AS the Prime Minister, Theresa May, delivered her speech about the state’s responsibility to crack down on tax dodgers and profiteering energy companies, the former Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “Marxist anti-business interventionism imho [in my humble opinion]”. He was being ironic, pointing up how his speech three years ago was attacked by the Tories and in the press for its talk of state controls and price fixing. Even the SNP rejected his call for an energy price freeze.
We were told that Mrs May was going to make a pitch for the centre ground. In fact, some of her rhetoric sounded decidedly to the left of centre and wouldn’t have been out of place in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn. “Putting the power of the state at the service of ordinary working class people” sounds almost like class war. She referred to the “working class” repeatedly in her speech and said they had “made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash”. Labour leaders have tended to use the phrase “hard working families” on the grounds that they don’t want to use the class language of the far Left.
Mrs May told tax dodgers and their accountants that she was “coming for them” in a section that sounded distinctly threatening towards the rich. In case anyone was in doubt, she said it was very much the state’s responsibility to intervene when the market was dysfunctional or when inequalities, “burning injustices”, got out of hand. In a section that rubbished 30 years of Thatcherite free market dogma, she then declared that “the state exists to provide what individual people communities and markets cannot”.
So much for rolling back the frontiers of the state, getting bureaucrats off the backs of wealth creators and having a bonfire of regulations. She even suggested that government should pick winners. ”We will identify sectors … that are of strategic importance to our economy and do everything we can to encourage. develop and support them.”This all sounded like the kind of “middle way” Conservatism of Harold Macmillan back in the 1950s, complete with a promise to use the state to address the housing crisis.
But this wasn’t really a revival of humane, one-nation “Butskellite” Conservatism, as many claimed, more like the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen who uses similar anti-capitalist rhetoric. Macmillan would never have endorsed the kind of blunt, anti-immigrant sentiments we heard elsewhere at this Tory conference: cabinet ministers threatening to name and shame companies that employ foreign workers, to cut down on international students at universities and to demonising immigrant doctors. In the 1950s, Tory governments drafted in large numbers of Commonwealth immigrants to work in the NHS and London Transport. Macmillan was a pro-European who helped create the European Free Trade Area and tried to get Britain into the EEC. Mrs May isn’t having any of that. She said Britain was becoming an “independent sovereign state” again and would have no truck with the European Court of Justice.
That means, effectively, Britain will not even be a member of the single market after Brexit. Her Brexit is as hard as it gets: rocks will melt in the sun before she allows anyone to dictate migration policies to Britain. Gordon Brown was widely criticised when he called for “British jobs for British workers”. It is a measure of how far we have come that it is quite in order for the Prime Minister to use the kind of “take our jobs” sentiments that used to be the preserve of the British National Party. She came straight out and said that working class voters were “out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration”.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage always said he was proud to have taken over from the BNP and made talking about immigration respectable. Mrs May has, in turn, taken over from Ukip. There was much talk on social media about how her attempt to bolt social democracy to anti-immigrant populism was a kind of fascism; ridiculous, of course. But she has become a very English Donald Trump. She doesn’t resort to the US presidential candidate’s belligerence and overt racism. But Mrs May has realised that Britain is ready for a version of his kind of right-wing populism.
People only hear Mr Trump’s outrageous remarks about building walls to keep out Mexicans and Muslims but most of his speeches are about economics and restoring the jobs and security of working class Americans. He is similarly hostile to the banks, big business and globalisation and promises to take on the plutocrats of Wall Street and the big companies that export jobs to low paying countries, depriving Americans of their livelihoods.
He is a plutocrat who hasn’t paid any taxes for 20 years. But that only enhances his appeal to some of his mainly white working class audience. He’s a bully, but he promises to be a bully for the little guy. And apart from Trump’s misogyny, that’s not so different from what Mrs May said yesterday, in her own way. She realises that the kind of free market, libertarian language most of her party’s intellectuals still use is inappropriate for the times. Mrs Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” individualism is in the dustbin of history.
But will anyone believe these social democratic promises? This is the same Mrs May who has voted for cuts to inheritance taxes and has consistently opposed increased taxation on the wealthy while voting for cuts to benefits. It takes some chutzpah for a Tory prime minister to start talking about “tackling unfairness and injustice, and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working class people”.
The one thing every voter knows is that, when it comes down to it, the Tories are the party of business. Dogs bark, cats meow and Tories look after the rich. There were no policy announcements in this long speech but Mrs May will have to say exactly how she will end the burning injustices in society that she eloquently condemns.
There is an opening here for Labour if the party were only to pause from its vicious infighting long enough to realise it. Mrs May has performed the last rites for neoliberalism. She has abandoned the laissez-faire certainties that have dominated economic thinking for nearly 40 years. The state is back; intervention in industry is back. Addressing social injustice is the responsibility once again of government.
Objecting to inequality can no longer be dismissed as “the politics of envy”. Tax is no longer just a burden but, as Mrs May puts it, “the price we pay for membership of a civilised society”. This is a huge ideological shift. It creates a vision of a socially responsible society no Conservative government is capable of delivering, especially when it has to cope with the economic dislocation of Brexit. It is the historic task of Labour to come to the rescue of capitalism when it becomes dysfunctional. Unfortunately, the Labour party is so dysfunctional itself that it might be unable to see that its time has come again.