Theresa May has sought to construct a distinctive social policy offering during her time as Prime Minister, but remains stymied by a toxic combination of triangulation and austerity. Labour must demonstrate the vacuity and incoherence at the heart of May's project, and construct a credible, transformative alternative policy.
Since becoming prime minister, Theresa May has sought to gradually establish a distinctive policy agenda. Although much of her initial attention understandably focused on Brexit, as she settled into Downing Street she endeavoured to cultivate a political narrative bearing her own imprint, and in particular, to shape her own social policy agenda. She has sought to distinguish her government from what she has perceived to be the less appealing aspects of David Cameron's regime (both implicitly and explicitly). This has entailed attempting to distance herself from the Cameron administration's often socially exclusive and elitist 'Notting Hill' image, its advocacy of relentless and inflexible austerity, and the harsh and divisive social consequences that austerity has entailed. Of course, in the wake of the Tories' losses and Labour's gains in the 2017 General Election, May no longer has a majority in parliament. She is reliant on the socially conservative DUP for a majority, and their cooperation can by no means be taken for granted. In the Queen's Speech on 21 June, many policies set out in the Conservative manifesto were absent, including plans to change the funding of social care for the elderly, means-testing the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, and downgrading the triple lock on pensions.
Yet May remains prime minister for now, and it is therefore worth assessing to what extent her premiership represents a retreat from the political regime that immediately preceded it. Of course, May had a prominent role within both Cameron administrations, before and after 2015. This makes it hard in some ways for her to offer a genuinely new direction in Conservative social policy. Though her days in 10 Downing Street may well now be numbered, this essay asks whether May is likely to have any more success than Cameron in formulating a coherent, credible and effective Conservative social policy agenda that will stand the test of time, while also contributing to a revived party image, identity and broader electoral appeal.
Thatcher, Major, and the ideological influences on modern conservatism
From the late 1970s onwards, the Conservative Party embraced a forceful Thatcherite image and agenda, with the New Right's 'vigorous virtues' and neoliberal ideology supplanting previous 'consensual' One Nation traditions. (1) Thatcher's combative, ideological style represented a breach from the party's pragmatic and empirical past, and created both opportunities and problems for British Conservatism. Firmly rejecting the 'post-war consensus', the Conservatives under Thatcher constructed an alternative political narrative, focused on individual liberty, free markets and the small state. In the decade that followed, Thatcher's approach, along with various pieces of good fortune, saw her win three successive general election victories. Yet, her period in power accelerated the disruption of traditional class-based loyalties and much of the UK's social equilibrium, creating significant periods of social division, dislocation and unrest, especially at the start and end of the 1980s. This, in turn, made the Conservative Party increasingly vulnerable to a political backlash from a volatile electorate. Thatcher's key social and economic policies involved: prioritising inflation over unemployment, withdrawal of state subsidies for failing industries, tighter control of the money supply (monetarism), and a flagship privatisation programme that created 'winners' and 'losers' and contributed to a notable widening of inequality, notably through council house sales. Further to this, her decade or so of political dominance also saw the introduction of internal markets in the NHS, the national curriculum in schools, and the slow but steady erosion of social welfare benefits. (2) In the context of such radical social policy change, alongside accelerating deindustrialisation, inequality soared.
In the 1990s, the difficult social implications of some Thatcherite policies came home to roost. The social dislocations of the 1980s came to seem by to many to be the Conservatives' Achilles heel. John Major (like the 'modernising' David Cameron a decade and half later) aimed to make the party's image and agenda seem less harsh, and spoke optimistically about a 'classless society', and a 'nation at ease with itself'. There was also a revival of the idea of 'Civic Conservatism', particularly from David Willetts. (3) Some of these themes were taken up by Cameron from 2005 onwards, in the context of a global re-invention of 'Compassionate Conservatism' stemming primarily from the USA, during George W. Bush's presidency (2001-09). In the 1990s, however, Major struggled to achieve a coherent and credible social policy agenda, facing, as he did, economic crises, political scandals and a resurgent Labour Party under Tony Blair.
Cameron's modernisation of social policy
In seeking to formulate and market to voters an improved Conservative political 'offer', since the late 1990s a key area of social policy for Conservative 'modernisers' has been the potentially dynamic sphere of 'non-state' activity, in between government and the individual (often referred to...