I recently took part in a research project prompted by the government-sponsored campaign of 2013, when Theresa May was home secretary, in which vans carried billboards bearing the words ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.’ In order to understand how such a thing as that billboard could have come about, we felt we needed some insight into the mindset of the Home Office and its officials. One of the things we did was to talk, off the record, with various civil servants past and present.
In those conversations, a powerful image emerged of a department that had been embattled for a long time. In an era in which national borders were viewed as an unwelcome check on the freedom of capital and (to a lesser extent) labour, and geographic mobility was regarded as a crucial factor in promoting productivity and GDP growth, the Home Office, with its obsession with ‘citizenship’ and security, was an irritant to the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There has been an ideological conflict in Whitehall for some time regarding the proper relationship between the state, markets and citizens, but it has been masked by the authority of a succession of prominent, ambitious chancellors pushing primarily economic visions of Britain’s place in the world. One can imagine the resentment that must have brewed among home secretaries and Home Office officials continually represented as the thorn in the side of Britain’s ‘economic competitiveness’.
The Home Office occupies a particular position vis-à-vis the public, which sometimes translates into class politics. Home secretaries are often moved by the plight of the defenceless in society: vulnerable children, elderly people plagued by rowdy teenagers on their estates, the victims of Harold Shipman (whose suicide apparently tempted David Blunkett to ‘open a bottle’). Often, these people are defenceless because they are powerless, and they are powerless because they are poor, less well educated and culturally marginalised. And yet they are still British, and deserving of the state’s defence. One former Home Office official told me that the Home Office has long been identified as the voice of the working class inside Whitehall, and feels looked down on by the Oxbridge elite in Downing Street and the Treasury. This person compared the ethos of the Home Office to that of Millwall fans: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’
Home secretaries see the world in Hobbesian terms, as a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are robbed, murdered and blown up, and these things happen because the state has failed them. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers – who are rarely the victims of these crimes – then criticise the state for trying harder to protect the public through surveillance and policing.
I suspect that many home secretaries have developed some of these ways of thinking, including – or maybe especially – Labour home secretaries. Blunkett and John Reid certainly did. But Theresa May’s long tenure (six years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office suggests that the mindset may have deepened in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview. This includes a powerful resentment towards the Treasury, George Osborne in particular (whom she allegedly sacked with the words ‘Go away and learn some emotional intelligence’), and the ‘Balliol men’ who have traditionally worked there. In making sense of May’s extraordinary speech at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, the first thing to do is to put it back in the context of her political experience. For her, the first duty of the state is to protect, as Hobbes argued in 1651, and this comes before questions of ‘left’ and ‘right’.
The ‘protective state’ that May outlined was a state that looks after people. This is very different from the neoliberal state, whose job was characterised by Peter Mandelson, Bill Clinton and other Third Wayers in the 1990s as ‘steering not rowing’. The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imaginary unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. The state’s job was to keep interest rates low on the assumption that people wanted to own assets, and otherwise to maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they could reap the rewards of all that hard work. Clearly most people cannot be conceived of as entrepreneurs in a neoliberal society – though the ‘sharing economy’ is now belatedly pressing that Thatcherite dream more deeply into the fabric of society – but they are assumed to be exerting themselves in order to become something better: richer, happier, healthier etc. They are optimisers, just as economists assume in their models.
May has replaced ‘hard-working families’ with ‘ordinary people’, which includes the ‘working class’. She says she wants the Tories to be the party of ‘working people’, though it no longer sounds as if these people are looking for much improvement or change in their lives. Faced with the unknown, they are more likely to retreat than found a start-up. They need looking after. This means that the necessities of life – health, energy, housing – must remain affordable, and threats must be kept at bay. The role of the state is not to initiate or facilitate change, but to prevent it, on the assumption that in general it is likely to be undesirable. Of course, in an age of political and economic crises, the ‘protective state’ must develop a very clear idea of who is to be looked after and who is to be rebuffed.
The state that looks after people (its own people) is not quite the same as the state that cares for people, of the sort that was developed in Britain after the Second World War. If May wanted to push care to the centre of her vision, a new politics of welfare would be required, one which used fiscal policy to respond to basic material and social needs, where ‘needs’ are understood as things we all have by virtue of our humanity, not our identity. A care-oriented state would have to pursue a far-reaching cultural reversal of the Osbornite condemnation of welfare recipients. There have already been signs that the more punitive end of recent welfare policies will be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how much more of that there is to come. But for the time being, it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of people in general.
Economic liberals are already nervous that the new prime minister is a protectionist. Outside her Home Office brief, there are signs that her thinking – and that of her policy adviser, Nick Timothy – departs from the neoliberal consensus in key ways. Abandoning Osborne’s austerity targets and declaring war on tax evaders are signs that the financial sector and the very wealthy can no longer view the Conservative Party as their tool. Timothy’s vision of ‘Erdington conservatism’ (named after the working-class area of Birmingham where he grew up) imagines the state intervening in the economy to defend the interests of the immobile against the mobile – protecting ‘ordinary’ parents, patients and workers, who are too often left dependent on slack services and callous bosses, and cannot simply up sticks and go elsewhere. In that way of seeing things, this is something liberals and the wealthy will never understand because they’ve probably never experienced hardship. Resonances with Blue Labour and Red Toryism – communitarian policy movements that emerged after 2008 with the aim of challenging economic and social liberalism at the same time – have been widely noted.
There is no contradiction between social conservatism and economic protectionism: both are hostile to the fluidity, cosmopolitanism and perceived snobbery of liberalism. May’s declaration, ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,’ was pitched as much at bankers as it was at left-wing intellectuals. Whether it was also a ‘dog whistle’ regarding refugees probably depends on what breed of dog you are. I was surprised that a speech condemning financial elites, human rights lawyers and nationless people in blanket terms wasn’t interpreted as anti-Semitic. But as Stuart Hall recognised, rampant capitalism has a far greater capacity to undermine traditional community relations than social liberalism: the Thatcherite effort to weld social conservatism to economic liberalism was far more contradictory than the present turn to economic interventionism. This latest reconfiguration of conservatism could ultimately be more sustainable even than Thatcher’s.
We currently have no idea what May’s actual intentions are in this respect, just as we have no very clear idea of how actively she would like to police the boundaries of ‘British citizenship’. In all likelihood, the two agendas – the economic and the nationalist – will emerge in tandem: there was a hint of this in the new home secretary Amber Rudd’s suggestion that companies be forced to list their foreign workers. Prejudice in society carries far more potential when it is also pursued in the economy. The reason German neoliberals (or ‘ordoliberals’) of the 1930s and 1940s were so hostile to cartels and monopolies wasn’t that they saw them as necessarily inefficient, but that non-market economies can be more easily requisitioned in the service of political goals: they were a vital precondition of the Nazi political economy. By contrast, competitive markets perform a liberal function, because they block the social and political ambitions of interventionist leaders. I am not suggesting any direct analogy here, but if neoliberalism is indeed now giving way to a new political-economic formation, we should be alert to the various new social and cultural opportunities this offers the state, and not only those that pertain to the economy. Protectionism (of indigenous industries and workers) is never simply an economic policy, but involves clear statements of who is in and who is out.
The European Union was founded partly on ordoliberal principles, which require the state to provide a rigid legal constitution in defence of open and competitive markets; hence the inclusion of anti-trust and anti-State Aid provisions in the Treaty of Rome. Member states are simply not allowed to ‘pick winners’ and defend ‘national champions’ or look after those who have greater claims to indigenous economic rights (though the application of these rules has been variable, and states have always wanted to do favours for their nation’s leading car manufacturers). This European post-nationalism is what Brexit was pitted against. May and Timothy have far greater legal and political opportunity to pursue a protectionist agenda now that Britain is on its way out of that ordoliberal framework. If May was a secret Brexiter, that might be why. The question is the extent to which Britain’s withdrawal will cause any of the ordoliberals’ grave fears to be realised, in Britain or on the Continent, should the basic competitive framework of the EU start to be dismantled.
Britain is now a more unequal society than it has been since the Second World War. Class is a powerful determinant of the lives people lead. It doesn’t, however, perform quite the same role in sustaining the cultural and political status quo that it did before neoliberalism, and certainly not the same role it did before the 1960s, which helps to explain why May’s ‘protective state’ has become possible and necessary. One thing that Brexit demonstrated, which May is clearly keen to exploit, is that cultural divisions no longer map tidily onto economic ones. Working-class lives are buffeted by change, including the changes represented by immigration, but New Labour only ever invited people to embrace more change. The traditional middle classes and aristocracy have not been in the driving seat of British politics for more than thirty years, as the financial elite exploited the exuberance of fin de siècle Britain, London especially. It’s been said that Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son.
Clearly May wants to change that. But the new cultural coalition that she aims to represent – of working-class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists – scarcely holds together as an identifiable group. Nor are the boundaries around these identities very clear cut. They may well aggregate into a fearful electoral resource, which could yield May a big majority in 2020, but it is quite another thing for the state actively to intervene to look after these people, when historically it was the job of cultural institutions, ties, networks and communities to preserve their way of life. May’s cultural instincts are consistent with Burkean conservative philosophy, but that tradition is historically uncomfortable with state intervention of the sort she espoused in her party conference speech. To wed a Burkean ideal of community to a Hobbesian ideal of the protective state is problematic and potentially dangerous. The difficulty for Burkean conservatives today is that neoliberalism destroyed the resources on which ‘little platoons’ depend and thrive, so that tacitly understood conventions and rituals must now be reintroduced by the very thing that conservatives traditionally wanted to avoid depending on – namely, the modern state. The gaping hole in the Blue Labour and Red Tory agendas was always the question of statecraft: what exactly will the state do to promote the ideal of ‘faith, flag and family’?
It seems likely that the state will start performing acts of conservative discrimination which historically have been performed by way of cultural capital and softer forms of power. An example of how deranged the consequences can be is Nick Timothy’s suggestion that work visas be granted only to foreign students at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Policy-makers may form their ideas on the basis of what goes down well in the pubs of Dorset, the comment pages of the Daily Mail or the working men’s clubs of Scarborough, but snobbery and chippiness are more troubling when they are converted into the printed word of the statute book.
It sounds as if the ‘protective state’ is ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life. May is not afraid of sorting the wheat from the chaff. This may be the reason grammar schools symbolise something important for her, regardless of the evidence against their efficacy. In that respect, there is some continuity with neoliberalism, which sought to divide ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ in a range of different tests and competitive arenas. The key difference is that neoliberalism uses rivalry itself to identify the worthy. The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to find out who rises to the top. The question any neoliberal – or liberal for that matter – might now want to ask May is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy? Are we now simply to be driven by the contingency of biography, where Timothy is fuelled by the anger he felt as a lower-middle-class boy in Erdington in the early 1990s, or May is guided by the example of her Anglican clergyman father? Is the fact that liberals haven’t experienced being the victim of regular petty crime or a failing school now going to be the principal basis for ignoring them?
Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Thatcher spoke a nationalist, militarist language, while doing considerable harm to many of Britain’s institutions and traditions. Blair had his football, coffee mug and badly-fitting jeans. Conservatives have often struggled to find a coherent post-Blair cultural scheme, alternating between fake displays of liberalism (Cameron’s huskies) and the embarrassing reality of their party base. Right now, however, matters of nationality and cultural tradition do not seem like window-dressing: when the state is offering to look after some of us, but not all of us, the way you look, talk, behave and learn threatens to become the most important political issue of all.
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