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Theresa May: beyond the metropolitan bubble

Monday 19 September 2016


Professor Francis Davis explores the people and experiences which will shape the policies of the new prime minister.

Understanding how and why policy makers imagine and express their political positioning, narratives, and delivery is one of the great fascinations of political science and a vital matter for those seeking to tease out the future trajectories of governments.

For Attlee and Beveridge exposure through Toynbee Hall to London’s East End was crucially formative.

The late Liberal Radical David Penhaligon made sense of the country from Truro.

Iain Duncan-Smith underwent a reported personal transformation in Glasgow that gave rise to the ‘Easterhouse modernisation’ of the Conservative party and David Cameron’s welfare reform programme.

How then should we understand Theresa May and her new team beyond the commentary of the metropolitan bubble? And what might their insights tell us about the possible future directions of the government as the political conference season begins?

Education innovation

Theresa May is a Berkshire MP in a county dominated by small unitary local authorities.

Despite relatively monochrome immediate local demographics she has constituency officers and key activists from a variety of backgrounds including able Muslim women.

She is a conscientious constituency MP. Her local council, Windsor and Maidenhead, has long been a Conservative flagship, trail blazing financial transparency, voluntary sector innovation, open data, and protecting front line services in social care by removing back office overhead.

Grammar schools in nearby Slough and Reading are popular and are perceived to provide opportunities for young Asians especially.  

Most notably, in light of her call to strengthen the ‘public benefit’ demands on independent schools, she will have seen local private providers take significant steps in that direction already.

Eton College is sponsoring a maintained Free School with boarding facilities to provide a new platform for young people of talent from all backgrounds. It has also led a collaboration with North West housing associations and Liverpool Hope University which has enabled it to increase its range of full fee sixth form scholarships for those from the poorest parts of Liverpool and Cheshire.

In nearby Ascot, the elite St Mary’s School has stepped up its outreach to the state sector and recently Mrs May (and I) spoke at a students’ conference there encouraging young women to choose public life.

Before he left Wellington College down the road, Anthony Seldon, now Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, sponsored a raft of Academies at senior and primary school level, along with open arts ventures and festivals of wide ranging public impact among whose beneficiaries were constituents of Mrs May.

All three of these independent schools have senior Conservatives in their governing councils and have shown how more can be done by those who try.

Anti-slavery drive

May’s social conscience is tinged by her father’s training at the high church theological college of Mirfield in Yorkshire with its own distinguished tradition of support to the anti-apartheid struggle.  She is a regular at her own local parish church.  

With her now co-chief of staff, Fiona Hill, Mrs May played a central part in a global anti-trafficking coalition initiated by Pope Francis.

In turn, this formed a plank of a wider commitment to combat modern slavery culminating in new legislation supported in particular by the Anglican Bishop of Derby.

May’s own experience is profoundly different from David Cameron’s as well as from the technocracy of Messrs Blair and Brown.

But it is the other co-chief of staff, Nick Timothy, who adds a particularly striking set of ingredients to the already distinctive May recipe.

Erdington modernisation

Of working class origins, Timothy has observed that patronising Tory snobs worried about their ‘old school’ , and new wave neo-liberals robotically promoting unregulated markets, share equally in giving the impression that ‘Conservatives do not give a toss’ about ordinary people.

Timothy calls for an ‘Erdington modernisation’ of the Conservative party (Erdington being the part of Birmingham in which he grew up).

He has suggested that the government focus less on the generations who have never worked and rely on social benefits for survival, and more on those households who have worked and worked but still live with radical insecurity.

Visit Erdington and it is easy to find the characters he is thinking of.  In my case, I spoke to a proud woman who had lost her factory worker husband early to a heart attack and was still working as a cleaner well beyond 65 so she could both get by and have a few pounds for grandchildren and family come birthdays and Christmas.

Timothy himself was educated at Sheffield University and not Oxbridge and is impressed by Russell Group and other Universities such as Birmingham and Chester who have sought to take advantage of educational freedoms to found free schools and academy trusts.

A Brexiteer, he espouses interventionist economic policy so as not to mortgage key sectors to foreign ownership.  Like his hero Joseph Chamberlain, he has a whiff of an enthusiasm for a trading Commonwealth about him.

Revolutionary shift in style

In these key people and experiences can be seen concrete signs of the purpose and values that drive Mrs May and her team:

More social responsibility from all institutions including universities and independent schools; Less talk of social action and more prioritisation of big step change breaks such as lifting the cap on admissions numbers in faith schools so as to create what will be the biggest Academy groups in the country; And a re-balancing away from London and metropolitan habits and a single account of ‘the North’ accessible through Manchester airport to a more varied embrace of the narratives and experience of a variety of the places and communities that make up England as a whole.

After all if one has grown up grounded in an ethos in which care for the weak and public service is the very essence of the household, or in families where funds are scarce, or in networks where the suffering of the trafficked is a lived encounter making justice work is something far less talked about than lived.   

For all this and for all the claim not to be a ‘flashy’ politician Mrs May and team then really are perhaps setting out a more revolutionary shift in style, substance and direction for the whole country that those in London will have to work harder to translate.

Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Mile End Institute Advisory Board

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