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Theresa May's Conference Speech Gave a Monstrous Ideology a Human Face

Her grab for the political centre ground was really the return of the old Tory right.

by Sam Kriss
05 October 2016, 12:24pm

Theresa May giving her conference speech (Photo by Isabel Infantes/ EMPICS Entertainment)

So who is Theresa May? She's been leading the country for nearly three months now, but in that time it's still been hard for many people to get a real handle on her: she never really fought a national election, not even within her own party. All we have are a few drabs of PR-speak – a firm hand on the wheel, a tough negotiator – and some icky libidinal complexes, as a generation of Tories too young to have bowed before the altar of Thatcher find themselves a new substitute nanny-figure to worship.

Today, at the Tory party conference, we found out who Theresa May really is. She's not an apolitical administrator, she's not a sensible pragmatist, or someone who can sanely and carefully guide this country through its next few years of inevitable decline. She is a rabid right-wing ideologue, the fanatical devotee of a ruthless and brutal political philosophy, and she's dangerous.

You could be forgiven for thinking the opposite, though. Theresa May's speech was a calculated pitch for the political centre-ground, touching on issues that might usually be the preserve of the Labour party, and offering solutions that seem very different to the Tories we think we know. She didn't talk like somebody defending the status quo, but someone trying to overthrow it: "Our society should work for everyone," she said, "but if you can't afford to get onto the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, it doesn't feel like it's working for you."

She noted that "it wasn't the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families". She lamented "division and unfairness", and promised to "make the market work for working people, because that's what government can do", to build a "country where it doesn't matter where you were born, who your parents are, where you went to school, what your accent sounds like, what god you worship, whether you're a man or a woman, gay or straight, or black or white". Her whole speech was a hymn to the power of government to intervene in the market and make life better for all. And isn't that something nice lefties can really get behind?

The best many people can do is to accuse her of hypocrisy, to say that her socially inclusive rhetoric is a sham. She doesn't really have any interest in the lives of ordinary people; it's all just a play for the cameras while the Tories carry on screwing the poor and advancing the interests of a tiny elite. Jeremy Corbyn said something similar in his own conference speech: "Who seriously believes that the Tories could ever stand up to the privileged few?" And all this is probably true; as David Cameron showed, the Tories have learned how to adopt the language of social progress while pulling out the floor from under the working-class people they claim to support.

But it's also important to really dig into her speech, to see her ideology as it actually is. It wasn't just cheery progressivism; her call for social unity was coupled with some dangerous reaction, the Daily Mail's letters page spun into almost lifelike flesh, onstage at the ruling party's conference. She promised to not "let those activist left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave", which sounds a lot like giving the military carte blanche to commit war crimes. She railed against those who "behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road", treading perilously close to the far-right's perennial obsession with the figure of the disloyal, deracinated Jew. If the left is to have a consistent response to Theresa May, we need to realise that these fascoid elements aren't in contradiction with what looks like a cuddly inclusive message, but that they're one and the same thing.

Theresa May's new brand of Toryism isn't anything new. This is the return of the party's old right, the pre-Thatcherite consensus that didn't care so much about limited government or free markets as it did about social cohesion, traditional family units, law and order, and keeping as tight a hold on the last tattered fragments of Empire as possible. These old Tories really did see government as something that could mediate between different elements within society; they didn't have any particular problem with the welfare state or with state intervention in the economy; what they cared about was what kind of a society these things would build. And they were also, to be clear, virulently racist and fanatically anti-socialist: this was the Tory party that put out flyers reading: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour." The left is now so used to fighting against austerity and big finance that we've forgotten that these are just tactics – the right-wing is about class power, not any particular formation of that power. The government has abandoned the fiscal targets of the Cameron years; austerity is over, and we're about to enter something potentially much worse. Theresa May is class power with a human face, a smile plastered on top of something utterly monstrous.

What May wants is to appeal to capitalism's better nature: instead of the senseless and mechanical accumulation of profits, she wants capitalist surpluses to be rerouted for the general good of the nation, and she thinks government is the best tool to do that. The nation is an important category here; her speech was full of it: the "national interest", the "wealth of the nation", the "whole nation". She alluded to those sneering metropolitan elites, the ones who "find your patriotism distasteful" – this is a much-repeated line, one used as much by the Labour right as by the Tories, the idea that the left opposes nationalism out of an aesthetic distaste for flags and bunting, rather than because it has a serious critique. We've seen the horrors unleashed by nationalism over the last century; we've seen the violence and racism that exploded after this year's referendum. (In her speech, May seemed to forget that her "quiet revolution" left a sitting MP dead in the street.)

This is always an exclusive category; just as it erases the actual contradictions and oppositions within a society to the meaningless abstraction of the national interest, it always ends up needing to identify a reviled other, someone who doesn't share in the national interest but who must be repressed at every turn. Theresa May's plan means "stepping up and doing what's right for Britain, making the market work for working people". Who isn't included here? People who aren't British, people who aren't working, people who won't fit into the image of a quiet, uncomplaining, hardworking ordinary citizen who knows their place in the social whole to which their interests are subordinated. And what happens to them?

This kind of rhetoric isn't new; it seeped across Europe the last time we had a decade-long economic crisis. If nothing else, Theresa May's speech should be a wake-up call to the left, to those people whose socialism is limited to a desire for more state spending and investment. Because it's not enough; our enemies can do that too. None of this means anything unless it's first based on a radical solidarity with the oppressed, whoever and wherever they are.

@sam_kriss

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