Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister was dominated by the theme of one-nation. She spoke of David Cameron’s legacy from same-sex marriage to taking people on low wages out of income tax and said she wished to continue it, as a one-nation Conservative. An heirloom of Benjamin Disraeli, one-nationism is a brand of conservatism that believes members of society have responsibility to one another and that the upper classes have a paternalistic obligation to help the working classes. Adopted by Prime Ministers from Harold Macmillan to Cameron, it has been a key element within British conservatism for over a century. Yet the unity it espouses feels less attainable in the UK now than it has for a long time.
This year has been a year of divide and discontent, shown nowhere more clearly than in the referendum on the European Union earlier in the summer. Yet the vote for Brexit feels not like a cause of the disunity but rather an effect of it. In the days that followed the markets creaked in shock and the atmosphere in London was flat, as the key figures struggled to respond to the unthinkable. There was an outcry of astonishment and disgust from the young and the educated on social media. The phrase ‘ashamed to be British’ and words like ‘xenophobic’ and ‘ignorant’ came up again and again. Yet this disdain was largely the response of a group who have been served well by the status quo, part of which was represented by the European Union. For the most part they are prosperous now or have real hope for a prosperous future. Their disbelief and repulsion helps illustrate the chasm that has opened up between the haves’ and have not’s in twenty first century Britain. The ‘Leave’ vote marked a bubbling over of the anger and frustration of a group of British people who feel left behind by the political and social establishment. This was not a vote for many about the European Union but rather a middle finger to the status quo and everything it stands for.
It is little wonder that these people feel frustrated. Their standard of living has seen little improvement since the recession, whilst corporation tax has dropped from twenty eight percent to twenty percent over the course of Cameron’s premierships. The rich seem to be getting richer and in places like Stoke and Mansfield it seems bitterly unfair – as if the ruling elite has failed them. In her speech May tapped into this. She spoke of a “burning injustice”, that those from poorer backgrounds live on average nine years less, that black people are treated more harshly than white people by the criminal justice system and that if you’re privately educated you are far more likely to get a job in a top profession. According to The Financial Times in 2014 the top twenty percent of households had 117 times more assets than the poorest twenty percent. Furthermore this figure had increased whilst we were recovering from the economic crash of 2008. These are shocking figures and it is not surprising that people feel angry and let down.
These people are without political outlet. The Conservative Party appears to be led by the rich for the rich and the Labour Party a London-centric elite. And so they turned against the establishment and towards UKIP and the Leave campaign who reached out on issues that they really care about, such as immigration. The sentiment was less Brexit and more anti-establishment. Yet rather than realise this the majority of the political and intellectual establishment sniggered, wept or took no notice and thus exacerbated the divides that led to Brexit in the first place. Theresa May on the other hand appears to have shrewdly identified this and is making a not so subtle play for these people who feel left behind. She spoke of how “the government [she] lead[s] will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few” but rather by those who are working hard and struggling.
it is not surprising that people feel angry and let down
Yet as perceptive a play as it is, without policy to back it up it will be meaningless. Political promises are a currency devalued even more than the pound and people are still feeling disillusioned from Tony Blair and David Cameron, both of whom made promises they could not keep. What is more, Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd lead tremendously privileged lives and are unlikely to have a true desire for or ability to institute policies that will bring the disenchanted back into the fold. May is further undermined by the Brexit deal that will either make us a little poorer and leave us out of control of immigration, or a lot poorer and in control of immigration. Either way those who voted Leave will feel as if they have been sold a lame duck and pushed even further away from the establishment.
As such whilst May is saying the right things to try and unite the British people, she has a close to impossible task. In the aftermath of Brexit and a Conservative Party still without opposition, it seems likely inequality will continue to increase and the schism between the establishment and those left behind will grow wider, as one-nation conservatism once again falls short. The only question that remains is whether May’s admirable but likely unattainable promises will serve to further fuel the divides that plague our nation.