In her first leader’s speech at a Tory Conference, Theresa May tried to explain the type of Conservatism she hopes to practise. Although her address was popular with many delegates and the Tories’ poll ratings soared, it attracted frenzied criticism from left-liberals, who interpreted the sections on immigration as reactionary, and economic liberals, who were alarmed by May’s talk of government intervening to control markets.
Previously, I wrote that the new prime minister was associated with ‘pragmatism’ rather than any particular political ideology. Mrs May’s conference speech suggested that she thinks Conservatism is something more than a commitment to free markets. Her call to remember “the good that government can do” and her derisive comments about the “libertarian right”, were seen by some members of her party as a direct attack on their beliefs.
So, alongside alongside claims that May’s policies amounted to fascism, there were equally inflated suggestions that she was advocating socialism. Rhetoric that tilted leftward on the economy and rightward on immigration made the implication of ‘national socialism’ irresistible to some commentators. Tip-toeing around all that hyperbole, the speech combined some of the new populism affecting politics, with more traditional conservative themes.
It is highly unlikely that Theresa May’s Tories will regulate companies heavily. She prefaced her remarks about the economy by emphasising the party’s commitment to free markets. The government’s slim majority in the House of Commons, and the hostility of a significant number of Conservatives, would prevent May from introducing a significant programme of regulation, even if that is what she intended.
There may be some limited measures aimed at protecting consumers, in particular industries. The government is already involved heavily in ensuring wider broadband provision and mobile phone signal for example, because these services are considered particularly important to the rest of the economy. Banks may be required to ensure that interest rates for savers reflect more closely the Bank of England base rate. There may even be some legislation, largely aesthetic, around company governance.
The policies trailed at party conferences often disappear rapidly, because these speeches are about setting a particular tone and attracting headlines, rather than the detail around important issues. Mrs May’s speech was designed to appeal to voters, ‘ordinary working people’ as she insisted upon calling them, who regard big businesses with suspicion and feel that top executives are frequently paid too much money. The prime minister was telling them that the Conservatives are on their side.
That’s not to say that she won’t make another speech soon, soothing any anxieties that her words might have caused among businesses, and emphasising that the financial industry and other publicly unpopular industries are vital to the economy. In fact that is very likely.
The idea that Mrs May is trying to place herself ‘equidistant’ between right and left is not particularly illuminating. In my previous blog, I observed that the idea of a Tory party torn between Thatcherite free marketeers and ‘One Nation’ Conservatives is a simplification. Broadly, market liberal ideas, the meat of Thatcherism, are taken for granted across the Conservative Party and, until relatively recently, they attracted few serious challenges across British society.
So far, Theresa May’s team has made a rather good job of reading the mood of Britain, after the EU referendum. While the Tories’ poll ratings reflect this success, they need to deliver a coherent plan for Brexit and govern well, rather than merely echoing public opinion.
Some more excitable activists reacted to Theresa May’s defence of government and her criticisms of failing markets by alleging that she was not espousing Conservatism. That depends whether Conservatism (big ‘C’) is still underpinned meaningfully by conservatism (small ‘c’).
British conservatives defend free markets and civil liberties, because they are a defining feature of the UK's culture and society. However, the free market libertarian desire to strip back regulations, laws and institutions as a matter of principle is something very different from conservatism, as it is usually understood.
Classical liberalism is an undeniable, and important, aspect of the modern Conservative Party. There are a smaller number of Tories who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’. Almost the entire party accepts the broad thrust of Thatcherite economics, to some degree.
Perhaps Theresa May was being needlessly antagonistic when she hit out at the ‘libertarian right’. That doesn’t mean that her speech wasn’t deeply ‘conservative’, even if some of her colleagues would like to rid the Conservative Party of the ideas she articulated.