The Darling Trumps of May
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”
— Theresa May, Prime Minster
Theresa May was not my preferred Prime Minister and some of her policies and statements (e.g. her industrial policy gubbins and general thuggishness regarding freedom of speech) concern me, but as with Trump, she’s growing on me. This week’s Spectator has a very good article on her attempts to steer between the Scylla of Globalization and the Charybdis of Populism, you should go and read it and then come back here.
If Brexit is a success, and I’m pretty sure it will be for the UK at least, then that will be in very large part because Theresa May became Prime Minister. To be sure luck is also helping – President Trump is an instinctive Euroskeptic who wants to have a UK-US trade deal, whereas a hypothetical President Clinton would undoubtedly have retained the Obama “back of the queue” policy for example – but there is no doubt that a bit of prior planning helps luck and Theresa May is very definitely a planner. This can come across as being overly cautious but so far the May government has avoided that perception while also not being wrong footed by adverse court decisions etc. By contrast Boris Johnson, who is the Foreign Secretary now and was the presumed front-runner until he got knifed in the back by his Leave colleague Michael Gove, is rather more impetuous, although I suspect a good deal of his alleged impetuousity is deliberate camouflage. A Boris Johnson government would probably have looked like one dashing nimbly from one crisis to the next with everyone holding their breath and waiting for it to eventually fail. The May government by contrast is the dull tortoise plodding along to the goal and not getting derailed or distracted from its purpose.
Critically May has been resolute about Brexit, even though she was in fact on the Remain side during the referendum campaign. I am reminded of the possibly apocryphal Keynes quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” This willingness to change policy and plans based on the expressed will of the people is, I am sure, one large reason why the Conservative party is so dominant in the polls these days – even winning a by-election from Labour and governing parties winning by elections in previously opposition constituencies is something that is historically extremely rare. Of course she has also lucked out in the Labour leader – the hapless Jeremy Corbyn somehow managed to survive last summer’s coup – but I’m fairly sure her party would be ahead anyway. A lot of people feared she would cave into the ideas of “soft Brexit” or to the pressure from the EU establishment but she has not done so. In fact she has stated very clearly that while she wants an amicable parting, the UK is not going to be bullied and has considerable options should the rest of the EU be particularly unhelpful.
However Brexit is not the only thing on Mrs May’s agenda. Over the summer she made it clear she wanted to help the “Just About Managing” section of society. This, it seems to me, is the group that elected Trump, is likely to vote for (if not elect – we’ll see) Le Pen and Geert Wilders and so on. Thanks to Mrs May identifying the problem here, the UK seems highly likely to avoid the populist leaders that threaten the status quo elsewhere. In fact, in some ways May is a populist herself. She is unashamedly patriotic and I think this explains why, despite being a remainer, she is solidly behind Brexit now. She wants to celebrate the country’s good points but not to be blindly nationalistic and not to be blind to the bad points of nation and internationalism.
The quote I began this post with seems to be at the core of her belief system – stateless people are a problem, even when rich. The rich and connected (the “Davos” people), who feel no connection to a particular country, have no qualms about selfishly looting or changing anywhere to be what they like without any consideration for the residents. And of course these people tend to simply decamp to somewhere else when things get slightly unpleasant for them fleeing the results of what is likely their own actions and policies. She’s not keen on the sneering globalists and wants to use government to cut them down – or at least make them from take responsibility, and face consequences for their actions in the UK. If she follows this through then it may mean an interesting approach to the non-dom bazillionnaires who reside in London. I don’t know what exactly that will include but I suspect it means non-doms are going to have to contribute something to the UK economy other than money to retain their generally taxfree residency.
On the bad side, she’s very much a “what can the government do to fix things” person. I’m not happy with her tendency for bansturbation and tolerance for speech limiting parts, but the bankster bashing part is not totally unjustified. It certainly seems that what she is trying to do is get executives to think longer term than the next quarter and how their stock options are performing which has to be good. Assuming, as I understand to be the case, her government simplifies the tax code regarding corporate taxation, dividends and the like and makes it more straightforward to companies to pass profits through to their investors/shareholders this will be a good thing. Compared to the US, which has historically doubly taxed dividends and hence made them unpopular, the UK has traditionally been a place where companies pay significant dividends and it seems to be that this is a good thing to encourage as a healthy dividend stream suggests a company that is long term profitable.
The May view seems to be that while capitalism, free markets and free trade are good things, the winners and beneficiaries of the system need to take into consideration those who are adversely affected by it and find ways to alleviate their suffering. If they won’t do it voluntarily then she’ll get the government to make them.
The contrast with Lady Thatcher is instructive. The Iron Lady was famous for thinking that if she fixed the economy then society would automatically improve too. Admittedly her famous quote about “there is no such thing as society” is generally taken wildly out of context but I think the basic idea was right: Mrs T felt that parents, relations and neighbours should provide the teachings of morality and so on and that this was not the purpose of government. To be honest, given the UK’s situation in the 1970s, she was absolutely right on her priorities but she was perhaps a bit over-optimistic about the inherent morality of “society”. Mrs M, on the other hand, seems to think that the state should have a role in this. As a libertarian I find this hard to stomach, but while I’m suspicious of government, I have to agree that current lack of morality visible in all levels of British society suggests she may have a point. The May approach looks to me like it will be a push towards explicitly promoting Judeo-Christian morality, paying no attention to the cultural relativists and other academic snake oil purveyors, and revitalizing the concepts of philanthropy and good works. I’m not sure I like the idea of state-enforced morality, but the morality she seems to be pushing is generally admirable.
Finally to go back to Europe. EU leaders seem to be determined to punish the UK for having the temerity to break away in order to try and keep everyone else on board. This is not healthy for the EU and shows the fundamental weakness of their position. Assuming the EU stick to their hard lines negotiating position, which is by no means certain, then I’m sure that her reaction will be firm. I imagine there will be both accelerated free trade deals with the rest of the world and plans put in place to weaponize the City so as to hurt the EU as much as possible. The UK will likely flourish under such circumstances, the EU not so much. In fact I’m sure the EU will regret rebuffing David Cameron a year ago when he sought moderate changes because now it faces a radically different world in which the people have learned that they really do have a voice against the global elites. The Conservatives under Mrs May are adapting successfully but the EU is so built around the meritocracy of the technocratic elite that it cannot in fact reform itself and must therefore fail. The question is how long will it take to collapse and how badly?
The Shadow of the Olive Tree