Cartoon: Ben Jennings, Guardian
By Phil Burton-Cartledge (first published at Phil’s blog All That Is Solid)
When you’re a leading politician and especially a Prime Minister, the pressure is on to stand for something. And as the real choices in politics truncated to who could best run the Thatcherite/neoliberal settlement, necessity and expediency dictated that one must pretend to be something more than a manager of that consensus. John Major had his Back to Basics campaign, married to the Citizen’s Charter and Cones’ Hotline wheeze. His Blairness got no less a figure than Anthony Giddens to cook up “The Third Way”, the impossibility of marrying market fundamentalism to half-recognisable social democratic objectives. Even Bill Clinton bought into that one. Dave had his Big Society, a convenient celebration of volunteering just as the Tories committed themselves to butchering public services and replacing them with philanthropy and a committed citizenry. Ed Miliband had One Nation. The exception is Jeremy Corbyn, who is yet to fully define himself despite offering a politics that decisively breaks with received wisdom.
In her own way, at least at the rhetorical level, Theresa May also defined herself differently, and now her philosophy has a name: the Shared Society. Looking forward to a major speech on the matter, we know this is so much guff because of her record. In the six months May has been in power she’s prevaricated, delayed, prevaricated, and delayed some more. With a dose of control freakery, as noted by Andrew Rawnsley, she’s carried on flogging off strategic industry, and has overseen a budget that barely differed from an Osborne effort. May’s shared society isn’t looking that different from late period Dave, truth be told. And that’s before we start talking about the NHS and the declaration of a humanitarian crisis by the crazed militants of the Red Cross. Her talk of dealing with “the shorter life expectancy for those born poor, the harsher treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, the lower chances of white working-class boys going to university, and … the despicable stigma and inadequate help for those with mental health conditions” remains just talk as long as these crises carry on without the government appearing to care too much about them.
Still, her original address from the steps of Downing Street was perceived as a master stroke from within the Westminster circus. Talk of dealing with everyday injustices, including economic anxiety and security came like a revelation to folks who rub shoulders with working class people only when ordering a latte. But it would be churlish to deny May’s speech had significant cut through. Unlike Dave and Osborne who only pretended concern, May sounded like she meant it, that she understood something about the difficulties of modern life. In an uncertain world, she crafted a message pledging certainty, of a national community that has everyone doing their bit and getting their just rewards. This is where the shared society comes in. She defines it as,
A society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nations; a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart … it goes to the heart of my belief that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. The social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations are the things that define us and make us strong. And it is the job of government to encourage and nurture these relationships and institutions where it can, and to correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found.
Had Ed Miliband defined his One Nationism thus, the Tory press would have dubbed him a proto-totalitarian. Yet, from an ideas perspective, the shared society is interesting for three reasons. We know from her long stint in the Home Office that May is a petty-minded authoritarian who, like her predecessors, happily ramped up the government’s snooping powers in the name of terror prevention. All throughout her career, May has never been one to celebrate individual sovereignty. Second, she is riding the wave of (English) nationalism. As Wolfgang Streeck has argued, societies that have seen labour movements broken and discourses of resistance buried turn instead to whatever ideological resources are to hand. In this case, nationalism is resurgent because the nation appears eternal vis a vis cultural, political and economic turbulence. Farage exploited noisy, entitled, frightened English nationalism to his advantage, and now May is doing the same – albeit in calmer, more measured (and respectable) tones. And thirdly, her “active government” promises social reform that will build a “great meritocracy”. Forget your Ed Miliband, she’s channeling Clem Attlee. Again, we’ll wait and see about that as there’s been nothing beyond a slight smoothing of social security policy.
It’s bollocks, but unlike the wonky visions of days gone by it has a certain simplicity to it, one that even newspaper columnists will be able to understand. It promises justice and security, mainstays that should be Labour’s, but have proven difficult to meld together and “own” in recent times – the fact May freely speaks this language and is treated seriously goes to show how far our party still has to go. Yes, May suffers from the triple vices of incompetence, dithering and control-freakery, and Brexit could undo her leadership. But her undeserved reputation as a serious grown up rests on this rhetoric, of knowing and understanding the problems of, shock horror, the working class. And most importantly, her apparent no fuss willingness to do something about them.