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The return of Butskellism

February 17th, 2017

On seeing Sarah Bernhardt play Cleopatra a Victorian matron exclaimed: “How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen!”  Leave supporters might voice similar sentiments about the very different ways in which Theresa May and Donald Trump have chosen to capitalise on their respective ascents to power.

President Trump has chosen to lead the nation as he campaigned – divisively, aggressively and with scant regard for longstanding conventions.  His spokesman has pronounced that the president’s national security actions will not be questioned, including by the judiciary, and he warned about judicial intervention, “we will make sure that we take action to keep from happening in the future what’s happened in the past.”  President Trump has become deeply embroiled in a scandal over the extent of Russian links and influence over his administration.  Meanwhile he has found time to quarrel over the size of his inauguration crowd and go into bat on his daughter’s behalf with a department store that had dropped her range of clothes.  He seems intent on dismantling longstanding conventions and consensuses and rewriting ethical rules in order to ram through whatever he wants to achieve.

Mrs May has gone in a very different direction.  In order to understand this, we first need to see how policy stood when she took over.  David Cameron and George Osborne had run an administration that was in the main socially fairly liberal but economically dry as dust.  The 2015 election was fought on the basis of the Conservatives offering eye-watering financial discipline for the current Parliament in order to generate a budgetary surplus and then branding Labour as profligate for failing to match this.  The Conservatives’ election victory was fought and won on austerity.  Ever since 1979, the Conservatives had stood on a platform of economic rigour.  David Cameron’s leadership was unusually liberal but otherwise entirely in keeping with his predecessors from Mrs Thatcher onwards.

Theresa May’s administration has upended this completely.  With Philip Hammond, she has quietly junked the economic machismo.  The projected fiscal tightening has been completely abandoned. 

Instead, Theresa May has focused on meeting the concerns of the “just about managing” – echoing Ed Miliband’s focus on the “squeezed middle”.  She has taken the opportunity given by Labour’s disarray to steal some of Labour’s policy proposals from the last election.  Ed Miliband himself has wryly noted that his idea of seizing land that was not developed quickly enough had gone “From Mugabe to May in a few short years”.  The government is also looking at developing longer tenancies for renters – another Miliband policy that was fiercely attacked by the Conservatives when it came out.

In short, Theresa May has moved the economic consensus sharply left, spotting vacant territory.  Having won the last election on traditional Conservative terrain, the Conservatives have found themselves abandoning it without even noticing.

Instead, the Conservatives are differentiating themselves by moving to the right on social concerns.  This is embodied by the way that Theresa May has interpreted the Brexit vote.  She is prioritising controls on freedom of movement and aggressively seeking to reduce immigration, even to the point of reneging on previous commitments to take in child refugees.  We have learned that she doesn’t approve of self-described citizens of the world and she gracelessly poked at Emily Thornberry for not taking her husband’s name.

So Theresa May has completely reversed the political dividing lines.  Instead of seeking to differentiate the Conservatives from Labour on economics, she is seeking to do so through social conservatism. In contemporary terms, she appears to be seeking to make the Conservative party into a Christian Democrat party – more like Angela Merkel than Margaret Thatcher or Queen Elizabeth I.  The irony in that, given that Brexit looms over everything else at present, is obvious.

In British historical terms, what Theresa May seems to be setting up post-Brexit is a return to the post-war consensus commonly nicknamed Butskellism (a hybrid of RAB Butler’s and Hugh Gaitskell’s names), where the two parties basically agreed on leftish economics and slugged it out over social matters.  It would leave UKIP purposeless and the left divided for the foreseeable future.  So it’s easy to see why it would appeal to a Conservative Prime Minister in the current political landscape.

Also ironically, many of the most enthusiastic Leavers, including the erstwhile head of Vote Leave Michael Gove, are fervent economic Thatcherites and socially fairly liberal.  How much they welcome political developments since the vote must be open to doubt.

Of course, Butskellism is now widely regarded to have been a generational failure, leaving Britain as the sick man of Europe lagging far behind the more dynamic nations on the continent.  Let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Alastair Meeks