For all the talk of being the party of the workers, the only ones the Tories seem to care about are white English people
In an asymmetrical neckline, Theresa May declares her asymmetrical vision. Asymmetrical because there is no balance between so many of her pronouncements; indeed, some are quite contradictory. There is no point at which opposing views are squished together into some kind of Blairite compromise. Nor is it the economy, stupid: it’s about identity. It is a rightwing power grab that hopes to scoop up those who have just about managed to vote Labour in the past.
It is new and it is scary and, although May is the unelected head of a government with a small majority, she is acting as if she has a huge mandate to fundamentally change the nature of the UK. It is not enough that we are leaving Europe, she is attempting to nail down the Tories as the party of the workers, absorb Ukip, intervene in business via the state, and hit the left where it hurts them personally. She is reclaiming the notions of fairness, compassion and moral superiority. Right now, the left is in one of its death spirals of vicious piety. So here is May, the toffs tossed away, to talk of meritocracy and ordinariness. She embodies the notion that, what you don’t have in charisma, you can make up for in long hours. But as she draws people into her big tent, we can already see that it is more of a gazebo and it’s invite only. The decked-out monstrosities of Bake Off have a lot to answer for: a version of the 50s with gays, immigrants and cake – woo! A fantasy that has now been flogged off.
These are new bakes indeed. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s dismantling of deficit targets is part of repairing the failing neoliberal structures, so May talked of tax avoidance and workers’ rights. But this comes at a cost and that cost is social: the dismantling of a liberal consensus. This means hatred of difference, spreading fear, inflexible uniformity, the assertion of one kind of citizenship over another, a puritanical stifling of joy.
May’s vision rewrites the relationship between the state and business, and also insists on the social over the individual. But in this radical garb, she and her ministers found the enemy within. Those who voted remain have overcompensated by offering up suspicion and exclusion of all “foreigners”. Those who take our jobs – even the ones who save our lives – must be listed, and instructed where to be. This is appalling. British workers do have British jobs and won’t work in the fields for £3.50 an hour. Meritocracy is a local policy, it turns out. It is for white English people, though it calls Englishness British, as always. Add to the enemy list of foreigners, human rights lawyers and the liberal elite. We wait in vain for health and safety gone mad. The Tories take on the culture war as the economy shrinks. This xenophobia may result in actual bloodshed.
It is as if the message of Brexit was not mixed, as if it was simply a referendum on immigration. It was more than that. May dismays by playing only one chord. So we now have members of the elite – being PM is fairly elite – and leaders of parties such as Ukip (Farage was leader when I started writing this sentence, but may not be when I have finished) saying they don’t mind being poorer if there are fewer immigrants, but they are never going to be poor, of course.
Yet the walling-in of economies to protect us from globalisation (government is in partnership with the state, the talk of responsible capitalism) is, as the IMF says, not simply a British reaction. May’s version is a closing down and a direct challenge not just to economic neoliberalism, but to liberalism as the dominant discourse. She pitches the chattering classes, the liberal elite, against ordinary people. The liberal elite sneer at patriotism, at ordinary people’s views on immigration and crime. There is some truth in this, although ordinary people are not a monolith.
I now live in a liberal elite bubble made easier for me by social media, which allows me to chat with people who mostly think more or less like me. But because identity is hybrid, a base part of me remains horrified by how narrow-minded this elite is. Those who would lead the masses disdain them. The liberal elite will lead its sheeple out of its Jeremy Kyle-induced pit of despair and into the uplands of good wine, laughing at comedians on Radio 4 and voting the correct way. May is right to say these people do not have the monopoly on compassion. Many are hypocrites. Just after the Brexit vote and the election, there was a total empathy vacuum. The liberal elite boasted it didn’t know anyone who voted Tory or Brexit because these people were thick, immoral. What a lovely socialist and internationalist reaction.
So May will strike home with this. But for all her lefty drag, where she and her ministers have been so divisive is on immigration and race. While the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, has welcomed immigrants, May cannot even countenance Scottish independence – what she calls divisive nationalism.
This move to the centre works only if the centre is white and Scotland keeps quiet. Nicola Sturgeon has provided the best opposition to this nasty fear and loathing. For May is sowing all kinds of division. The centre can’t hold when it cannot keep the union together.
The dots are not joined here at all. The language of belonging matters. The redrawing of these new boundaries is being done in the language of the left, but it is the most extreme move to the right I have seen in my lifetime.
“Stop the world I want to get off” turns into: “If you believe you are citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” A slight affront to the easyJet generation, a death sentence if you are on a dinghy in the cold sea. This is no move to the centre but a plunge into dark, dangerous waters.