How Theresa May is redefining conservatism
Britain's newly minted prime minister could be the sensible leader the populist movement needs
Theresa May, Britain's new prime minister, might just be the most interesting politician in the world right now.
May represents the possibility of a synthesis between the sort of populist politics rearing its head across the West (see: Donald Trump, southern Europe's anti-austerity movements, France's Marine Le Pen, and the Brexit vote) and the elite buy-in that is necessary for populist movements to actually govern.
But let's back up. Ever since she became prime minister, people have been trying to pin down exactly who Theresa May is, and how she plans to govern. She became prime minister, essentially, by accident. Former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, something Cameron campaigned against. Theresa May was elected after two other favorites from the Leave camp, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, dropped out.
Before ascending to Number 10, May was mostly known for keeping her head down and working hard. She has not overseen a general election manifesto or won a general election as the leader of her party. She supported remaining in the E.U., but not very adamantly. Many speculated that the political blowback from Brexit would prevent her from putting her mark on policy.
Which is why her speech at the British Conservative Party Conference this week was so striking.
In the speech, May articulated a forceful, distinctive version of conservatism, one that might offer a blueprint for other center-right parties who want to tap into populist anger without losing their souls, or the center ground of their political life.
Like all good populist movements have done before, she took aim at the "elites," particularly "metropolitan elites," including "politicians" and "commentators." She seemed particularly aghast at elites who "look down on" regular people and lambaste them as racist for having concerns about immigration and crime. She struck patriotic themes, intoning (wonderfully, according to this curmudgeonly conservative) "if you think you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere." She proposed "naming and shaming" businesses that hire foreign workers over British ones.
In keeping with the populist, anti-elite theme, but against the Thatcherite pro-market orthodoxy that has ruled the Conservative Party since the early 1980s, she warned against the predations of big business and vowed to use the power of government to protect the little guy from its depredations. She has supported electing workers' representatives to company boards.
This might sound like a far-right speech, but in that same speech, May proclaimed her intention to occupy the "new center ground" of British politics. That means wooing disaffected working-class voters, who have historically voted for the Labour Party, recently voted for UKIP, and may occasionally vote Tory. This is not what passes for "centrism" in elite circles whose members can vote either way as long as their libertinism and economic interests are protected, but the actual demographic centrism of the great mass of disaffected voters who care little for the ideologies animating either party.
Much has been made of the social differences between May and her predecessor. While Cameron famously came from money, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and tended to surround himself with advisers of similar backgrounds, May grew up in humbler circumstances. And obviously, May has keen political instincts. She would not have delivered this speech if it had not been for the political earthquake of Brexit and the populist fervor sweeping the entire West.
"Cameronism" was an elite movement that played to the elite center. It tried to soften the Conservative Party's image by crying about climate change and international development, issues that set elite hearts a-fluttering but left downscale voters cold. His vision was that of the "Big Society," the idea being that central government would be neither a minimal state nor a classic welfare state, and instead would empower local government and non-governmental bodies to soften most of the blows from the market. That's a very appealing vision, but also a hoity-toity, conceptual vision, a far cry from "fewer immigrants, more cops on the beat, more profit-sharing for workers."
May, on the other hand, while still proudly proclaiming herself a "liberal" in the European sense — a firm believer in civil rights, democracy, and the rule of law — and promising "a society that works for everyone," is clearly also offering something different and new to the disaffected voters who are launching said populist insurgencies. These are people who have often been on the losing side of the most momentous and even traumatic megatrends of the past decades, including globalization, automation, and the sexual revolution, and who need to be brought back into the political process.
People of good will from across the political spectrum should wish Theresa May well.