Even if Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House, as currently seems likely, just how “historic” will her achievement be? America’s first female president would take office long after women have become the leaders of government or heads of state in such countries as Israel, Sri Lanka, Germany, Denmark, India, Sweden, and, of course, the United Kingdom, where the second female prime minister was chosen a month ago largely unnoticed by Americans preoccupied with the primaries and Donald Trump.
Not only was Mrs. Theresa May the second woman to be chosen as the U.K.’s prime minister, but she is also the second Conservative woman to hold that position. Her defeated opponent, moreover, was also a Conservative woman, Mrs. Andrea Leadsom, who withdrew from the race after a minor gaffe when it became clear that the Tories wanted an early result to calm any post-Brexit instability. So it’s plain that the glass ceiling for Britain’s political women was shattered for good by Margaret Thatcher in the “historic” 1975 election when she replaced Ted Heath as Tory leader.
We even know the exact number of Tory members of Parliament who bravely upheld the falling banner of male chauvinism in the 1975 election; it was a gallant but insignificant 15. They were the MPs who voted against both Thatcher and Heath in favor of Sir Hugh Fraser. A Tory of the old school, Fraser was backed by those right-wingers who liked Thatcher’s politics but didn’t think a “gel” should lead the Tory party. Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell.
There were no such stern unbending hold-outs this time around. Mrs. May was the establishment candidate. She didn’t even have to go through the formality of an election. She simply strolled on a royal red carpet into Downing Street and casually reshaped the government. When even the Tory party makes it plain that a woman is now the “safe” leadership choice in unstable times, it’s a little hard to make the case that a President Hillary would represent an exciting new gender revolution.
Her Style: ‘The Smack of Firm Government’
Does Mrs. May herself represent a revolution of any kind? The question is a fair one since some of her early steps directly raised the subject of social class in ways unusual for a Tory. She distanced herself sharply from the “posh boys” image of the Cameron administration, notably by dismissing the second-poshest boy, Chancellor George Osborne, from her cabinet in the first week. Even before then, in the speech that launched her campaign, she declared, “Under my leadership, the Conservative party will put itself — completely, absolutely, unequivocally — at the service of ordinary working people.” There are practical political reasons for taking such a position; blue-collar workers in Britain, as in the U.S., have been neglected by government for many years. Also, because the Labour party has largely abandoned them in its embrace of middle-class social progressivism, the same workers are now more open, even vulnerable, to conservative appeals. A social-class realignment that would make the Tories the natural party of government beckons enticingly, if not irresistibly.
At the same time . . . “completely, absolutely, unequivocally”? Can the party of England’s leafy suburbs really make this appeal without disappointing either its new or its traditional supporters? If it can, or if Mrs. May thinks it can, doesn’t this suggest that she has something more fundamental in mind for her prime ministership than simply a continuation of Cameronism or a return to Thatcherism?
The answer is that it suggests precisely that — or, rather, imprecisely that. For Mrs. May’s rise in politics has been shrouded in calculated mystery. Her behavior in the Brexit campaign is a case in point. She was generally thought to be a Leaver until the referendum campaign was launched; then she joined the cabinet majority as a “reluctant” Remainer; then she fell more or less silent until the Brexit victory. As a result, she was a Remainer, but many Leavers suspected she was really on their side. Her elevation to the leadership, for instance, was supported unequivocally by the Daily Mail that had been one of the Leave’s campaign strongest assets. Is she then a case of Edmund Burke’s sour aphorism that “ambition can creep as well as soar?”
A preemptive case for the prosecution on such lines was launched in the brief interval between Brexit and her election by Jonathan Foreman in an article for the Daily Telegraph. Though written for the Telegraph, it was pulled by the paper after pressure from the May campaign. Foreman promptly gave permission to the U.K. blogger Guido to republish it on his website.
Other websites followed suit. It was a vigorous and well-researched polemic, depicting Mrs. May as someone who had failed to deliver effective policies on immigration, police reform, border protection, and other Home Office responsibilities while camouflaging these failures with a few bold gestures such as upbraiding the police at their annual conference and successfully intimidating cabinet colleagues in Whitehall turf wars. On issues outside her departmental brief, she had avoided taking controversial public positions as best she could.
Foreman’s article came too late to affect the result of a very short leadership campaign. And though it presumably sowed doubts in the minds of some Tories, its depiction of May as a tough in-fighter who usually won her battles and intimidated her opponents probably impressed and comforted other Tories who are fed up with being pushed around by the zeitgeist under Cameron. (Her tough image is confirmed incidentally by her team’s success in getting the Telegraph to pull the article.) At the moment of her rise, therefore, Mrs. May remained an unknown quantity for most observers. But there was a delayed-action depth charge in Foreman’s highlighting of immigration as the issue on which she had promised the most (notably a large reduction in migrant numbers) and delivered the least (an actual increase year after year.) Since immigration is likely to be the central issue in the U.K.’s Brexit negotiations, she will have to make clear to Tory MPs, Leavers, and the general public that she is not going soft on either it or Brexit.
Her first actions as prime minister have been reassuring on Brexit and more generally. She has taken charge calmly and authoritatively.
Her first actions as prime minister have been reassuring on Brexit and more generally. She has taken charge calmly and authoritatively, appointed a cabinet with very few Camerons in it, dominated the Commons at Question Time, held promising meetings on Brexit with such opponents as Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, and presided over an apparent return to economic stability. She exudes the impression of being a highly competent old-fashioned headmistress. She is giving the Brits what was once called “the smack of firm government.”
On Substance: Thatcherite Economics, Worker-Friendly Capitalism
That’s her style; what of the content? In addition to Foreman, who may have more up his sleeve, there are two guides to what she may intend for her government. The first is a remark she made in her leadership launch speech. Listing her own apostolic succession of great Tory leaders, she cited three unavoidable names: Peel (Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Conservative party), Churchill, and Thatcher. But the fourth name was Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville, whose name disappeared from official Tory history when his son was replaced by Churchill as prime minister in 1940. It leaped out at me from the screen when I read the speech because it seemed to proclaim a new and very particular sort of conservative government. I said as much in an article for the London Spectator here:
Chamberlain is little celebrated today. But he was the most brilliant, inventive, and unpredictable politician in late Victorian England. . . . [He] became Liberal mayor of Birmingham while still young, and pioneered large-scale improvements in education, housing, and social services. He entered Parliament with an established reputation as a radical but effective social reformer; Queen Victoria thought him dangerous; Lord Salisbury described him as a “Sicilian bandit.”
From his position as leader of the radical Liberal caucus, he campaigned for major social reforms within the party from 1884 onwards, then, crossing the floor to the Tories [over Ireland], he sought to transform the ramshackle British empire into an efficient economic federation that would sustain Britain’s great power status indefinitely — and he might have succeeded if he had not been cut down by a stroke. He was ambitious in everything he did, being later described by Winston Churchill as a “man who made the weather.”
Chamberlain was known as “Our Joe” to the workers, and he never neglected his links with them. He pushed the Salisbury Tories into a series of moderate social reforms even before crossing the floor, and one of his motives for tariff reform was to finance a larger welfare state.
As we shall see, Mrs May’s early steps suggest that she has a popular, activist, interventionist, bold Chamberlainite conservatism in mind. That inference is confirmed by the second clue: namely, the thoughts and arguments of her joint chief of staff at Downing Street, Nick Timothy, who worked closely with her at the Home Office and who in between political jobs helpfully wrote a series of articles on policy for the website Conservative Home. Timothy is an admirer of Chamberlain, a Tory who is angry at the recent neglect of blue-collar workers, a Leaver on Brexit, a supporter of economic policies that favor workers over company boards and CEOs, and a moral strategist who intends to steal the “for the many, not the few” banner from the Left. Compare the May speech with Timothy’s Conservative Home articles, and it is clear that he exercises great influence over the prime minister. Of course, Timothy should remember the Thatcher dictum that “advisers advise; ministers decide.” For the moment, though, he’s next to the driving seat.
But what might this Chamberlainite policy on domestic issues amount to in practice? It’s hard to know. After all, Chamberlain’s domestic achievements concerned such things as workmen’s accident compensation, extending state education, slum clearance, massive civic improvements (which made Chamberlain and his home city of Birmingham known throughout the world), and the early foundations of the British welfare state. Those things have been done and have thrown up new problems in their wake, such as welfare dependency. They can’t be done a second time.
Given where we are, it seems that Mrs. May’s distinctive initiatives will fall under two headings. The first will cover legal initiatives to make capitalism friendlier to workers, such as reining in executive pay and CEOs more generally. This approach has its dangers, but it will be popular with many voters beyond the working class (maybe including shareholders). The second heading will cover industrial policy, the home of a new government department in Mrs. May’s cabinet. She has talked, for instance, of imposing tests for foreign takeovers of British companies that would limit job losses. As in America, there is popular support for such policies but limited scope for them.
The British economy is doing well in general, which means that few people want to discourage foreign investment or otherwise upset the apple cart. People remember the nightmare of massive public spending on subsidy-dependent industries that Thatcher’s revolution ended, though only after great struggles. Market rules have since become internalized as the logic of government policy toward industry. That won’t change easily or without resistance in industry and in the City of London. And since Mrs. May became prime minister, the government has gone out of its way to trumpet news of major foreign investments, including one major takeover, with no mention of protective measures. “Industrial policy” is unlikely to develop seriously in the dangerous direction of “picking winners” (and costing money) until the Brexit battle is well and truly over. And perhaps not even then.
Besides, the problems of the British working class and underclass, which are real and not very different from those in America that Charles Murray describes, have far less to do with exporting jobs than with importing cheaper workers. They arise from a nexus between some welfare policies, notably disability payments, and competition from immigrant labor; this has meant that a high percentage of the jobs created in Britain have gone to migrants while many Brits have been sidelined into different sorts of welfare and training programs. A policy that tackled both ends of this, reducing immigration and reforming welfare incentives, would help both workers and the economy (though it would also be denounced as harming both by the Left.) If such a policy were combined with moderate policies to curb both CEO payments and financial-asset inflation — both of which benefit the ultra-rich while having little to do with market incentives — the result could well be to promote wider prosperity while taking the steam out of any stronger protectionist appeal.
Such considerations are, of course, highly speculative. But this kind of politics, keeping the meat of Thatcherite economic policy while adding a sauce of Chamberlainite interventionism, makes sense once you realize that Mrs. May’s overriding responsibility in the next four years will be to make a success of Brexit. She can’t afford major distractions or experiments. She will also want to unite a divided Tory party rather than to manufacture fresh divisions. That means that she will be well worth watching by the U.S. and, in particular, by the GOP in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It will be simply impossible for the Republican establishment to return to “the mixture as before” unless it wants to reduce the Republican base by a permanent election-losing degree. There will have to be some concessions to those voters who supported Trump’s issues and even Trump himself. And that will mean policies that, among other things, curb migration seriously, employ a more nationalistic reasoning and rhetoric, take some shots at “elites,” and redraw the broad tax-and-benefits system to help working people within a broad framework of free-market economics. If Mrs. May enjoys some success in her endeavors, she will be a model; if not, a warning.
New Alliances Abroad
Of course, Washington’s overwhelming interest in Britain is a strategic one. Will the U.K. under Mrs. May remain a strong committed member of NATO paying its fair share of defense (now defined as 2 percent of GDP)? Will it also continue to work with the United States on defense issues outside NATO and the Western alliance, as Britain and France have consistently done in the post–Cold War world? The answer to both these questions is essentially Yes. Mrs. May passed these tests in her first month in a debate on renewing the Trident submarine when, asked if she would press the nuclear button, she simply said “Yes” and sat down. And she is continuing to spend the 2 percent of GDP on defense on which the Cameron government eventually made good in its last year under Michael Fallon, the defense secretary she reappointed in her Cabinet reshuffle.
Asked if she would press the nuclear button, she simply said ‘Yes’ and sat down.
Of course, there are other important decisions to be made on U.K. defense policy. Cameron’s administration, like Blair’s before him, spent too little on U.K. defense forces while committing them too readily to dangerous interventions with uncertain prospects. One result was that, as the media are now reporting, British soldiers found themselves facing heavy odds in Iraq and Afghanistan with inadequate equipment. Too many died; not enough ground was finally secured. And now the battle against ISIS is building up. Mrs. May, though solid on NATO, looks like a tough realist rather than a liberal interventionist. If so, she is likely to avoid interventions that do not support the British national interest; to shift resources into defense (and within defense, into modernizing equipment); to look for savings in areas where defense programs have been distorted by “politics” such as the misbegotten European defense and security policy; and to rely more on special forces (such British forces are now assisting the anti-jihad forces in Libya) than on the more expensive regular army, navy, and air force.
The irony is that Mrs. May is thinking of these things at exactly the moment when the U.S. may well be departing from them. In his determination to shake up NATO and get its members to pay more, Trump has created a deep uncertainty about American intentions toward NATO and the EU throughout Western Europe. Even if he is privately more prudent — which is far from certain — he has already undermined the trust of America’s allies in a way that will make it harder to get them to sign up to a NATO (let alone pay for a NATO) that is directed to new challenges. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton, while admirably orthodox on NATO and the EU, is probably too orthodox to seriously rethink their roles in the world of Brexit, Putin’s aggression, the euro and the refugee crises, and Turkey’s new anti-Western orientation. Her career so far shows no sign of strategic imagination in either economics, diplomacy, or military alliances.
All of which will encourage Mrs. May, the kind of realist who actually pays attention to realities, to look for new allies and strengthen old ones. She is encouraged to do that, moreover, by the fact of Brexit. That means Britain will not play the role Washington laid out for her — namely, as a key part of a European federation that was culturally close to the U.S. and therefore a useful American ally. (This is sometimes called the Trojan Horse theory of Britain’s role in the EU.) Instead, the Brits now have to choose between several possible roles in the world. That was not necessary — indeed it was well-nigh impossible — when Britain was still in the EU. Such talk was firmly discouraged by both Brussels and all the national establishments of Europe. But while keeping all its present alliances open, the Brits can and must review other options. And here Chamberlain might come to her aid again: “Chamberlain was famous, too, for seeking to transform the agglomeration of disparate British colonies into a coherent military and trading imperial federation — what he came to call ‘Greater Britain.’”
Chamberlain’s ideas of imperial federation were killed by the stroke that disabled him and drove him from office just at the moment when he had become the Tory leader and the very likely leader of the next government. The world has now moved on and with it such neo-imperial notions. But there are various “alternatives to Europe” that no one considered while the EU was the status quo. Fortunately for them, they enjoy a variety of options ranging from a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU, a Swiss-style neutral independence, a series of separate trade deals with other countries (in particular with Commonwealth countries), to more complex schemes such as James C. Bennett’s Canzuk, which adds military cooperation, liberalized migration rules, and other cooperative measures to free trade with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, in time, Singapore and India. This last is an idea gaining ground in Britain and elsewhere: Listen, for instance, to this recent radio interview with the distinguished economist Andrew Lilco, addressing a New Zealand journalist (starts at 1.47).
As Bennett and Lilco point out, a Canzuk would be the world’s fourth-largest economic power and third-largest military spender. It would also be a natural American ally. And it would have military bases around the globe on its own territories. Some of the groundwork has already been done: British and Australian defense ministers meet every six months, for instance, and at various times there have been agreements between Britain and other CANZUK countries allowing what Bennett calls the “sojourner” migration of young people.
Mrs. May is a cautious politician, as her conduct during the referendum debate showed. She is very unlikely to adopt such a bold course as constructing a kind of soft confederal world power until it has gone from being a bright idea to a real possibility. In the meantime, she can lay some of the foundations for it by free trade and migration deals. But she will have to consider some such larger vision if she is to give Brexit a positive, global, optimistic gloss rather than making it seem an extended exercise in damage limitation.
Joe Chamberlain would have realized that. And so would have Teddy Roosevelt.