Theresa May has risen to power as the British Prime Minister. She faces a considerable number of challenges including rising economic inequality at home and effectively negotiating the Brexit decision abroad. Though a conservative, she has publicly sought to tap into the populist anger wracking much of the country from both the Left and the Right. Her appeal to ideas of 'fairness' and for a 'Britain that works for everyone' have been widely seen as a departure from the austerity policies of her predecessor David Cameron. However, what is this new 'Theresanomics'?
Theresa May has forcefully pushed forward a fresh agenda that seems to combine social justice concerns with social and economic conservatism. Much of this revolves around embracing the 'anti-establishment' sentiments felt by many in the country. Rather than rely on policy 'experts' or ground her programs in clear evidence – she instead is championing changes that appeal to a sense of nostalgia and traditional 'Britishness' that echo the national mood. This has been the case, for instance, according to many commentators with grammar schools. Gaby Hinsliff talks about this new politics in her article The May Doctrine: Just Go with the Populist Flow in The Guardian.
An abiding theme throughout her career has been that of a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. While in the cabinet as Home Secretary she displayed tendencies that both availed her to the right and liberal wings of her party. For instance, she doggedly stuck to what turned out to be rather unrealistic targets for reducing immigration despite the criticism from both business leaders and liberal colleagues. Yet she also eliminated the idea of national IDs as well as directly confronted policing issues. These seemingly contradictory actions point to a politician who historically has been more about problem-solving than pursuing a dogmatic agenda. George Parker highlights this pragmatic streak in his article Theresa May is pragmatic reformer but tough on immigration” for the Financial Times (note: this article is behind a paywall).
While she may have a reputation for pragmatism, May has undoubtedly proposed some quite radical and for many forward-thinking ideas. She has firmly broken with the neoliberal consensus that began by Thatcher championing the free market. Instead, she has called for 'predistribution' – the use of regulation as a means for creating greater economic equality – and the allowance of workers on corporate boards. She has also talked of restricting executive pay and preventing foreign takeovers of key British industries. This signals a definite departure from her predecessors in both the Conservative and Labour parties. This may be just a political gambit to tap into a growing unease with a relatively unregulated market economy. However, it also may represent a new direction for the Tories and the country. The Economist explores these issues in its article Theresanomics: Britain’s newly interventionist economic consensus is a question, not an answer.
Theresa May, thus, is offering the opportunity to transform capitalism in ways that are not usually advocated by a Conservative Prime Minister. She started her reign by boldly calling for social justice. Concretely, she is promising to directly take on irresponsible behaviour by elite economic actors. Fundamentally, she is proposing a different market model – the idea of the relational company that cares and serves the need of all stakeholders, not simply shareholders. However, these changes, while potentially popular, may find difficulty in attracting Tory MPs and more traditional supporters. Arad Reisberg examines these opportunities and challenges in his article Will Theresa May Break from Thatcherism and Transform Business for The Conversation.
Still, is this enough to appeal to progressives concerned about economic equality and social justice issues? May is certainly attempting to speak the language of the left. She made it a point to highlight in her speeches as leader things that would not be out of place if said by a Miliband or even Jeremy Corbyn. She speaks to the generational wealth gap as well as systematic racial and class disparities. It remains though to be seen if this is just talk or if it represents the catalyst for real action. Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush tackle this question head on in their article The Progressive Guide to Theresa May for the New Statesman.