May and Postliberalism

The Guardian devoted a long recent editorial to an analysis of the political outlook of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Whatever Mayism might be, it is not an ideology, not Thatcherism, not David-Cameronian modernizing. For May, Toryism is not “a doctrine but as cultural inclination and a social milieu—the parochial heart of Middle England.”

Yet the editors think they can discern the outlines of a “postliberal” outlook in May’s politics: “She is evangelical about global free trade but ready to compromise on economic openness for tighter immigration control. She supports gay marriage and women’s right to choose abortion, although she has voted in parliament for shorter term limits.”

She takes Brexit as a renunciation of the trajectory of British politics from Blair to Cameron: “the referendum as an instruction to reshape the state to address the grievance of voters who felt marginalised through the years of accelerating globalisation. That is a cultural project as well as an economic one. It posits pre-referendum supremacy of an elite that was liberal, cosmopolitan and quick to ignore—even to despise—alternative perspectives. It follows that this elite should now be sidelined and its opinions discarded.”

In place of this decades-long consensus, May offers something close to “Red Toryism”: “Influential figures in Mrs May’s close-knit entourage are sympathetic to the ‘Red Tory’ school of thought that combines a critique of social liberalism and free market libertarianism. This analysis identifies a corrosive interaction between two successive revolutions of the 20th century: the left-leaning, permissive culture of the late 1960s and the rightwing fixation on profit-seeking as the agent of progress that was the kernel of Thatcherism in the 1980s. Red Toryism rejects neither movement outright but says that their combination led to a cult of individual self-gratification, expressed through materialistic consumption, at the expense of community wellbeing.”

On the other side is a “Blue Labor” movement that rejects Blairist New Labor because it “was insufficiently sceptical of the capacity of the state to effect social change by cash redistribution from the centre, overly squeamish in facing the impact of mass migration and neglectful of the resonance in traditional Labour-voting areas of identity, community and place as drivers of political allegiance – faith, flag, family.”

Mayism seems to be settling down “in the space where Blue Labour and Red Tory sensibilities intersect.”

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