Were you a bit surprised when Theresa May sounded rather too xenophobic during her appearance at the Conservative Party Conference? Left a little confused by Amber Rudd’s new policy which has been directly compared to a passage from Mein Kampf?
Where has it come from, this new nationalistic fervour? Yes, the Tory party always had a wing of jingoists, but over five million Tory voters backed Remain along with a majority of their MPs. So why has May now said, rather provocatively, ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’
May is following in the steps of David Cameron, who led a uniquely socially liberal government given the context of his party. May was a significant part of that government, and yet a member who was certainly less progressive than her boss. She may laud same-sex marriage now, as one of the few things of which most people can agree the Conservatives can be proud, but before she was in government she was very definitely against it. Now she is talking about One Nation politics in a manner that Labour will feel has been stolen from them – although her rhetoric about fixing communities and pushing equality does not translate into legislation. Yes, her first speech as PM and her speech at the Party Conference was economically left-wing for a Tory, but there is a real sense that these are just words.
Maybe we can speculate on whether she will actually follow through on her counter-Tory policies on the free market, but we can’t deny what her motive is for making these promises. If May is, as she suggests, for the people and against big business, it’s because big business has come to represent globalisation. She wants to appease a huge chunk of the population that feels left behind by globalisation. They’re not actually left behind: the Financial Times published a now famous study which found, ironically, that the areas which voted in the highest proportion for Brexit will be hit the hardest by it.
The clear move towards populism by the Conservatives has happened at an astounding speed. May is now the face of the ‘Nasty Party’ which, let’s not forget, she bemoaned a decade-and-a-half-ago as being the reason the Tories were annihilated by Labour. But now Labour pose no threat and the Tories can do what they want.
With no real opposition to the Tories, there is no one to bring them back down to earth or to moderate them.
The populism surrounding defence has become the prerogative of the Tories, no longer of UKIP. May plans to make British soldiers exempt from the European Convention on Human Rights, a move to remove Britain from judicial scrutiny. Moreover, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon plans on ‘installing British values’ by placing 150 new Army Cadet units in state schools. The latter policy would not be too controversial without the context of increased jingoism and nativism, and we all know how nationalist governments can fetishize their military.
These were just two of the policy announcements from the Conservative Party Conference. Another controversial plan is to make it even more difficult for foreign students to study in the UK by introducing a two-tier visa system for certain universities. This has been followed by more meaningless ideas like putting the Union Jack on driving licenses.
If they weren’t taking it all a bit too far already, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a plan to have companies register their foreign workers as a ‘badge of shame.’ Of course it didn’t take long for people to draw comparisons between this and the race laws of the Nazis and Rudd has since implied that this probably will not go ahead.
But these are just symptoms of new Tory populism and still does not explain why the Tory mainstream has been caught up in this xenophobic momentum.
How did this party of economic practicality become a party who have put a doctrine of nationalism ahead of any economic interests?
Cameron was the face of the practical party. He won the 2015 election on the very simple phrase, repeated constantly: ‘Long-term economic plan’ (which has now been completely undone by Brexit). Cameron was a fan of globalisation, something which the Tories are now painting as the arch enemy of Great Britain. On the surface this doesn’t make sense. How did this party of economic practicality become a party who have put a doctrine of nationalism ahead of any economic interests?
The answer is two-fold:
First, there are an awful lot of Tory MPs who are just going along with it for the sake of their careers. Most of them backed Remain, and most of that lot have reasoned that the UK can, if it’s lucky, survive Brexit. After all, what else can they do? Stick to their guns that it was a terrible move and face being ostracised by their party?
The second reason is more worrying. There seems to be a complete crazed fanaticism which the Tories have started worshipping. A new religion set upon an incoherent doctrine of nationalism and with its own fantasies: chief among them is the absurd notion that Britain will have any power at the negotiating table with Europe (this rhetoric is ironically starting to further hurt the UK when it comes to negotiating as it is antagonising especially Germany and France). In the absence of any sense, all the Tories can do is commit to the nonsense. They can’t see any other options.
The UK has always been the awkward member of the EU. It was the arrogant state still dealing with its post-colonial hangover. There was an inevitability that old-fashioned nationalism would explode given the context of Brexit. If we can reverse this one thing, argues the new mainstream of the Conservative party, we can stop globalisation. What they miss out is that nothing, not even the might of Her Majesty’s Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, can stop globalisation.