An initial assessment of the new PM's vision for Britain
15th July 2016
In her speech on Monday that launched her bid to become Conservative leader and Prime Minister, Theresa May set out her vision for how the UK would look under her leadership. Two days later, she was moving into 10 Downing Street after her remaining rival dropped out unexpectedly.
It was a striking speech, with many pleasant surprises. Some of the material in it was more characteristic of the Left, and (as her cabinet choices confirmed) marked a decisive break with the recent Conservative past. An overarching theme of her speech was unity, implicitly highlighting the background of inequality and division that exists in so many areas of life in the UK. Here are some initial thoughts on her main points, from Jubilee Centre’s senior researcher, Guy Brandon.
Theresa May’s position as a unifying character in the Conservative Party
‘And last week, I won the overwhelming support of my colleagues in the House of Commons. Nearly two thirds of the Conservative Party in Parliament. Left and right. Leavers and remainers. MPs from the length and breadth of Britain. The result showed that, after the referendum, the Conservative Party can come together – and under my leadership it will.’
Unity in leadership is critical at such a time of uncertainty. The current disarray in the Labour Party, which means there is effectively no opposition, is a warning of what a lack of unity can do. Perfect unity is unrealistic, but the aspiration should always be for consensus. ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.’ (1 Corthinians 1:10) Also ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.’ (Mark 3:24)
Unity was also a theme of her social vision; inequality is harmful to social cohesion. ‘A society that works for everyone, so we can bring people back together – rich and poor, north and south, urban and rural, young and old, male and female, black and white, sick and healthy, public sector, private sector, those with skills and those without.’ This reflects the biblical concern that everyone be treated the same way: the standard is the same regardless of ethnicity, wealth or status (Leviticus 24:22; James 2:1-7). The universal rule is, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-40).
Money and the economy
‘Talk to almost any ordinary member of the public, and the frustration they feel about the loss of control over their day-to-day lives is obvious. They are the ones who made real sacrifices after the financial crash in 2008. Some lost their jobs, some reduced their hours, others took a pay cut. Wages have grown, but only slowly. Taxes for the lowest paid went down, but other taxes, like VAT, went up. Fixed items of spending – like energy bills – have rocketed. Monetary policy – in the form of super-low interest rates and quantitative easing – has helped those on the property ladder at the expense of those who can’t afford to own their own home.’
Money creation and the kind of economy it underpins and facilitates is the subject of a major forthcoming piece of work by the Jubilee Centre. The way we do money is broken, with fundamental tensions between those who create money (commercial banks) and those who use it (us). Our current monetary system acts as a way to extract value from the real economy into the financial sector, increasing inequality. You can read some initial ideas in the article Caesar: Cash is king. Reform in this area is much needed.
‘Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising. Young people will find it even harder to afford their own home. The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth.’
Economic independence and the ability to provide for your family is a fundamental good. Land ownership in biblical Israel was meant to be universal, giving everyone the means of production. This is why the Bible was so concerned to limit inequality through mechanisms like the Jubilee Year and Sabbatical debt cancellation (Leviticus 25). Some degree of inequality is inevitable, but it need not be extreme and entrenched. The Bible highlights the injustice inherent in a system that allows the already wealthy to exploit the circumstances of the poor. ‘Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.’ (Isaiah 5:8)
Brexit means Brexit
‘I couldn’t be clearer. Brexit means Brexit. And we’re going to make a success of it. There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door, and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union, and as Prime Minister I will make sure that we leave the European Union.’
As a Remain campaigner, Theresa May finds herself in an odd position, tasked with securing an outcome she did not want. This is the nature of democracy, ‘The worst form of government, except for all the others’ (Winston Churchill). Read these Reflections on Brexit by Michael Schluter. More broadly, read about the failure of leadership that led to the referendum in the first place, and why clear leadership and transparent decision-making is now vital.
Recognition of the importance of stakeholder relationships
‘Because as we saw when Cadbury’s – that great Birmingham company – was bought by Kraft, or when AstraZeneca was almost sold to Pfizer, transient shareholders – who are mostly companies investing other people’s money – are not the only people with an interest when firms are sold or close. Workers have a stake, local communities have a stake, and often the whole country has a stake.’
Measures include ensuring employees are represented on company boards, and bringing corporate pay under control. The Jubilee Centre and its sister organisations have long advocated such an approach. See Transforming Capitalism and After Capitalism.
New leadership is often accompanied by an optimistic mood. It is one thing to talk about positive change, another to bring it about.
There are areas of concern in Theresa May’s earlier policy statements. Questions are raised by her stance on human rights. Her support for the Investigatory Powers Bill has prompted worries about surveillance and the erosion of privacy, topics covered in recent Jubilee Centre articles, None of your business and An end to end-to-end encryption, amongst others. And her position on immigration has been widely criticised (see the Jubilee Centre’s approach to Immigration and justice).
As Theresa May moved into Number 10, one commentator suggested that her predecessor’s legacy would be summed up in one word, ‘Brexit’, just as Tony Blair’s political tombstone would be summed up by ‘Iraq’. She is the Independence PM, but despite the circumstances of her rise to power, it is too early to guess what her epitaph will be.
It is a time of rapid change, of both significant risks and opportunities – a time to remember Paul’s words to Timothy: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2) This reflects the fact that those in government don’t actually have all the resources necessary to bring about positive change, for indeed the destiny of the nation depends not only on the government, but on the Church as well.