Theresa May gives a speech at a Conservative party conference. Photo: Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Theresa May’s speech after she became prime minister was a revelation. On 13th July, she spoke about the racism, classism, and sexism inherent in British society. She talked of inequalities in education, in income, in the justice system, in mental healthcare provision. She spoke about how out of touch Westminster was with the electorate. She promised that her government would make Britain work for everyone – that it would prioritise those in need above the wealthy, that it would listen to those without the most power, that it would break down socioeconomic barriers to allow Britain to become a true meritocracy. In an era where ‘social justice warrior’ is bandied around Twitter as an insult rather than an encouragement, ‘social justice’ was, unexpectedly, one of the key phrases of the new prime minister’s speech.
I was, I will admit, somewhat confused. If anyone else had given that speech, I would have been ecstatic, reinvigorated with hope that there were people in power who cared, who could see the problems, who weren’t afraid to speak truth to power in order to eliminate injustice, who wouldn’t put their heads in the sand and who would fight for those who most needed fighting for.
If anyone else had given that speech, I would have been ecstatic
But this was Theresa May. All I’d seen of her in the media previously was her speaking out against human rights, against immigrants, against the most vulnerable. And it wasn’t just unfavourable media spin – the data on TheyWorkForYou.com shows a voting record that testifies to this daunting gap between what she practises and what she has recently begun to preach. She has frequently voted against human rights and anti-discrimination legislation, voted to cap benefit rises below the level of price rises. She voted for benefit caps and freezes and against exemptions for people with certain illnesses or disabilities. She voted against the mansion tax, against a bankers’ bonus tax, for reducing corporation tax… You can understand my puzzlement at her suddenly proclaiming herself a social justice champion.
Was this genuinely signalling a change of direction? Was this all completely insincere, just saying to the electorate what she thought they wanted to hear? Was it trying to further undermine Labour by claiming social justice for the Conservatives? Or –possibly the most terrifying – did she genuinely believe that her policies and standpoints are those that best serve social justice? It’s been a month now since that speech. It’s been the summer recess, so there hasn’t been that much policymaking going on to judge our new prime minister by. But what have we seen?
There have been some positive signs – most notably, May’s introduction of measures to combat modern slavery; possibly an early sign that she is determined to take human rights seriously. There have also been signs that she meant it about ending corporate elitism – reports are that she has pledged to ‘reform capitalism’, and is considering an overhaul of the House of Lords to make it less elitist, accompanied by a revoking of invitations to Downing Street to organisations that do not meet sufficiently meritocratic criteria.
But on the other, bleaker, hand, May’s appalling record on immigration and asylum measures has continued, with a complete lack of progress on allowing child refugees into Britain, and the scrapping of the post of Minister for Syrian Refugees. Figures have finally been released from the Home Office which show that pregnant women are being kept in immigration detention centres, far beyond the permitted ‘exceptional’ cases. Draft guidelines for guards in these centres condone putting ‘disobedient’ detainees in solitary confinement, even where medical advice says that to do so could be life-threatening for the detainee. All this follows the refusal of the Home Office, when May was still Home Secretary, to release data on sexual abuse suffered by women in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre on the grounds of ‘commercial interest’. It is impossible to be hopeful about the human rights record of May’s government in the face of such horrific reports.
The scrapping of maintenance grants is going ahead.
The scrapping of maintenance grants is going ahead. The Department for Energy and Climate Change has been scrapped. And May’s appointments to the Cabinet suggest that these worrying trends will only continue. She has appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, (who has repeatedly made racist and offensive comments), Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary, (who has generally voted against key measures to combat climate change), and Priti Patel as Secretary for International Development, (who has advocated abolishing the Department for International Development, and incorporating aid into trade and investment).
I really don’t know what May’s internal principles that are guiding this look like. I can only guess that they consist in some kind of ultimate neoliberalism. According to this ideology, everyone can be be free, equal and rich, and this can best be achieved with a small government that doesn’t help its citizens – so that they will be encouraged to strive harder, etc. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work – and is entirely at odds with her message of social justice. Neoliberalism is precisely what allows corporate elitism and social injustice to flourish, and then be dismissed as the natural result of a ‘meritocratic’ system, when that inequality and injustice is in fact symptomatic of the oppression that permeates our whole social order.
However progressive her agenda turns out to be, if it carries on being one where only British citizens count as people deserving of basic rights and respect, it will not be worth the paper it's written on. Having immigration rules to prevent people taking advantage of the system must be compatible with preventing human rights abuses of immigrants and asylum seekers – and if it is not, then we need to rethink our immigration strategy, and refuse to accept the abuses happening within our country simply because they are happening behind closed doors where we cannot see them, to people we may not know. It’s early days, but the outlook is not good. But I live in hope that maybe May will live up to the standard she set herself in her first statement. Maybe.