Last week’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham was inevitably dominated by the Brexit question, but a second, not unrelated theme also emerged in the media consensus about the direction of the May government. Newspaper headlines following Mrs May’s first speech as party leader on Wednesday proclaimed the end of small government, liberal Conservatism, the i even claimed the Prime Minister had rebuked the Thatcher legacy. This followed an almost hysterical media reaction to Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s speech the previous day setting out a series of immigration reform measures. The interpretation of the direction of the May government at conference and outside the secure zone in the great industrial heartlands of the West Midlands conurbation that have done so much to make Great Britain great over the last few centuries was quite different to the London media’s hyperbole. The Prime Minister from day one has been clear she believes in smart government that is on the side of the people, a principle as old as Conservatism itself.
Mrs May has been ahead of the curve in Westminster in recognising the disconnect between ordinary voters outside of the capital, often left behind by the rapidly changing globalised world, and the political and media elite. On her first day in office outside the famous black door she promised to lead a government that would give people back control of their lives, the echoing of the Vote Leave slogan may have been deliberate, but giving people control of their own destinies is a core value of liberal conservatism. Apart from a brief blip during the years of Butskellism it has never been far away from the heart of all Conservative thinking. The May government is not going to be a patriarchal administration anymore than the governments of Disraeli or Thatcher were. Conservative governments, including during the 1980s, have always been in favour of using the power of the state to enhance opportunities for all in society. It’s just that Conservatives, unlike those on the left, believe that government usually achieves this best by not monopolising power and control over sections of the economy and society.
This was not a socially illiberal conference either. The Amber Rudd speech that enraged certain sections of the media was preceded by Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, paving the way for the launch early next year of most ambitious and liberal reform of the prison system in a generation. Unlike many of the following day’s headline writers, I was actually sat in the hall for the Home Secretary’s speech, I heard a quite different speech to their write-ups. There was a promise to pursue ruthless landlords who knowingly house illegal migrants in often terrible conditions, and to check more vigorously the backdoor routes to the UK that many sham courses at pop-up further education institutes offer and a welcome to skilled migrants who follow the rules. Britain must remain an open and welcoming place, legal migration has been of huge benefit to the UK economy and wider society, but unmanaged illegal migration brings with it many potential pitfalls. None of that is at odds with liberal conservatism.
Theresa May, in the wake of what was arguably as close as British society gets to a revolution, the June 23rd referendum result, is trying to grapple with perceptions, sometimes unfair, that the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments, as well as the EU itself, were too close to global elites and big business and not interested enough in helping ordinary people climb the ladder. The recent BHS scandal has highlighted the unacceptable face of global capitalism when unchecked. The great achievement of the Thatcher revolution was the unshackling of aspiration after decades of an overly regulated, state owned and heavily taxed economy. It opened up new opportunities and horizons for millions of Britons.
In setting out to make a country that works for everyone Mrs May is attempting to build on that legacy and right the perceived injustices of the current system. A strong critic as Home Secretary and now Prime Minister of the criminal justice system’s unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and women, Mrs May’s vision is one for all of society, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or race. Re-balancing opportunity from the few to the many, through education reform, through sensible deployment of government efforts in troubled markets such as energy and housing, working with business to rebuild trust in the capitalist system in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, there is nothing illiberal about any of this. Nor, in more strict economically liberal terms, was Mrs May or the government’s message last week anti-trade or anti-globalisation. In Wednesday’s speech she went out of her way to praise the West Midlands export-centred economy and cited my favourite economic fact, that it is the only region in the UK to have an export surplus with China, proof against the oft-repeated pessimism that we don’t make anything anymore in this country.
Newspapers need a headline, but the great strength of Mrs May’s speech last week was its subtlety, it was in no way a rejection of the Thatcher and Cameron legacies, it was a recognition of where change is needed in a post-Brexit Britain. The most exciting thing of all to emerge from last week is the sense that when Mrs May says she wants to govern for the many and not the few, to open up opportunity and work against powerful vested interests she actually means it. For years it was claimed by the London media that she was too much of an outsider in Westminster to ever be Tory leader, a claim which underestimated the Conservative Party’s capacity to look outside its usual circles for fresh leadership. Sometimes, to shake things up, it takes a different view point to see things in a new light and now that very outsider status is proving its value in bringing change to Britain again.