’Fair’ is a word often misused in political discourse, but it is fair to say that the UK’s new Prime Minister delivered a fairly economically illiterate, but populist and highly political speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday.
Political, because she laid claim to the political centre ground recently abandoned and spurned by Labour. Labour does not have a monopoly on fairness, she rightly claimed. Economically illiterate, because she, like all other politicians currently in office, believes fairness can only be achieved through state interference in markets and individuals’ lives.
Alarmingly, she positioned herself and the Conservative party just to the right of the now Marxist Labour party. It was a classis ‘them-against-us’, populist speech, painting the ‘privileged few’ as the bane of ordinary, hard-working people’s lives (ironic that rich people are never portrayed as hard-working).
Like shadow Chancellor McDonnell’s Marxist speech last week, she promised to be interventionist: government needs to step in to right wrongs and ‘repair’ free markets. May painted the job-market as a strife, where workers need protection from the opportunities offered by employers. In her opening speech on Monday, she has already promised to ‘guarantee in law’ worker’s rights, even enhance them, laying to rest any hope of a post-Brexit red-tape cull. Like McDonnell, she wants to formulate an industrial strategy. Like McDonnell, she chastised Sports Direct and Sir Philip Green. Like McDonnell, she wants government to invest in infrastructure. Like McDonnell, she wants to interfere in corporate governance, mandating worker and consumer representation on boards.
Echoing Elisabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s ‘You didn’t build that’ tag-line, she talked about how businesses didn’t achieve success on their own. ‘We all played a part in that success’. Roads, schools, the public sector. You owe them. This naïve soundbite incredibly seems to assumes that the services currently provided by the state would not be provided in a free market. Yes, if I build a chair I need a hammer. I buy it from the hammer guy. That doesn’t mean I owe him a part of the chair. I already paid for the hammer. A point lost on our Prime Minister.
May interprets Brexit primarily as a xenophobic vote, and in true populist style, she will follow where she thinks the voters are going. Not much detail, but the rhetoric is clear. Couple that with home secretary Amber Rudd’s threat to force companies to publish lists of foreign staff, to shame them into hiring British.
The National Health Service got a big mention. The Tories are the party of the NHS, she beamed. One of the best health care systems in the world, she proclaimed, on the day it was announced that 90% of NHS hospitals provide inadequate cancer treatment. The NHS has the worst cancer survival rates in Western Europe – but that didn’t get a mention.
This speech was about political careers, about making sure May and her cohorts will be in office for as long as possible. When there, they will seemingly aspire to achieve roughly the same as the other lot. We are in for a more interventionist, populist, xenophobic government, determined to waste the opportunity created by Brexit. It is fair to say things are looking bleak.