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By Robert M Page 

The speed with which Theresa May was `catapulted’ into the leadership  both of  her Party and the nation following David Cameron’s  rapid departure from office after the EU referendum,  has left many commentators  seeking clues about the prospective  economic and social agenda of her new government.   

How, for example,  will she set about honouring the commitment,  made during her first Prime Ministerial broadcast outside 10 Downing Street in July 2016,  to improve the lives of  `left behind citizens’ who, despite being virtuous, industrious and ambitious, were finding life increasingly difficult – the so-called `JAMS’ (those Just About Managing)? This key electoral group are defined as those who are in paid work but with limited job security; who work hard; who worry about the quality of their child’s schooling and who find that they are not getting a fair share of the nation’s resources and opportunities.

In a short article in The Sunday Telegraph (8/1/17) and a subsequent lecture to the Charity Commission (9/1/17), (in which the hand of her leading policy advisor, Nick Timothy1, could also be detected), the broad parameters of May’s governing narrative were sketched out.   May argued that it was important to tackle some of the `burning’ injustices which undermine social solidarity.  These include the shorter life expectancies of those born into poverty, the harsher treatment afforded to 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’.   May’s over-riding concern, however, was to improve the lives of the JAMS, whose `everyday’ injustices had, she argued, been ignored by politicians for far too long.  

While May’s vision of social justice encompasses  continued  `support’ for `the very poorest’,  her main concern is to  set in train a more wide-ranging process of social reform to ensure that those currently just above the threshold of government assistance  received the `support they need’.   In pursuit of this objective, May has signalled her willingness to move beyond David Cameron’s progressive neo-liberal Conservative agenda (see Page 2015) in two main significant ways.   First, she believes that the state should take a more active role in resolving social injustices.  Although her predecessor was also supportive of positive state action (at least in comparison to either Thatcher or Major), he was reluctant to pursue an interventionist social policy agenda which could be misconstrued as having a social democratic provenance.   While May has also shown no sense of attachment to this particular political doctrine, she has declared herself more willing to use the power of the state to champion the JAMS.   To this end, efforts are to be made to improve the supply of  affordable housing, fix the operation of the market to ensure that the  cost of living does not spiral out of control  and ensure, as part of a renewed meritocratic `revolution’,  that `every child has the opportunity of a good school place’.  Given that  May and Nick Timothy are, like Margaret Thatcher, `grammar school’  Conservatives, who believe that their own success  is a direct result of state funded selective educational opportunities and personal endeavour, it is hardly  surprising that one of the new government’s  earliest, albeit controversial , policy pronouncements was to promote the revival of such schools.  

Those hoping that May’s `pro-state’ sympathies may result in significant increases in public spending in key areas  such as the NHS are, however,  likely to be disappointed.  Her commitment to fiscal rectitude, which was demonstrated during her six years at the Home Office, suggests that she regards organisational reform, rather than higher spending, as the key factor in improving public services.

Second, although May has shown a willingness to embrace and promote elements of Cameron’s progressive approach to social issues (such as gay marriage) and has even backtracked on her earlier opposition to gay adoption, her strong religious convictions (she is a practicing Anglican) suggest that she will be cautious in lending support to `progressive’ changes which jar with her personal faith. 

While May has portrayed herself  as a `non-ideological’ Conservative who is guided by pragmatism, empiricism, patriotism and a strong  moral compass,  it is of course possible,  as E.H.H. Green (2002) has reminded us, to detect  `deeper’  ideological convictions.  In the economic sphere, for example, May is supportive of the tenets of neo-liberalism believing that free trade and globalisation have bought immense benefits to the nation.  At the same time she recognises that the `rewards’ that have flowed from such activity need to be shared more fairly.  It remains to be seen, though, how far she will be prepared to use state power to secure this allocative change.  Like many Conservatives, May is strongly supportive of unequal financial rewards, provided they are open to all and based on hard work and the exercise of talent rather than unacceptable forms of privilege.  Her support for the JAMs is likely to mean, however, that she will pursue what Dorey (2014) has termed a One Nation `bounded’ approach to inequality (i.e. intervening when inequality reaches levels which pose a threat to social harmony).

Finally, it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether May’s economic and social agenda will find long-term favour with the electorate, particularly amongst the JAMs.  She might, with a fair wind, go on to emulate the political longevity of Thatcher.  Equally, she might find herself swept from office by unpredictable forces as we enter a new and extremely turbulent age.

Note

1 Nick Timothy was brought up in Tile Hill and, subsequently Sutton Coldfield. He attended the King Edward VI School in Aston and is a devotee of Joseph Chamberlain. He is arguably a more 'diehard' supporter of Aston Villa Football Club, than the former Prime Minister David Cameron, whose commitment to the 'Villans' was questioned after he once 'inadvertently' declared himself to be a West Ham United fan, who have similar club colours.

References

Davies, W. (2016) `Home Office Rules’,  London Review of Books (38:21, 3 November, 2016, pp.3-6.

Dorey, P. (2011)  British Conservatism. London: I.B.Tauris.

Goodman, P. (2016) `Mother Theresa’,  conservativehome, (5 October 2016).

Green, E.H.H. (2002) Ideologies of Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grice, A. (2016) `Nick Timothy: who is Theresa May’s “muse” with great influence at the heart of government?  The Independent (4/10/16).

Johnson, D. (2016), `Is Theresa May the true heir to Mrs Thatcher?  Standpoint, November.

Lewis, H. and Bush, S. (2016) `The May doctrine’, New Statesman, (15-23 July),  pp.21-23.

New Statesman Editorial (2016) `Theresa May and the resurgence of the state’.  New Statesman (30 September- 6th October), p.3.

May, M. (2017) `I’m determined to build the shared society for all’, The Sunday Telegraph (8 January, 2017), p.17.

May, M. (2017) `The Shared Society’. Charity Commission Annual Lecture (9/1/17).

Spence, A and Mctague, T. (2016) `The man who is really running Britain’, Politico, (10/4/16).

Timothy, N. (2016)  Our Joe: Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy, (2nd Edition), Conservative History Group: London. 

Robert M Page is Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy and is the author of Clear Blue Water?  The Conservative Party and the Welfare State Since 1940. Bristol: Policy Press, 2015.