What kind of Tory is Theresa May? She has driven her predecessor as prime minister out of politics with brutal élan, declaring a different direction. But what sort of Conservative is she? What does she stand for; what tradition, if any, does she represent in contrast to David Cameron’s?
The mystery is how someone who is obviously superficial appears to have a well-thought out and distinct ideology. For while she likes to be projected as a new Thatcher the dissimilarity is striking. When Thatcher bid to take over her party she was the candidate of a significant network of strategists, supported by new think tanks. She carried Hayek in her handbag. She spent her years as leader of the opposition in constant meetings discussing the country’s decline and how to reverse it, generating what her official biographer calls “wonderment at the phenomenon of a party leader in search of ideas”.
After 25 years in politics Theresa May has no obvious connections to any think tank. She shows no interest in ideas. Asked by Conservative Home in a Quick Quiz session to choose between Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” or Louise Bagshawe’s “Desire”, she replied, “I wouldn’t read either of them, sorry.” The prime minister who faces arguably the Kingdom’s deepest constitutional predicament since George III was driven from the Cabinet by the loss of the American colonies dismissed out of hand the idea that she might ever turn to the pages of Burke, even though as a student she had chaired a society named after him.
As the country faces an unprecedented concatenation of economic, strategic, diplomatic and constitutional uncertainty, the woman at the helm seems devoid of intellectual resources. The one decision she has definitely taken is to give the go ahead to Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, a boondoggle incapable of justification by any criteria of integrity. The Pharaohs built their own pyramids, Theodoric built his own mausoleum. But these were designed as monuments to generate the admiration of posterity. Surely only an idiot would make their first decision the go-ahead for a colossal radioactive tombstone to her regime.
But Theresa May should not be dismissed as an idiot. There is a striking and potentially formidable coherence to the general direction she has set for her new government, evidenced by the self-confidence of her ministers who remarkably quickly are singing from the same song-sheet. She does seem to have a clear ideology refreshingly different from her predecessors. Where has it come from?
The answer is The Daily Mail. On Sunday in her first speech to her party as its leader, she set out her view of Brexit and announced that she intends to trigger Article 50 to start the UK’s withdrawal from the EU before March. This was a moment of upmost gravity, to recognise and measure the immense divisions that have been opened up within the country, and consider the implications for the entire continent that Britain once helped liberate from fascism. Instead, her tone, brevity and apparent practicality were drawn as if directly from a Daily Mail editorial.
Theresa May is the living incarnation of an ideology worked out over three decades in the pages of that paper since 1980, by its now Editor-in-Chief Paul Dacre. This is her hinterland, her strength and, naturally, her weakness. May herself is not going to create a new ‘ism’ like Thatcherism or Blairism. She does not have that kind of capacity or originality. Instead, the contemporary political philosophy she has adopted and that is now carrying her – and the country – into the mouth of Brexit is Dacreism. It’s a novel variant of conservatism, one which proved to be brilliant at selling a mid-market tabloid newspaper. But as the Mail group faces cost-cutting under the pressure of structural changes to its revenues, will its ideology stand the test of governing the country?
That a newspaper should be the source of a government’s approach to its policy priorities, public appeal and global strategy, is not a surprise in what can be called ‘Late Great Britain’. Since Margaret Thatcher broke the post-war establishment and its consensus politics, Westminster has been dominated by a narrow, grasping political-media caste. Its presiding maestro, Rupert Murdoch, was for thirty years the arbiter of its fortunes.
The concept of the political class was first developed in a brilliant account by Peter Oborne who included media figures in it – a notable pioneer being Alastair Campbell who moved from the Mirror to being Blair’s presentational hit-man. But the term ‘political class’ has since been misused to deride politicians alone, and it has even fed the fake populism of tabloids pillorying all politicians as a group. In fact, a relatively small number of journalists, TV and radio presenters and editors, all far better paid than MPs, are crucial participants in the governing London clique while most MPs are excluded from it. Hence my tweaking the concept to make it clear it refers not to politicians as a group (many being both honest and marginal) but to a governing caste forged out of an alloy of politicians, PR fixers, journalists, editors and media proprietors.
Murdoch was its most important member. Newspapers have always been opinionated and conscious of their influence. But under his baleful inspiration they have become relentlessly partisan. In the referendum they functioned as self-conscious players hardly bothering to cover up their role with occasional touches of semi-objective reporting. Instead, they shaped and strategized their coverage to defeat those they opposed. A careful, quantitative analysis of 2,378 articles on the referendum by the Reuters Institute concluded that the press was skewed, highly partisan, treated the vote as a game or contest, and marginalised voices outside politics, ensuring that the undecided were uninformed.
The smaller the universe, the more acute the divisions within it can become and the London Political-Media caste divided over Europe and not just Europe. A small but telling example of the interweaving of media and government is the marriage of Michael Gove and Sarah Vine. Gove was a columnist for Murdoch’s Times before being recruited into politics by David Cameron, for whom he added jokes and jests to his preparation for his weekly Prime Ministers Questions, while being promoted to Lord Chancellor. Vine has a weekly pulpit of gossip and comment in the Daily Mail.
After the Leave vote won the couple strategized about how to hold Boris Johnson to their version of Brexit in the coming campaign for the Tory leadership. Vine sent an email to her husband to sum up her views and copied it to someone else by mistake (we all do it). It went public. At one point she wrote, “Crucially, the [Tory party] membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket”. She rightly put Dacre/Murdoch in equivalent importance to the party electorate. She worked for Dacre, they both had recently attended Murdoch’s wedding.
When Gove was unable to get the reassurances from Johnson that his wife urged, he torpedoed his bid and stood himself. But Dacre promptly threw the Mail behind Theresa May with an editorial and a profile that dug out everything positive about her that could be found. (The profile also highlighted a chronic inability to delegate – between the lines of praise the reader could discern a person who while determined is unsuited to the larger demands of the premiership). Dacre himself had lunched with her before his endorsement. Doubtless he established her unequivocal commitment to the Brexit that was and remains his priority. His editorial shows an appreciation of the contender’s background, her belief in achievement, seriousness and dislike of treating politics as a game. All views that uncannily duplicated his own.
The point is not that Theresa May was wrong to seek the Mail’s endorsement or that the paper should not have the freedom to make its preference between the contenders known. The best way of understanding what has happened is to consider what it would have meant had Dacre backed Gove instead. This would have been a coup for Gove. But both as a journalist who had declared his love for Blair, and as a minister who read deeply and proved himself capable of original policies, first in education and then with respect to jails, it would have been clear that he was his own man. He would have won over the Mail.
With Theresa May it was the other way around. She is supporting the Daily Mail, its voice, views and priorities. With no record of originality, her version of profound reflection is to declare that she “gets things done” and “just gets on with the job”. The job being, well, precisely who decides this is who rules. I’m not suggesting that May is being cynical. On the contrary, what is alarming is her sincerity. She spouts the well-honed worldview of Dacre because she does not have another way of being herself.
One result is a significant shift within the political-media caste. The 67 year old Dacre has replaced the 85 year old Murdoch as its chief hegemon. It's a dangerous spot for Dacre as he is only an employee and not the owner of his paper, and if the costs of Brexit prove too great the pressures on his proprietor from the city to remove the troublesome Brexiteer may become irresistible.
So what is Dacreism? In one way it is a distinct improvement on Murdoch’s grotesque outlook. Both embrace forms of Late Great Britishness, but Murdoch is a global warrior encouraging war, while Dacre was sceptical of the Iraq adventure and has been a ferocious critic of Blair and the corruptions of his foreign policy. Murdoch does not really give a toss for the Brits, while Dacre wants a government that works for all those who strive to improve their lives. The concept of a country fit for all “hard-working, ordinary people” is pure Daily Mail. Behind it lies the backwardness of the UK. There is no such thing as “ordinary people”, there are citizens. The notion of most of us being “ordinary” implies that some of us are extra-ordinary. Hovering above the appeal of the ordinary is deference to royalty, those special not-in-fact ordinary people about whom we read stories that say, "gosh aren't they quite like us".
While skilful enough to publish prurience and manipulate popular fascination, Dacre is a moralist in a way that Murdoch is not, and a believer in royalty in a way that the Australian-American-republican certainly is not.
But then Murdoch is a man of the world while Dacre is unhappy with globalisation. In his pioneering analysis of Thatcherism, Stuart Hall nailed its “regressive modernisation”. Thatcher sought a way forward to a new form of capitalism but to do so she mobilised reactionary visions of Victorian values. The contradictory tensions were part of Thatcherism’s energy and kept her opponents off balance. Dacreism is also a peculiar knot of conflicting desires. He wants to combine the conviction and clarity of Thatcherism with the inclusiveness of Churchillism. As a formula for appealing to middle-class readers nostalgic for the lost world of post-war greatness, yet fearful of anything that smacks of the collectivism of those years; relishing the individualism and dominatrix sexuality of the Falklands afterglow but disapproving of the corruption and permissiveness of the globalisation it entailed, Dacreism became an astonishing formula for readers and advertisers.
But can it work as a politics? Is it capable of carrying forward an industrial and financial policy? The answer is surely not. It is not a consciousness that concerns itself with the integration of supply chains, scientific research and multi-national ownership neatly summarised by recently by Nick Pearce.
Instead, at its heart is a Late Great British nationalism, desperate to be contemporary but unable to escape from its loyalty to the past. Its form of identity is an English consciousness and resentment expressed in a passion for the British Union. This creates a fraught English-Britishness that holds a passion for Thatcher and her English conviction politics and for Churchill and his British consensus politics at the same time. It was perfectly captured by Dacre’s raging editorial, across the front page of his paper, asking “Who will speak for England?” when, in the run up to the referendum, it seemed no senior Tory politician would support Brexit. Buried in the depth of his alarm call Dacre noted, “and, of course, by 'England'… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.
At once hugely ambitious and profoundly uneasy with itself and the weakness this “of course" buries. Such Anglo-British nationalism can rise to the challenge of competition but is deeply threatened by any call for collaboration. The latter risks exploding its equilibrium. Hence a visceral opposition to membership of the European Union, to the cultural impact of immigrants and the rise of Scottish nationalism.
I want to stress both the irrationality and authenticity of this fear of becoming European, this desire to remain true to ‘ourselves’. It means that Dacreism is not capable of embracing the deep partnerships and sharing of sovereignty that European economic and scientific development now entails. Instead, Dacreism takes it as a given that British decline is in the past and no problems of structural development confront the country that cannot be resolved by the application of will.
Today, Dacreism has found its Premier. Someone who will “get on with the job” and speak for England: Theresa May. Tellingly, she comes not from a department of state dealing with welfare, industry or education, nor from the Treasury and dealing with finance, the city and global players, but from an unprecedented length of time running the Home Office. Here, Theresa’s job was to manage the control mechanisms of British society. She took on the Police Federation to try and drive corruption out of the constabulary and pushed through the Investigatory Powers Act that has legalised the country’s mass surveillance. The two go together even for the elite these days given the dangers of blackmail inherent in the intrusive powers of modern technology. To impose itself on British society as a whole as it implements its attempt to break away from the European Union, Dacreism has found… a good police officer.
“The British people have spoken”. “Brexit means Brexit”. These short, sharp phrases suggest the drumbeat of truncheons on shields. What lifts the spirit of readers as they struggle with the news over breakfast may prove less inspiring as the country is handcuffed to Dacre’s Brexit chariot.
The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett
“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman
“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times
“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism... This is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications