Theresa May’s appeal to working-class voters in last week’s Conservative party conference speech was a striking departure from the usual language of British politics.
Substantial numbers of working-class voters have always voted Conservative. Without them there would never have been Tory governments in the 1950s or 1970s. But in more recent decades, as the actual working class has shrunk to less than a third of the population (though with about half continuing to identify as working class), the language of class has been more muted on the centre left as well as the centre right.
Mrs May’s overt pitch to working-class voters as well as middle-class ones suggests parallels with the cross-class appeal of continental Christian Democracy. Indeed, as former Conservative minister David Willetts pointed out at a Policy Exchange event last week, as the UK prepares to leave the EU our politics seems, paradoxically, to take on a more continental European flavour.
There is, for example, the recent success of the UK Independence party in a country where the first-past-the-post voting system was supposed to nullify the continental-style populist challenge. There is the decline of the main centre-left party as metropolitan liberals and the old blue collar base diverge — a process that is 30 years old in parts of Europe. And there is even a renewed flirtation with German-style corporate governance as Mrs May calls for workers on company boards.
But the paradox does not really run. The culture of British politics remains far more American than European. It is more adversarial and more sensitive to public opinion, egged on by a raucous media, than in Europe. A prime minister not only faces the bear pit of question time every week but also attends constituency “surgeries” with voters once or twice a month. It is impossible to imagine a British leader welcoming a mass refugee influx.
And while Christian Democracy may have had historic cross-class appeal in cold war Europe, its consensual blandness makes it foreign to British politics. It is no coincidence that it was left to the Social Democrats to shake up the German labour market.
British politics will continue to play variations on a mid-Atlantic theme. The country is characterised by a relatively free market (a bit less free than that of the US), a relatively big state (a bit less big than most in Europe) and a public domain dominated by a culturally permissive and egalitarian ethos.
That is not going to change much but Mrs May does bring a new accent. She is more aware than any recent prime minister how the liberal preferences — economic and social — of the new, educated elites have dominated UK politics for the past generation, regardless of which party is in power. Her team, drawing on ideas associated with the so-called post-liberalism of Blue Labour and Red Toryism, wants to lean against that liberal ethos — a bit more state in economics and a bit less “anything goes” in society.
Britain is not going to abandon free markets or become a closed society. The “open vs closed” metaphor is a largely self-serving one for those who like the liberal status quo. But Mrs May wants an openness that better serves the bottom 50 per cent, many of whom have felt more disturbed than enabled by rapid social change symbolised by mass immigration, the declining status of non-graduate jobs and upheavals to family life.
She is saying that their anxieties now have a sympathetic ear and that the state will be there for them — that fellow citizen favouritism is neither bigoted nor stupid. What this means in detailed policy terms remains to be seen, but she is signalling a kind of liberal populism, a politics that is as much cultural as economic. In her reassuringly awkward and unflashy way she is saying that the condescending liberal graduates will no longer set the political tone.
This article originally appeared in the FT