October 06, 2016
The closing keynote speech by Theresa May at the Tory party conference laid out an agenda and a personal vision that can only be described as a turn from neoliberalism to illiberalism. She vowed to claim a new centre ground with an economy, society, country and democracy that "work for everyone." "Everyone" does not include the capitalist elite, however. In a passage on the spirit of citizenship and the social contract, she says
"... too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means. ... I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on anymore."
In what the Daily Mail in a front-page preview of the speech called "savaging the liberal elite" - May herself doesn't use the word liberal elite once in her speech - May addresses the general public and attacks politicians and commentators who are well-off and comfortable, and
... find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million voters decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.
She then segues into a discussion of "the good that government can do" - a phrase that apears six times in her speech. The economic vision is somewhat interventionistic and Keynesian, with an emphasis on investment - in the NHS, infrastructure, housing, things with long-term return, that people hold dear, and make the economy grow.
On Brexit she described the agreement she seeks as including law enforcement and anti-terrorism cooperation and free trade, but she made it clear that the UK is not leaving the EU to give up control of immigration or to return to the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. Her desire for security cooperation with the EU in a strong and mature relationship may be hindered by her vow to never again "let those left-wing human rights lawyers harangue" the British armed forces. This is a refefence to the British government's intention to seek a derogation of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is allowed at times of war or public exmergency. British conservatives have been arguing that the UK military is facing an industry of pushing vexatious claims for monetary gain, which prevents it from doing its work in war zones. A background piece by The Guardian on the issue this weekend recalled that the Ministry of Defence has had to settle over 300 cases of abuse related to the Iraq war, for a total of £20m in compensation to victims.
Overall, this is politically a very smart combination of endorsing a relatively hard Brexit, and a leftward economic shift. It heals the divisions within her party, and kills Labour by seeking to forge a broad coalition including the white working class and capitalising on the anti-elite sentiment that was manifest in the Brexit referendum campaign.