What does Theresa May actually believe?
It’s the question perplexing MPs, journalists, and those members of the public admirably slogging through this election, powered only by Nescafe and matches. The confusion is understandable; Mrs May’s record is inconsistent. She’s the moderniser who became an unabashedly authoritarian Home Secretary, the scolder of ‘the Nasty Party’ who deployed vans telling illegal immigrants to ‘go home’ on the streets of liberal London, the bloodless Remainer turned Boudica of Brexit.
With the publication of the Conservative Party manifesto, we can identify the philosophy that informs the Prime Minister’s politics. It is a relatively obscure set of ideas, quaint really. We haven’t heard much from this tendency in decades; it has no fashionable gurus championing its cause. The intelligentsia deems it risible and the Guardian reckons it’s positively sinister. Many in Mrs May’s party probably consider it a bit stuffy and old-fashioned. Reader, it is my solemn duty to inform you that the Prime Minister is a conservative.
Not simply a Conservative, a party label that has been all but banished from Tory election literature, but a proponent of the persuasion espoused by Robert Peel, the man who forged the modern Conservative Party out of the old, discredited Tories. Peel sought to conserve the best of the existing order while accepting the need for reform where injustice was shown to be at work.
Peel declared himself a foe of ‘a perpetual vortex of agitation’ in which ‘public men can only support themselves in public estimation by adopting every popular impression of the day, by promising the instant redress of anything which anybody may call an abuse’ Parliament must take regard of ‘ancient rights’ and give ‘deference to prescriptive authority’. The apparently reactionary tenor of the rhetoric chimed with much of what the old Tories had propounded but Peel went on. He balanced traditional Tory resistance to change with what would now be called a social conscience. The Conservatives would accept ‘careful review of institutions… undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.
This address to his electors in Tamworth became known as the Tamworth Manifesto and proved to be the founding document of today’s Conservative Party. This spirit of reformist conservatism led Peel to embrace Catholic Emancipation and repeal the Corn Laws. Ironically, many contemporaries considered his worldview dangerously radical and a threat to the ordered society that conservatives were supposed to cherish. But Peel understood that injustice, allowed to fester, would undermine the unity of the country and could even foment revolution. He was not the first Tory to grasp that his party had to be more than an interest group for the landed classes but he was the most instrumental in embedding that wisdom.
In his resignation speech, Peel told Parliament: ‘I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.’
Compare this with the Conservative manifesto unveiled last week. It reads: ‘[W]e will need to govern in the manner established by Theresa May since she became prime minister last year. We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.’
And how did Mrs May extol this blueprint? She pledged ‘a country where everyone – of whatever background – has the chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will take them. A country that asks not where you have come from, but where you are going to. It means making Britain a country that works, not for the privileged few, but for everyone. A country where it doesn’t matter where you were born, who your parents are, where you went to school, what your accent sounds like, what god you worship, whether you’re a man or a woman, gay or straight, or black or white. A country in which all that matters is the talent you have and how hard you’re prepared to work.’
The Thatcherites who more or less have had the run of the joint for 40 years now confront an unnerving prospect: Robert Peel has taken his party back. Paying tribute to the Iron Lady after her passing, her close friend Conservative MP Conor Burns told the Commons: ‘Margaret Thatcher was not a Tory at all’. Rather, she was ‘a laissez-faire Gladstonian economic liberal’. And that ‘ideological template’ — free-market liberalism — has defined Tory policy ever since. With tweaks to tone here and softened language there, economic rationalism has been the only rationale for four decades of Conservatives. Profit was declared the only motive and society wished out of existence. Privatisation went from a common sense response to long-term decline in discrete industries to an unswerving dogma applied as standard across sectors where the state had a legitimate role to play. The Conservative Party, for good reasons and to save the country from economic catastrophe and union militancy, abandoned Peel in favour of Gladstone.
Now Peel’s reformist conservatism is back in charge and runs right through the 2017 manifesto, with its commitment to workers’ rights, closing disparities of sex and race, and ending discrimination against the disabled. A cap on energy prices, dismissed as Marxist bunk by the Tories when Ed Miliband proposed a similar tariff two years ago, puts the Conservatives firmly on the side of the little guy over the big corporations. Far from a shift to the Left, as some are claiming, this marks a return to old-fashioned Tory values. And it is these values — fair pay for hard work, equal treatment for all, protection from capitalist excesses — which Theresa May hopes will inspire a new generation of working class Tories — the grandchildren of the working class Tories created by Mrs Thatcher with a very different policy platform.
There is the great secret of Theresa May’s politics. She’s just a plain, simple Tory — but one who could make many others Tories too.
The reason republicanism has never taken off in this country isn’t politics or religion. It’s that anti-monarchists are a right humourless bunch.
Observe their social media sneering at the picture-perfect nuptials of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews. The newlyweds aren’t even Royals but their connection to the Duchess of Cambridge was enough to set off the lemon-suckers. Was it really too much to ask that they let the happy couple have their special day?
When it comes to the Royal Family, I’m terribly British about things. Her Maj is beyond reproach. Doughty, stoical, unifying — she is a reminder of earlier times when duty could be spoken of without derision. Prince Charles is a taste I’ve yet to acquire but I retain an open mind.
As for the cost of the monarchy, if this election goes the wrong way, the Queen is looking at five years of weekly chats with Jeremy Corbyn. We might have to add compo to the Sovereign Grant.
‘The evidence appears to show that a decade of SNP rule has at best done nothing and at worst slightly damaged the country.’ Not my words but the assessment of Alex Bell, Alex Salmond’s former policy chief. Honestly, evidence should stop talking down Scotland.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.