservative orthodoxy since Margaret Thatcher. There are two clear threads emerging, interwoven in part but with very different origins.

Classical Conservatism

The economic policies advocated by Ms May – and so far also by her Chancellor, Philip Hammond – are a stark departure from the laissez-faire approach which has dominated her party since the Thatcher era. In promising explicitly to use the power of the state to promote opportunity, economic success in strategic sectors, and pursue corporate giants who avoid taxes or rely on cheap imported labour, Ms May took not so much a scalpel as a meat cleaver to the core tenets of the Hayekian, almost libertarian economic ideology of Lady Thatcher and her successors (in particular George Osborne in the last Government).

This embrace of an ‘industrial strategy’ – so much so that the phrase is now incorporated in what was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – marks a return to something close to the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party, an era of broad consensus with Labour that the state could and should play a substantial role in the economy, especially in strategically important sectors.

One difference, however, lies in the fact that whereas governments once sought to prop up weak industries, today the emphasis is on nurturing those at which Britain excels. Nevertheless, the promise of increased interventionism is a clear break with the recent past.

While unintended, the devaluation of the pound since the EU referendum also carries echoes (albeit not entirely happy ones) of the 1950s and 1960s, though at the time exchange rates were fixed.

One effect of this decline has been British exports becoming more competitive. This, plus concern over the upcoming Brexit negotiations, means that the UK’s balance of payments has attracted more attention than in many years.

On education, plans to allow new grammar schools, while controversial, in fact echo the consensus which existed on education until the mid-1960s, when grammar schools were left untouched by both parties. Furthermore, Ms May’s policies have a distinct echo of Rab Butler’s ‘Tripartite System’ of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools – moves by Ms May and Education Secretary Justine Greening to encourage technical and vocational education alongside new grammars suggest a de facto return to such a three-pronged system.

Healthcare, too, seems more reminiscent of an earlier era. Since the 1980s, Conservative governments have not quite shaken the sense that they would do away with the NHS if it were politically feasible, but Ms May used her speech to make an explicit denunciation of this attitude. In challenging this view head-on, she evidently aims to recall a time when, before the wave of privatisations under Lady Thatcher, the Conservatives were trusted as custodians of a socialised health system.

Ms May has also sought to capture the centre ground on workers’ rights, selling her party as the natural home of hardworking people and quashing suggestions she would use Brexit to roll back employment protections. This is also broadly analogous with the pre-1979 age in which the status of trade unions and employment laws were largely unchanged irrespective of whether Labour or the Conservatives held office.

Ms May and her ministers, especially Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green, have similarly defended the welfare state, while maintaining that it should be a last resort. This too formed part of the ‘postwar consensus’ in British politics.

Even on foreign policy, the new administration displays attitudes last seen in the 1960s. Before the UK joined the European Economic Community, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth were felt to be as important, or more so, as those with Continental Europe. Post-Brexit, the UK appears set to seek to rebuild such relationships, which perhaps withered in recent decades.

On trade, the Government is pushing for the UK to be the world’s strongest advocate for free trade – a role which appears up for grabs no matter who wins the US presidential election. Theresa May’s calls for ‘Global Britain’ and references to the country’s role as a historical trading power suggest an element of nostalgia for the days when Britain’s trading prowess made it the undisputed superpower.

In the same vein, the fact that one of the May Government’s first acts was to vote to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent should not be taken purely as opportunism to weaken Labour (though it was in part) but as a corollary of this globalist strategy.

While it has been fashionable to ignore military power, it is an axiom of geopolitics that control of the seas provides control over world trade, and therefore national prosperity and security. The May Government’s emphasis on national security, and the decision to keep Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon as one of the few Cabinet ministers not to be moved in the reshuffle, suggests Ms May is attuned to the importance of naval power, more so than Lady Thatcher (despite victory in the Falklands War, the Royal Navy shrank substantially under her watch, largely due to the 1981 Nott Review).

In various policy areas, then, Ms May is, consciously or not, evoking a return to the Conservatism that prevailed before the Thatcherite era. However, there is a second female leader who has a much greater ideological affinity with the new Prime Minister.

Christian Democratic Union

Theresa May, daughter of a Church of England clergyman, has a moral and political outlook closer to a continental Christian Democrat than a Thatcherite British Conservative – and in particular, her approach is distinctly similar to the daughter of a German Protestant pastor, Angela Merkel.

Her emphasis on a need for community and for society is alien to the Thatcherite tradition in the UK. Unlike her predecessors, Ms May is unafraid to speak in moral terms of those who seek to remove themselves from British public life, whether members of a global capitalist elite or the non-violent extremists targeted by the Prevent strategy she oversaw as Home Secretary.

In its embrace of society – neither the atomised individuals of Lady Thatcher nor the nebulous, urban-centric ‘Big Society’ of David Cameron but rather a more understated, rural provincialism – Theresa May’s approach is also more akin to Christian Democracy. Yet neither is it hostile to the state, preferring instead to use it as a tool of social justice. Moreover, there is a distinctly Teutonic-Protestant emphasis on hard work and meritocracy which would not be out of place in Angela Merkel’s party.

While the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ originated with George Osborne, the devolution agenda championed by the Cameron Government is being both deepened and broadened to other parts of the country, with the Midlands and the South-West also earmarked for further powers. This mirrors the German model in which power and wealth are distributed across a host of cities and regions – Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, the Ruhr – aside from the capital. In part a historical accident, a result of the late unification of Germany and Cold War partition, the effect has been to spread the country’s success widely, an idea common to Theresa May’s philosophy.

The flip-side of the devolution agenda is that Ms May is a staunch unionist, and has moved to squash talk of independence for Scotland or the separation of Northern Ireland. While this may not immediately have a parallel with Chancellor Merkel, one can instead see her unionism both in how her personal history anchors her in the old East Germany, and her efforts to promote European unity in the face of a multitude of crises.

Though the UK has decided that the European political project is inappropriate for it, Ms Merkel has fought hard to save it, just as Ms May is doing with the British Union. Both leaders are guided by a sense of historical responsibility to preserve a union they firmly believe makes their country safe and prosperous.

In attitude, a theme common to both the Conservatives prior to the Thatcher era and the German CDU is identifiable – an element of paternalism, a vague sense that those born into good fortune have an obligation to assist those who were not. In Germany, this was manifest in the country’s openness to refugees; in Britain, it drives the concern expressed by Theresa May for those left behind by globalisation and ignored until the referendum result.

Conclusion

It is early in the premiership of Theresa May and her guiding philosophy will doubtless become clearer over time. However, we can already identify both a pre-Thatcherite Toryism and a continental Christian Democracy, with some overlap and interaction between the two. This mix has the potential to substantially reshape British politics, and in particular to rally Labour voters alienated by the hard-left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

It marks what may be the start of a profound ideological change in the Conservative Party. Given that the post-war consensus held for thirty years, while the Christian Democrats have typically held power for long spells at a time in Germany, it would be no surprise if it kept Ms May in Downing Street for quite some time.

Ben Zwolinski
News Assistant

As News Assistant, Ben keeps DeHavilland's Newsdesk functions running smoothly from day to day. A graduate of the University of Sheffield, Ben has experience working for the Council of the EU, and completed a traineeship with Scotland Europa and the City of London Corporation office in Brussels.