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Cameron and Big Society. May and Shared Society. Same Party : Two Visions ?

Raphaële Espiet-Kilty
p. 213-233

Résumé

The second female Prime Minister in the history of Britain, Theresa May, from the outset, seemed eager to distance herself from her famous female predecessor and thus avoid easy parallels. She also seemed just as eager to distance herself from her direct predecessor, David Cameron (2010-16). Was this distance the result of Theresa May incarnating an altogether new type of Conservatism or simply an electoral tool to win over the voters who had expressed their discontent in the June 2016 referendum ? For the purpose of this article, the focus will not be on general Conservative ideology but rather on the specific ideas which influenced the social and welfare policies of the recent Conservative governments. We shall do this through a comparative study of Cameron’s Big Society and May’s Shared Society. We shall also consider whether they are both influenced by Thatcherism. Our hypothesis is that whilst Mayism is different from Thatcherism in many respects, it is not different in its attitude to the poor, in spite of a very different rhetoric about society. For this same reason, there is a definite ideological proximity with Cameron’s Conservatism and his social vision, which were also influenced by Thatcherism.

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Introduction

  • 1 May, T., The Conservative chairwoman's speech to the party conference in Bournemouth, 7 October 200 (...)
  • 2 Tim Bale suggests that the proportion of members of Conservative MPs committed to free market econo (...)
  • 3 All the more easily so as it was said that many were disappointed with Blair’s decision to go to wa (...)
  • 4 Gervas M., N., Conservative Party Politicians at the Turn of the 20th/21st Centuries. Their Attitud (...)

1Theresa May first came to political fame when she declared that the Conservative Party had no choice but to shed the image of being the “nasty party”.1 This was, or so she believed, a sine qua non to lure back mainstream voters who not only feared a party that was bent on privatising the NHS and increasing inequalities through tax rebates for the rich but which, furthermore, seemed to be no longer representative of 21st century Britain. Although this declaration probably meant that May made many enemies amongst the Thatcherite majority of the party2 – it may even be argued that, in the short-term, it prevented her from competing for the highest office – it enabled her, from the outset, to position herself as a reformer who was keen to shift the party to the centre ground. It also moulded her image as a “no-nonsense” Conservative who did not hesitate to communicate a few home truths, however unpleasant they may be to hear, an image she would build on later in her career. In the meantime, Iain Duncan Smith, the leader of the Party who had newly appointed her chairwoman, failed to convince his colleagues that he could deliver the electoral victory that had been eluding the Conservatives since 1997. He was defeated in a vote of confidence in 2003. On becoming the new Conservative leader, Michael Howard, who was considered a true Thatcherite, sacked Theresa May as Party chairwoman and declined to give her any role in his Shadow Cabinet. A consequence of her “nasty party” comment ? Like his two predecessors however, he did not succeed in ensuring victory for the Party. The 2005 General Election defeat, ironically, revived Theresa May’s career. David Cameron, the newly elected leader, had at heart a desire to ensure that the Party would become more representative of a diverse, progressive and liberal Britain. This was the key to winning back the votes of the supposedly centrist urban middle-class who had been attracted by Tony Blair’s Third Way, but that, arguably, could easily be swayed.3 One of the means to achieve this was to appoint women to key roles, for back in 2002, only 14 out of a total of 175 Conservative MPs were women and none was non-white.4 May was one of the women appointed, which, inevitably raises questions. Was her appointment as Shadow Home Secretary (2005-10) a simple consequence of Cameron’s reforming zeal or was there another motive behind his decision ? Were Cameron and May kindred spirits who shared the same vision of the direction of the Conservative Party and of its prevailing ideology ? If Cameron was indeed the compassionate Conservative he claimed to be, could the same be said of Theresa May ?

  • 5 Cameron, D., Cameron’s Big Society Speech, Monday 19 July 2010, Liverpool, https://www.gov.uk/gover (...)
  • 6 This expression was used by David Cameron for the first time in December 2005. It was then taken up (...)

2May spent the next 12 years of her career serving under David Cameron first as Shadow Home Secretary, then as Home Secretary (2010-17). As a key member of the Coalition Government (2010-15) and then of the Conservative Government elected in 2015, she supported the Prime Minister’s flagship social programme : the Big Society that was built on “a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action”.5 The formative principle of the Big Society was that society itself, meaning active citizens, was better equipped to cure the social ills affecting so-called “Broken Britain”.6 May’s approach to crime was, perhaps inevitably, imbued with the same prejudices regarding the causes of social disorder which were all to be found in Cameron’s “Broken Britain” :

  • 7 Cameron, D., Speech in Glasgow, 6 July 2008.

There has been a lot written about this constituency (talking about Glasgow East) since this by-election was called. Most of it has been negative. People have focused on the fact that public health is so bad, you’re likely to live longer in Gaza or North Korea. That welfare dependency is so bad, half the adults are on out of work benefits. That social breakdown is so bad, Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary on knife crime found kids here talking about being stabbed as if it was no worse than grazing your knee. With over five million people in our country on out of work benefits, many of them on Incapacity Benefit, welfare dependency is now a crisis for the whole country, not just this corner of it. (…) And there is a thread that links it all together. The knife crime. The worklessness. The ill health. Above all, the wasted lives. (…) The thread that links it all together passes, yes, through family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools but it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.7

3Family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, alcohol abuse, inadequate housing and failing schools and, above all, a failing welfare state which had trapped millions of people into dependency were so many problems that candidate Cameron pledged he would address via a combination of social policies aimed at reducing welfare dependency and the central government’s support of the Big Society. May, similarly to what Cameron and his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith (2010-16) were doing in other fields, encouraged the Big Society, rather than the “Big Government,” to get involved in fighting crime.8

4However, Brexit changed everything. The Prime Minister’s failure to deliver the “remain” vote in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union that he had campaigned for and his inevitable resignation on 24 June 2016 gave May a free hand to emerge from his shadow and declare herself a potential successor. A favourable combination of circumstances allowed her to become the new leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister on 11 July 2016. Assuming that she would easily win a mandate to start the negotiations, May decided to call a snap election to be held in June. The gist of her electoral strategy to win the election henceforth became to present herself as a stable and genuine middle-ground Conservative, i.e. the kind of leader who would steer a steady course for Brexit Britain and who would take action to give the mainstream of the country a better economic as well as social future. Forward Together : The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, drafted by Ben Gummer in just a few weeks, was May’s declaration of intent. Was it going to be the instrument with which she would reveal a Conservatism that diverged from Cameron’s ?

5From the outset, she demonstrated a will to distance herself from her famous female predecessor and thus avoid easy parallels. She, also, seemed just as eager to distance herself from her direct predecessor. Did this mean that Theresa May incarnated an altogether new type of Conservatism ? For the purpose of this article, our focus will not be general Conservative ideology per se but rather the specific ideas which influenced social and welfare policies. The method is to compare May and Cameron’s declarations as well as Cameron’s Big Society with May’s Shared Society, bearing in mind that early 21st century Conservatives may still be influenced by Thatcherism. Our hypothesis is that whilst Mayism – admitting that such a thing exists yet (and she herself denies that it does) – is different from Thatcherism in many respects, it is not different when it comes to its attitude to the poor, in spite of a very different rhetoric about society. For this same reason, there is a definite ideological proximity with Cameron’s Conservatism and his social vision, which were also influenced by Thatcherism. And indeed, there is a definite continuity between Thatcher, Cameron and May’s social perspective. This paper will attempt to demonstrate this. It will be divided into two parts. The first will deal with May’s vision of society and the second will be a comparison between May’s Shared Society and Cameron’s Big Society.

Return to a more traditional Conservatism

  • 9 May, T., Launch of the Leadership Campaign, 11 July 2016, http://press.conservatives.com/post/14794 (...)
  • 10 Not that I am in any way implying that Disraeli and Macmillan’s Conservatisms were equivalent or, f (...)
  • 11 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.
  • 12 David Cameron once said: “We believe in society. But it’s not just the same thing as the state”. Ca (...)
  • 13 Cameron, D., « A New Politics », The Guardian, 25 May 2009.
  • 14 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.
  • 15 Ibid.

6May’s vision seems to signal a return to a more traditional Conservatism, a Conservatism which, on the face of it, seems more inclusive and is definitely more interventionist. “This,” she said at the launch of the leadership campaign in July 2016, “is a different type of Conservatism. (…). It makes a break with the past. But it is in fact completely consistent with Conservative principles”.9 The principles mentioned here are those of the pre-Thatcher era when Conservatives did not deny a role for the government (from Disraeli to Macmillan10). May declared : “(…) we don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t believe in individualism, but in society”.11 A society that, unlike Cameron’s, is not different from the state12. And indeed, May does not seem to have the perception that the state is “the enemy”.13 On the contrary, “we don’t hate the state,” she insisted, “we value the role that only the state can play”.14 The government’s role is to step up and “to lead on behalf of the people”.15

  • 16 May, T., Forward Together: The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017, p. 7., https://www.c (...)
  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 Although the 2017 manifesto was largely written by Ben Gummer, it is assumed that the « Great Merit (...)

7Theresa May’s main declaration was that she would “govern from the mainstream”. The Conservative Party would consequently have to “reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that the government can do,”16 at once discarding both Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing vision and Margaret Thatcher’ right-wing legacy. The aim was clear. It was to position the Conservative Party in the centre. However, this had also been David Cameron’s purpose since becoming leader of the party in 2005 and he had supposedly been supported in this very task by May herself. To effectively replace him, she therefore had to debunk the idea that he had been genuine, arguing that he had betrayed their common vision because of his social background : “Rather than pursue an agenda based on a supposed centre ground defined and established by elites in Westminster, we will govern in the interest of the mainstream of the British public”.17 The target was not only David Cameron but also his so-called “Notting Hill set” of millionaire cabinet members who professed to incarnate a compassionate Conservatism but then “allowed” the agenda “to drift to the right” to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The new guiding principle of Theresa May’s government would be “what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation”. The objective was to build what she called the “Great Meritocracy”.18 And to win this electorate over, she presented herself as a no-nonsense politician who could be trusted to say what she thought and act upon it.

  • 19 Smith, Mathew, The leadership effect – how leaders can shift perceptions of parties, August 19, 201 (...)

8To demonstrate that her’s was indeed a new type of Conservatism, within a few days of becoming the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, she purged the government of all former Cameronians, starting with the high profile dismissal of Cameron’s Chancellor and the symbol of the government’s austerity programme : George Osborne. The strategy seemed to pay for a YouGov survey carried out after her appointment revealed that people, on the whole, believed that she was more left-wing than Cameron, and that she was perceived to be closer to the “ordinary people” than he had been19. Philip Blond, the leader of the Conservative Think Tank ResPublica and author of Red Tory. How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it (2010), who had pinned many hopes on Cameron and his Big Society before becoming disillusioned with the government’s decision to carry on with neoliberal economics, was one of the few commentators to describe May’s Conservatism as post-(neo)liberal. The appointment of Nick Timothy, a self-proclaimed Red Tory, as one of her chiefs of staff may be read as an indication that this was indeed a course that May was exploring.

  • 20 May, T., The Shared Society Speech: Prime Minister’s Speech at the Charity Commission annual meetin (...)

9To further distance herself from her Conservative predecessors, May depicted herself as anti-elitist, thus following in Trump’s footsteps, although the comparison ends there. Whilst Cameron had used the MPs expense scandal to declare that people viewed the government as the “enemy”, in her Shared Society Speech of January 2017, she used the very same scandal to argue that for too long the government elites had acted only in their own interests at the expense of the ordinary people leading many to come to “a simple conclusion : that there is one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else”.20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 2.
  • 22 Ibid.

10May’s leitmotiv throughout her campaigns was that her Conservative Government’s main focus would be ordinary working families whose lives she described as “so much harder than people in Westminster realise”.21 People whose lives were marred by : “burning injustices that undermine the solidarity of our society and stunt our capacity to build the stronger, fairer country that we want Britain to be”. Those people “can just about manage but (they) worry about the cost of living and getting (their) kids into a good school”.22

  • 23 Standing, G., The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • 24 May, T., The Shared Society, 2017, p. 6.

11The strategy was clear. Her aim was to lure back traditional social Conservatives who had supposedly defected to UKIP before the referendum because they felt they had been left behind by successive governments and because they felt that they had not benefitted from the riches created by free markets and globalisation. She was after the blue-collar workers who, in not negligible numbers, had voted for Brexit. In 2014, the left-wing economist, Guy Standing, in his seminal work : The Precariat. The New dangerous Class23, warned of the dangers that a new emerging class which he called “the precariat” posed to the existing social order. He suggested that because of globalisation, a new social class had emerged which suffered from both job and identity insecurity and hypothesised that if the needs of this new class were not addressed by mainstream political parties, there was an increased risk that far-right parties (such as UKIP for Britain) would gain popularity. With Brexit, his forewarning seemed to have been confirmed and although Standing personally endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, his conclusions could not be ignored by the Prime Minister who owed her position to Brexit. Although May did not take up Standing’s proposition to introduce an “unconditional basic income”, it is quite obvious that the votes she was targeting were those of the precariat, i.e. people “on modest to low incomes” for whom the forces of liberalism and globalisation “are something to be concerned, not thrilled, about”.24

  • 25 May, T, The Conservative Chairwoman’s Speech to the Party Conference in Bournemouth, 7 October 2002
  • 26 Duncan Smith, I., Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the nation, London: Social Just (...)

12That the government should intervene to help ordinary working families was not a new idea that she magically plucked out of a hat just before the 2017 election. Already in October 2002, during the “Nasty Party” speech, she had declared that an active government that is prepared “to do what it can to help people get on with their lives. This is the true measure of a compassionate government.” She had then followed on with an example of what compassionate England was : a charity in Redditch that supported young homeless people.25 Obviously, at the time, she was campaigning for Iain Duncan Smith rather than for herself, but she seemed to be expressing a sentiment that was developing – or rather re-developing – in the Conservative Party’s ranks. Duncan Smith failed to convince the members of his own party that he was the sort of leader who would lead them to victory but his vision of Britain’s society, which he developed on becoming head of the Centre for Social Justice, an independent think tank he founded with Tim Montgomerie in 200426, was in line with the social beliefs of an increasingly powerful faction within the party : Cameron’s. And it inevitably played a part in informing Cameron’s decision to appoint IDS as Secretary for Work and Pensions and therefore as the Coalition Government’s main social policy enforcer (2010-2016). Cameron, who became leader in 2005, had five years to deeply transform and modernise the party. Not only was the nasty party speech to become a milestone with David Cameron doing his best to ensure that the Conservative Party would be presented as compassionate but Theresa May was also to become one of the main actors in Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet. In the social area, this was to result in Cameron’s flagship Big Society Programme, presented in 2009.

13Cameron’s Big Society and more generally Cameron’s social vision rested on the assumption that civil society or what was known as the third sector was better equipped to understand and then solve the problems affecting society than a highly centralised government machine. This was deemed as all the more obvious as the welfare policies that had been introduced by successive governments between 1945 and 1979 were perceived to be the cause rather than the solution to most social ills :

The Big Society is about a huge culture change where people in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.27

14The task of Cameron’s Coalition Government formed in 2010 would then be to help the “Big” civil society help society. Theresa May, as a senior member of Cameron’s government participated in that policy which she seemed to largely support, if one considers the example which she gave to illustrate what she meant by “compassionate” in her 2002 “nasty party” speech, i.e. the charity in Redditch.

15It therefore seems all too logical to wonder whether Theresa May’s “Shared society,” her social policy instrument to repair the “burning injustices” in society, is equivalent to Cameron’s Big Society that aimed at repairing “Broken Britain”.

The Shared Society vs the Big Society

16As Home Secretary in Cameron’s Coalition Government and in the Conservative Government that was formed after the 2015 general election, Theresa May promoted her government’s policies, including the Big Society whose remit she sought to extend with the inclusion of diverse citizens’ associations in the fight against crime. The development of Neighbourhood Justice Panels, which would see community members and professionals working together to deal with crime, was but one example of this policy. Like the Prime Minister, she seemed to believe in the value of citizens as the main agents of their own welfare rather than in the central government’s welfare policies. There seemed to be a definite proximity between their social visions. However, as Cameron’s Home Secretary and member of the cabinet, she was accountable to the Prime Minister whose programme she had been appointed to enforce whatever latitude he may have given her. Her expressing common views may not have been a reflection of her personal vision. The demise of both the Big Society and of the Prime Minister was to be the opportunity for Theresa May to demonstrate what kind of Conservative she was.

  • 28 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 11 July 2016.
  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 Ibid.
  • 31 Ibid.
  • 32 Ibid.

17The main objective of her leadership campaign was to present her Conservative vision as unequivocally inclusive with such slogans as “my vision of a country that works for everyone”28, of “an economy that works for everyone”29, of “a prosperity that can be shared by everyone”. However, it is quite clear that by everyone she meant those who had been forgotten by everyone because they were neither poor nor rich enough, but just about managed. They are those who have been hard-done by increases in VAT, in energy bills, on the housing market, who are struggling with job insecurity and debt, who have “found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration”30. Many of them voted for Brexit. What is significant about May’s clearly post-Brexit speech is that it contains near to no reference to a usually common Conservative target, i.e. Welfare Britain and the unemployed. And indeed, for all May’s insistence on being unequivocally inclusive, she just as unequivocally insists that the “Conservative Party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of ordinary, working people”31. And indeed, the “burning injustices” that she mentions as affecting the voters who have been ignored by the political class for too long are not what most might expect, such as rampant poverty, racism or even, unemployment. And the government’s stepping up was not to restore social justice by a redistribution of wealth based on tax and spend policies. In short, the objective was definitely not to increase the government’s welfare spending but rather to carry on with George Osborne’s welfare cuts. If the government’s intervention was justified, it was only “to help those who have been ignored by government for too long because they don’t fall into the income bracket that makes them qualify for welfare support”.32 They were those who could not claim means-tested benefits. They were not the recipients of the government’s welfare benefits.

18Although her vision of a shared society had already been expounded in her July 2016 speech, the expression itself was not used. Significantly, the Shared Society speech was given at the Charity Commission annual meeting thus giving us a first indication as to its relation to the Big Society.

  • 33 May, T. Shared Society Speech, 2017.

19The shared society is defined as “one that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another. It’s a society that respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. (…). It is a society that recognises the obligations we have as citizens …”.33 It seems that ever since the political “trauma” of Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “there is no such thing as society”, the Conservative Party has consistently attempted to demonstrate that they believe in society with the word being used at every possible occasion. However, if one cares to dig deeper to understand what Margaret Thatcher meant – that the government was not responsible for problems affecting society and individuals who were supposed to be self-reliant – then it is quite obvious that there is little difference between her vision and that of John Major with his society of active citizens and that of Cameron with his Big Society and of May and her Shared Society. There is a definite and indeed very Conservative filiation that can be established. It is always about a citizen’s obligations to society rather than about his/her rights. It is always about what citizens should do rather than about what the government should guarantee.

  • 34 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.
  • 35 Cameron, D., The Age of Austerity, Cheltenham, 26 April 2009, <http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-an (...)
  • 36 It can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century. Leader of the Conservative Party and (...)

20Of course, unlike the Conservative Prime Ministers who succeeded her, Margaret Thatcher did not attempt to foster active citizenship. She is therefore judged for the consequences of her economic reforms on society. Amongst her critics, Theresa May who, in 2016, explained that “too often today, those responsibilities have been forgotten as the cult of individualism has taken hold”.34 This is obviously a direct condemnation of Margaret Thatcher’s individualistic Britain and the very same condemnation as was made by Cameron in 2009 when he said : “We have strengthened our liberalism and rediscovered our Conservatism building a movement that isn’t just about the individual, but about the community not just about the ‘me’, but the ‘we’ not just about the market, but about society too”.35 It is also a reaffirmation of a core Conservative belief in the place and role of citizens and of civil society in preserving social harmony36, a belief that May shares with David Cameron.

  • 37 May, T. Shared Society, 2017.
  • 38 Ibid.

21And indeed, as with Cameron’s Big Society, the pillars of May’s Shared Society are to be civil society and social enterprises : “We are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship and there is no greater example of the strength of those bonds than our great movement of charities and social enterprises”.37 What civil society is supposed to achieve in terms of rebuilding social cohesion is not quite clear however and the role of the government alongside civil society is not either, probably because there isn’t really anything beyond the simple statement that it should carry on nurturing it. And yet, Theresa May is adamant that there is a role for the government “that cares and that wants to set things right”.38 The question then really is : who is the target of this caring ?

  • 39 Cameron, D., Cameron on Cameron. Conversations with Dylan Jones, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2 (...)
  • 40 Norman, J., and Ganesh J., Compassionate Conservatism. What it is. Why we need it, London : Policy (...)

22The outline for a Big Society was presented at the Hugo Young Lecture in 2009 and then launched in Liverpool in 2010 by David Cameron who wanted to convey the image of a progressive and compassionate Conservative leader who cared for the poor. By directly addressing the issue of both poverty and inequality, and thus, to a certain extent, invading traditional Labour ground, the Conservative leader wanted to demonstrate that he could be “as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer”.39 What underpinned his approach was the belief that the injecting of public money in general – and more specifically New Labour’s injecting of public money – to reduce poverty had failed. The reason was that such a policy amounted to putting a plaster on a chronic injury. He proposed to look for the symptoms first and then find out the causes that had made the injury turn chronic in the first place. The causes had been identified by Jesse Norman who was a major influence behind Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism and an important contributor to the forming of the Big Society idea.40 The Big Society was therefore conceived of as part of the cure. It consisted in the government encouraging the development of a bottom-up approach to addressing the causes of poverty. It stemmed from the assumption that civil society and the third sector were better-adapted agents of social reform than a highly centralised government machine and could, therefore, be more efficient than the Welfare State in tackling poverty. The government would still intervene, however, by capping, reducing and even abolishing some welfare benefits and tax credits to ensure that work would pay better than welfare and therefore strongly incite the welfare dependents to find work. What is noticeable here is that there was a definite will on the part of David Cameron and his Coalition government to discuss poverty and adopt a programme to tackle its causes. Certainly, this approach, with its moralising undertones and less than veiled condemnation of the irresponsible welfare dependents (or undeserving poor) who were accused of favouring a life of dependency on welfare benefits to one of hard-work and responsibility, was not as compassionate as it claimed to be. Nor was it in any way new for a Conservative Party that, since 1979, had been determined to dismantle part of the Welfare State that was accused of being responsible for dependency, deviant behaviours and, to a certain extent, chronic poverty by enabling/permitting long-term unemployment. In the run-up to the leadership campaign, Theresa May pledged to dedicate herself to those who suffered from “burning injustices” in their everyday lives but not once said that she was going to tackle the issues of poverty and inequality. A different rhetoric or a different approach ?

  • 41 May, T., Shared Society, 2017.
  • 42 It was first introduced by Elizabeth I and her Poor Laws that distinguished between outdoor relief (...)
  • 43 May, T., Forward Together, 2017, p. 54.
  • 44 Ibid.

23The shared society speech confirms that May’s shared society is not as inclusive as one might expect. The focus of the speech is the ordinary, working British families who just about manage and it is the injustices that they feel in their everyday lives which are presented as the most “burning ones”. They are those “who have been ignored by government for too long because they don’t fall into the income bracket that makes them qualify for welfare support”.41 They are those who haven’t benefitted from the wealth created by globalisation, free markets and free trade. They are those whose children haven’t been given the chance to climb the social ladder through lack of good schools and because of enduring social divisions. They are those who voted in favour of leaving the EU. May’s Just About Managing people are the ‘deserving poor,’ and it is for them that she wants to build the “Great Meritocracy.” The distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ is far from being contemporary.42 It is one that has been regularly made by the Conservatives since the Conservative Party came into existence. And since 1979, it has been called upon to highlight the importance of government policies that ensure that “work pays better than welfare”.43 To ensure that it does, May has no other plan than to carry on with David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith’s “radical welfare reform”, i.e. the Universal Credit : “We have no plans for further radical welfare reform in this parliament and we will continue with the roll-out of Universal Credit, to ensure that it always pays to be in work”.44 And Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit bears common features with Thatcher’s own attempt at rationalising (or cutting) welfare benefits under the single item of income support. If Theresa May’s Conservatism is definitely more interventionist than Thatcher’s, whose neoliberalism is said to have caused her to desert the working class, it is nonetheless rooted in the same Conservative social philosophy that there is indeed a difference between the deserving and undeserving poor and that this difference is explained by each category’s attitude to work. It is this very same philosophy which informed Duncan Smith’s welfare policies which May intends to pursue In 2006, Duncan Smith explained that :

  • 45 Duncan Smith I., Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the Nation, 2006, p. 13.

If the drivers of poverty are not addressed, an ever-growing underclass will be created. Whether a person is working or in receipt of benefits matters, for the absence of work and subsequent benefit dependency are themselves a form of social exclusion.45

24In the social area therefore, there is a definite continuity between Thatcher, Cameron/Duncan Smith and May.

Conclusion

25There are differences between May, Cameron and Thatcher’s Conservatism. The most obvious one is that May’s Conservatism, at least on the face of it, portends to be more interventionist than both Thatcher’s and Cameron’s. It is however unclear whether the Prime Minister will have enough leverage to see her promises of intervening through, notably, making Britain a fairer place for everyone. The mass resignation of the government’s social mobility group on 1 December 2017 might be an indication that she lacks the necessary leadership to do so, with Alan Milburn, the chair of the group, explaining in his letter of resignation that, with Brexit, the government “does not have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.46 Furthermore, if indeed May’s rhetoric of “healing social division” as mentioned by Milburn, is an abiding feature of Mays’ speeches, it is nonetheless important to highlight that her vision of society is not an inclusive one. Unlike, Thatcher but like Cameron, May believes in society – whether it be “Big” or “Shared” – and, indeed, that it is important to restore social harmony by addressing inequalities notably between those who suffer from “burning injustices” and the “rich and powerful”. However, it is also quite clear that those who suffer are not the poorest and most underprivileged but the people in work who “just about manage”, i.e. the working class that, in not negligible numbers, voted for Brexit.

  • 47 The official measure of poverty (whether in absolute or relative terms and whether before or after (...)

26It was not the object of this paper to discuss poverty and the many distinctions between different types of poverty – whether it be with official or academic definitions.47 The object of this paper was to compare supposedly different Conservative definitions of poverty, namely Cameron and May’s. And to be sure, the distinction between the deserving and underserving poor, which was so prevalent during the second half of the 19th century, and then reactivated by Thatcher in 1979, has been used by all Conservatives alike since. The undeserving poor, the underclass, the welfare dependents all belong to one and the same group. They are those who live off welfare benefits paid for by taxpayers. Thatcher’s Income Support and her Poll Tax and Cameron’s austerity budgets and Universal Credit aimed to achieve the same goal : make so-called substitution incomes or social incentives less interesting so as to force those who depend on them face up to their responsibilities as individuals : the first one of them being to find a job. Although, unlike her predecessors, May seems to have adopted a self-preserving attitude in limiting her declarations concerning the welfare state and the recipients of means-tested benefits, her decision to carry on with Cameron’s welfare policies clearly indicates that she belongs to the same school of thought. Just as there was a definite continuity between Cameron and Thatcher’s visions of welfare Britain and how to tackle the problem, so there is with May.

27As to Cameron and May’s obviously different responses to society from Thatcher’s, if only because both Cameron and May refused to deny that there was such a thing, I would suggest that there is still a certain continuity between them all. In 1983, in her so-called “Victorian Values Interview”, Thatcher revisited the Victorian Age to present it as, amongst other things, the great age when people were independent and responsible for themselves whilst, at the same time, compassionate and charitable :

  • 48 Thatcher, M, TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World by Brian Walden, January 1983 (...)

Those were the values when our country became great, but not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country. Colossal advance, as people prospered themselves so they gave great voluntary things to the State. So many of the schools we replace now were voluntary schools, so many of the hospitals we replace were hospitals given by this great benefaction feeling that we have in Britain, even some of the prisons, the Town Halls. As our people prospered, so they used their independence and initiative to help others prosper, not compulsion by the State. Yes, I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake.48

28This vision was later developed and confirmed, notably in her Speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 during which she expressed the view that : “Most Christians would regard it as their personal Christian duty to help their fellow men and women49. Although she fell short of offering a model of society that would revive these civic and Christian virtues, preferring to focus on personal responsibility instead, her description of a citizen’s obligation to others and ultimately to society underpins much of Cameron and May’s vision of civil society in spite of the very fact that both Cameron’s Big Society and May’s Shared Society were the instruments with which they thought they could distance the party from Thatcherism.

  • 50 Espiet-Kilty, R, “Augmentation de la pauvreté en Angleterre depuis 2010 : crise ou idéologie? The i (...)

29All latest reports and studies50 point to a sharp increase in poverty resulting from the austerity policies, welfare cuts, the freezing of some welfare benefits and the rolling out of Universal Credit by the Coalition Government. These policies have not only affected those on means-tested benefits and the unemployed. They have also affected all those on benefits such as the housing benefits and the recipients of tax credits, many of whom are low-income households with at least one member of the household in work, i.e. the working poor. It is therefore very unlikely that May’s “just about managing” people will see their situation improve in the foreseeable future in spite of her pledges to help them.

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Notes

1 May, T., The Conservative chairwoman's speech to the party conference in Bournemouth, 7 October 2002, in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/oct/07/conservatives2002.conservatives1

2 Tim Bale suggests that the proportion of members of Conservative MPs committed to free market economics had risen from 56% in 1992 to 73% in 2001, while Eurosceptics made up 90% of the parliamentary party. Bale, Tim The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, p. 136.

3 All the more easily so as it was said that many were disappointed with Blair’s decision to go to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

4 Gervas M., N., Conservative Party Politicians at the Turn of the 20th/21st Centuries. Their Attitudes, Behaviour and Background, London, Civic Education and Research Trust, 2012, p. 272.

5 Cameron, D., Cameron’s Big Society Speech, Monday 19 July 2010, Liverpool, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech

6 This expression was used by David Cameron for the first time in December 2005. It was then taken up by The Sun for a series of articles describing what was wrong about Britain’s society from 2010 onwards. In his foreword to Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the nation, Social Justice Policy Group, December 2006, Iain Duncan Smith, then Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions and co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice also described broken Britain: “The welfare society has been breaking down on the margins, and the social fabric of many communities is being stripped way”, p. 1.

7 Cameron, D., Speech in Glasgow, 6 July 2008.

8 Home Office, More Effective Responses to Anti-Social Behaviour, 2011, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/more-effective-responses-to-anti-social-behaviour

9 May, T., Launch of the Leadership Campaign, 11 July 2016, http://press.conservatives.com/post/147947450370/we-can-make-britain-a-country-that-works-for .

10 Not that I am in any way implying that Disraeli and Macmillan’s Conservatisms were equivalent or, for that matter, that Conservatism is uniform. Edward Heath may be included in the list as well although his position was much less clear than that of his predecessors. His Selsdon Programme definitely marked a shift towards neoliberalism and was therefore a pledge to reduce the role of the state and to control the money supply. However, circumstances forced him to make a U-Turn and adopt a Keynesian perspective again.

11 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.

12 David Cameron once said: “We believe in society. But it’s not just the same thing as the state”. Cameron, David, Leadership Acceptance Speech, 2005, http://www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=315 consulted one 26 February 2017.

13 Cameron, D., « A New Politics », The Guardian, 25 May 2009.

14 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.

15 Ibid.

16 May, T., Forward Together: The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017, p. 7., https://www.conservatives.com/manifesto

17 Ibid.

18 Although the 2017 manifesto was largely written by Ben Gummer, it is assumed that the « Great Meritocracy » was Nick Timothy’s baby. He was one of Theresa May’s chiefs of staff and major influence along with Fiona Hill.

19 Smith, Mathew, The leadership effect – how leaders can shift perceptions of parties, August 19, 2016, in YouGov https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/19/which-leaders-have-most-successfully-shifted-publi/ consulted on 17 Nov. 2017.

20 May, T., The Shared Society Speech: Prime Minister’s Speech at the Charity Commission annual meeting, 9 Jan. 2017, p. 7, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-shared-society-prime-ministers-speech-at-the-charity-commission-annual-meeting

21 Ibid., p. 2.

22 Ibid.

23 Standing, G., The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

24 May, T., The Shared Society, 2017, p. 6.

25 May, T, The Conservative Chairwoman’s Speech to the Party Conference in Bournemouth, 7 October 2002.

26 Duncan Smith, I., Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the nation, London: Social Justice Policy Group, December 2006.

27 Cameron, D., The Big Society Speech, Liverpool, 2010, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech

28 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 11 July 2016.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 May, T. Shared Society Speech, 2017.

34 May, T., Leadership Campaign, 2016.

35 Cameron, D., The Age of Austerity, Cheltenham, 26 April 2009, <http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2009/04/27/tory-spring-conference-speeches-in-full>.

36 It can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century. Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was a vocal advocate of the need to restore social harmony (see Sybil, or The Two Nations, his novel that was published in 1845).

37 May, T. Shared Society, 2017.

38 Ibid.

39 Cameron, D., Cameron on Cameron. Conversations with Dylan Jones, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2008.

40 Norman, J., and Ganesh J., Compassionate Conservatism. What it is. Why we need it, London : Policy Exchange, 2006.

41 May, T., Shared Society, 2017.

42 It was first introduced by Elizabeth I and her Poor Laws that distinguished between outdoor relief for the deserving poor and indoor relief for the undeserving poor.

43 May, T., Forward Together, 2017, p. 54.

44 Ibid.

45 Duncan Smith I., Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the Nation, 2006, p. 13.

46 The Observer, 3 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/02/theresa-may-crisis-mass-walkout-social-policy-alan-milburn consulted on 2nd December 2017.

47 The official measure of poverty (whether in absolute or relative terms and whether before or after housing costs) estimates that an individual is poor when the household’s income is 60% and below the average or median income. Source : Department for Work and Pensions, Households Below Average Income (HBAI), An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95-2012/13 UK, July 2014, pp, 4, 34, 35, 40, 41. <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/households-below-average-income-19941995-to-20132014>. Some sociologists such as Ruth Lister for example, now prefer to define poverty in terms of exclusion from basic rights as opposed to access to full citizenship rights.

48 Thatcher, M, TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World by Brian Walden, January 1983, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/1050877

49 Thatcher, M, Speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1988, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107246

50 Espiet-Kilty, R, “Augmentation de la pauvreté en Angleterre depuis 2010 : crise ou idéologie? The increase in poverty in England since 2010: crisis or ideology?” in Marshall, Catherine and Guy, Stéphane (dir.), Economic Crisis in the United-Kingdom Today: Causes and Consequences, October 2016, http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1060; Institute of Fiscal Studies, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/04/uk-government-warned-over-sharp-rise-children-pensioner-poverty-study

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Raphaële Espiet-Kilty, « Cameron and Big Society. May and Shared Society. Same Party : Two Visions ? », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 213-233.

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Raphaële Espiet-Kilty, « Cameron and Big Society. May and Shared Society. Same Party : Two Visions ? », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 13 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/2303 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.2303

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Raphaële Espiet-Kilty

Maître de Conférences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université de Clermont Auvergne

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