When Theresa May emerged as Prime Minister following the resignation of David Cameron, a number of commentators noted a similarity between her and three-times elected former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The 'Iron Lady' and May have a similar air of ruthlessness about them, it was claimed. In July the Independent published an article claiming the public see many similarities between the two. After her first Prime Minister's Questions, the Guardian claimed 'Margaret Thatcher is reborn' in a piece which highlights May and Thatcher's similarities noted in newspapers across the political spectrum. But if there are similarities between our two female Prime Ministers then they stop at personality. Margaret Thatcher, who championed neo-liberalism, free markets and 'rolling back' the state is in stark contrast to Theresa May, who, in her speech to the Conservative party conference last week, declared her support for the politics of statism and economic interventionism.
There are areas that May is moving the Tory party and the government away from liberalism; economically and socially. Some people are claiming that she is moving into the centre ground. This is not entirely true. Economically, it might be - leaving behind a free-market, neo-liberal approach for an interventionist one is a move towards the economic policy of the Lib Dems and Labour (though not to the interventionist extremes of John McDonnell). In her conference speech, which upon hearing the late Thatcher would be turning in her grave, May said "where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene" and "we must set the market right". She spoke of the power of government, repeating the phrase "because that is what the government can do". RIP economic liberalism.
While this interventionist economics may be a move towards the centre, socially she is moving the Conservative party and the government away from it. It is becoming socially illiberal and authoritarian - abandoning the values modernisers brought to the party under Cameron.
Margaret Thatcher was never inherently socially liberal. When David Cameron took over as leader he, and other 'Tory modernisers' looked to bring the Conservative party 'into the twenty-first century', to use a cliché. He continued a similar economic approach to Blair, who had adopted large parts of the neo-liberalist economics of Thatcher, but reformed the Conservative party into much more of a socially liberal party. The prime example of this is his government legalising gay marriage. But May is leading her party away from this. She has never been a liberal, her time at the Home Office tells us this much. The 'Snoopers Charter', for example, as well as the treatment of overseas students under her regime shows us that the liberal ideals of tolerance won't be a part of her government. In perusing a 'hard Brexit' she is adopting the populist views which led to Brexit in the first place. May is appeasing those who share UKIP's beliefs: anti-immigration and social authoritarianism.
Theresa May has destroyed liberalism within the Conservative party, for now. Jeremy Corbyn has destroyed liberalism in the Labour Party; his 'new kind of politics' is a return to the illiberal and socialist (thus authoritarian) old days before from New Labour made the party electable again. And our only self-declared 'liberal' party, the Lib Dems, is performing worse than the populist-right-wing UKIP. For now it seems that liberalism is down and out. Economic and social liberalism in the UK has been replaced by populist politics, fueled by Brexit.
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