Theresa May, it is being said, is showing herself to be a Red Tory. Or, at the very least, a pinko. Her manifesto supposedly turns its back on the traditional Conservative belief in the free market and laissez-faire economics and asserts the need for interventionist policies. It explicitly addresses how people feel, rather than telling them what they should think. It is a complete departure from the party’s past.
Time will soon tell whether this approach is found credible by the electorate and, if it is, how possible it will be to implement. Judgment on both those issues is suspended. For the moment, all one can do is wonder at how times change.
For most of its existence, the Conservative party has been interventionist, not out of dogma, but out of the need to correct imbalances in society. It has not been wedded to a free market ideology because it has not been wedded to any ideology. It has not championed laissez-faire economics: that role used to be performed by the radical wing of the Liberal Party. It has not been the party of big business; it has been the party of small business. And it never ceased to be interventionist when it needed to be. Indeed, Michael Heseltine once said that, to help British business, he would ‘intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner’.
Now, when Theresa May states her faith in the positive power of government intervention, jaws drop open in disbelief. Just as they did when, in 2002, she told the party faithful that many people saw them as the ‘nasty party’. That part of her speech has been long remembered and often repeated. The rest of her speech has not, but it deserves to be. Here is an extract from it:
‘Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities instead of showing confidence in all the citizens of our country. Twice we went to the country unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive. And twice we got slaughtered. Soldiering on to the next election without radical, fundamental change is simply not an option. How can we truly claim to be the party of Britain, when we don’t truly represent Britain in our party? At the last general election 38 new Tory MPs were elected. Of that total only one was a woman and none was from an ethnic minority. That’s not meritocracy, that’s a travesty and it will never be allowed to happen again.’
By any standards, this was an astonishing speech for a relative political newcomer to make in her first year as chair of the Conservative party to her own party conference. No one can say they weren’t warned. Now she is likely to have the opportunity to put into practice what she has long believed, but long refrained from saying. Now she is likely to have the chance to detach Thatcherism from Conservatism.
Because it was under Margaret Thatcher that free market ideology took over the Conservative party. That was when the idea that all government intervention was inherently bad took root in the party. That was when rampant individualism began to be lauded. That was when the very notion of society began to be derided.
And all that began to happen nearly 40 years ago, so it is hardly surprising that anyone under 60, or without a consuming interest in politics, should be unaware that, once upon a time, the Conservative party was very different from what it became after it had been hijacked by Thatcherism. Whether it is possible, after all this time, for anyone to pick the party up and plonk it back in the ground it used to occupy is something we may be about to discover.
I first became aware of Theresa May when she made that 2002 speech. I was astonished by her chutzpah in saying what she did. In public. On that occasion. Since then, you could say that she has played the percentages, kept her head below the parapet, earned herself a solid and dull reputation and bided her time. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be Prime Minister now. But I don’t think anyone who could make a speech like that should be described as boring or unadventurous.
In the early 1980s, I worked with Francis Pym, the Foreign Secretary who was fired by Margaret Thatcher after the 1983 election, when she felt strong enough to dispense with the services of people who disagreed with her. After that election, we worked together on his book The Politics of Consent, in which he argued for a return to compassionate, centrist Conservatism, free from dogma and ideology.
In preparation for this blog, I have re-read parts of that book for the first time in decades. Much of it remains entirely relevant today. These passages in particular resonate with me, and would probably also resonate with Theresa May:
‘I cannot condemn … people who become alarmed and angry at their present plight. They are not Jeremiahs, because they express no opinions on the future, other than that they cannot see one for themselves. All they are saying is ‘help’… Most people do not want Britain to be the richest and most efficient country in the world, if the penalty is widespread hopelessness and a divided nation. They would rather strike a balance between economic and social needs… Society needs to maintain a balance between the legitimate self-expression of its individual members and the harmony of the whole, and … Governments should intervene, in a practical and sensible way, to restrain unbridled self-interest and to improve social conditions in the nation.’
In another passage, Pym wrote: ‘My concern is that the flag of traditional Conservatism is kept flying … so that one day a standard-bearer can pick it up and put it back at the centre of our affairs, where it belongs.’
My advancing years have not made me entirely cynical. I remain hopeful that Theresa May will prove to be that standard-bearer.