To create a broader domestic legacy, the Prime Minister must avoid straying into gentle, unobjectionable waffle about social justice, says William Walter.
Last week was the Prime Minister’s toughest since taking office. Tuesday saw the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, and with it his scathing assessment of the Government’s Brexit strategy (or apparent lack of it). Then, on Friday, The Economist landed a second blow with its editorial and front-page headline: ‘Theresa Maybe: Britain’s indecisive premier’, in which she was criticised for her indecision, lack of strategy, and poor leadership.
Desperate to regain the initiative, Downing Street swung into action. The Sunday Telegraph carried an opinion editorial in which the Prime Minister set out her vision for social reform, which was fleshed out further in yesterday’s papers. Branded the ‘Shared Society’ (sound familiar?), she promises to address many of the injustices working class people experience daily. Core challenges singled out are the low life expectancy for those born into poverty, the tougher treatment black people experience in the criminal justice system, the number of white-working class boys left behind in our education system, and lastly the social stigma and lack of funding for mental illness in the UK. But more broadly she pledges to move beyond the narrow focus of social justice and instead embark on a fundamental programme of social reform, addressing social mobility, inequality, cost of living and the country’s housing crisis.
Though well meaning, the programme is not without its challenges. First, while it is clear on its objectives, it is less clear on how to achieve them (a characteristic it inherits from its now defunct predecessor the ‘Big Society’). And like its predecessor, it seems to suffer from the same contradiction: the use of the heavy hand of government to embark on a programme of state-sponsored social reengineering to reduce over dependence on the state. One big hand to fight the same big hand. Better, surely, to first roll back the state, so that communities, private and third sector organisations can be given the opportunity step up to the plate?
Another problem is the perceived difficulties the Government has pledged to address. For all the talk among politicians and social commentators of spiralling levels of income inequality, the data doesn’t stack up. ONS figures show income inequality is lower now than it was back in 1990. What has changed since 1990 though are the public’s perceived levels of income inequality. Stirred up by fallacious rumour and scare tactics from left-wing journalists and politicians (Jeremy Corbyn on the Today Programme this morning is a classic example) the public has bought into a narrative that they are evermore worse off, ignorant to the reality that over the last ten years income inequality has been in gradual decline and is now at a level not seen since the mid 1980s. When the Prime Minister talks of developing a country that works for everyone, and pledges to tackle the problem of inequality, all this serves to do is reinforce the public’s false perception and create a rod for her own back. While it may allay misplaced fears in the short-term, it is not a long-term remedy.
Third, many of the challenges on the Prime Minister’s agenda, such as tackling the country’s housing crisis, require the passing of contentious legislation through the House. With a working government majority of 14, and Brexit likely to put her at odds with many of her own MPs as well as those of the opposition, the Prime Minister is set to take on profound political challenges with limited political capital. How she uses that political capital is key. In making that decision she should remember that politicians never achieve greatness solely for their wise observations, soaring oratory or attempts to influence broad trends; it is their concrete achievements (or errors) that marks them for eternity. Obama is a strong orator but he will likely be remembered, for better or worse, for introducing a (perhaps very short-lived…) universal insurance system, for his foreign policy failures, for his patchy stewardship of the financial crisis and not for his “Yes we can” enthusiasm and ability to excite huge enthusiasm and optimism, impressive though those features of his performance may be. Blair was also a confident presenter but, although his presidential style and use of spin doctors will merit a footnote in the history books, the chapters will read of his fundamental reform of the Labour party, his blending of heavy taxation with private sector partnership and of course his involvement in the Iraq war.
Theresa May is no Cicero, but that is no handicap to leaving a profound legacy. Brexit will, perforce, be the largest part of her chapter. But to create a broader domestic legacy she must avoid straying into gentle, unobjectionable waffle about social justice and display a pin-sharp focus on the nuts and bolts of achieving reforms of realistic scope. Her form in this area gives some cause for optimism. During her six years as Home Secretary she quickly earned a reputation for competency and no-nonsense leadership. But she also delivered results: under her watch crime fell to its lowest level since records began; she over saw the devolution of policing powers to local communities; reformed draconian stop and search measures; and helped coordinate security services to better defend against terrorism and the threat of radicalisation. One obvious challenge she could tackle is housing. The country is facing an acute housing shortage especially in the south-east. To solve the problem requires a relatively obvious fix: radical reform of country’s planning system. It also requires taking on huge vested interest groups, including countless NIMBY home owners and their MPs. But were she able to deliver on her housing pledge, she could be rest assured that she has left a legacy worth remembering.