The Protective State: Theresa May and the revenge of the Home Office

By Will Davies

The revenge of the Home Office

One of the tasks we faced during the Mapping Immigration Controversy research was to get inside the mindset of the Home Office and its officials, in an effort to understand how things had reached such a dire juncture. This was methodologically difficult, but involved some off-the-record conversations with various civil servants past and present.

A powerful image emerged of a department that had become embattled over a long period of time. In a ‘neoliberal era’, in which national borders were viewed as an unwelcome check on the freedoms of capital and (to a lesser extent) labour, and geographic mobility is treated as a crucial factor in productivity and GDP growth, the Home Office became an irritant for Treasury and BIS officials, with its obsession with ‘citizenship’ and security. Clearly there has been an ideological conflict within Whitehall for some time, regarding the appropriate role of the state towards markets and citizens, but which has been masked thanks to a succession of highly prominent, very ambitious Chancellors pushing primarily economic visions of Britain’s place in the world. One can imagine the resentment that would brew amongst Home Secretaries and Home Office officials, as they are constantly represented as the thorn in the side of Britain’s ‘economic competitiveness’, year after year.

Beyond this, there is a more subtle sense in which the Home Office occupies a different position vis a vis the public, which sometimes translates into class politics. Home Secretaries are often moved by the plight of those who are defenceless in society: children such as Baby P, the elderly people plagued by rowdy teenagers on their estates, the victims of Harold Shipman (whose suicide apparently tempted then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to “open a bottle“). Often, these people are defenceless because they are powerless, and they are powerless because they are poor, less well educated and culturally marginalised. And yet they are still British, and deserving of the state’s defence. One former Home Office official I spoke to suggested to me that the Home Office has long been identified as the voice of the working class inside Whitehall, and feels looked down on by Treasury and Downing Street Oxbridge elites. This person compared the ethos of the Home Office to that of Milwall fans: “No-one likes us, we don’t care”.

Home Secretaries view the world in Hobbesian terms. The world is a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are murdered, assaulted and blown up, and these incidents are a result of state failure. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers (who are rarely the victims of these events) then criticise the state for trying harder to prevent these tragedies through surveillance and policing.

I suspect that many Home Secretaries have developed some of the above symptoms, including (or maybe especially) Labour ones. Blunkett and John Reid were both shaped by it. However Theresa May’s long tenure (6 years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office (often a political graveyard) suggests that these symptoms may have become more pronounced in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview. This includes a burgeoning resentment towards the Treasury, George Osborne in particular (who she allegedly sacked with the words “go away and learn some emotional intelligence”), and the ‘Balliol men’ who have traditionally worked there. In making sense of Theresa May’s extraordinary speech at Conservative Party Conference yesterday, the first thing we need to do is put it back in the context of her political experience. For her, the first duty of the state is to protect, just as Thomas Hobbes argued in 1651, and this comes prior to questions of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Looking after people

The ‘protective state’ that May was outlining was of a state that looks after people. This is very different from the neoliberal state, whose job was characterised by Peter Mandelson, Bill Clinton and other Third Wayers in the 1990s as ‘steering not rowing’. The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imagined unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. They needed the state to keep interest rates low (on the assumption that they want to own assets) and otherwise maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they can reap the rewards of all that apparent hard work. Clearly most people cannot be conceived of as entrepreneurs in a neoliberal society, although the ‘sharing economy’ is now belatedly pushing that original Thatcherite dream much more deeply into the fabric of society. But they are nevertheless exerting themselves in order to become something better – richer, happier, healthier etc. They are optimisers, just as economists assume.

May has replaced ‘hard working families’ with ‘ordinary people’, which includes the ‘working class’. She says she wants the Tories to be the party of ‘working people’, though it no longer sounds as if these people are looking for much improvement, growth or change. Faced with the unknown, they are more likely to retreat than to found a start-up. They need looking after. This means that the necessities of life (health, energy, housing) must be kept affordable, and threats must be kept at bay. The role of the state is to prevent change in general, on the assumption that it is likely to be undesirable, than to initiate or facilitate it. Clearly, in an age of political and economic crises, the ‘protective state’ must develop a very clear idea of who is to be looked after and who is to be rebuffed…

The state that looks after people (its own people) is not quite the same as the state that cares for people, of the sort that was developed in Britain after World War Two. If May wanted to push care to the centre of her vision, this would mean a new politics of welfare, one which used fiscal policy to respond to basic social and physical needs. Needs are things we all have by virtue of our humanity, not our identity. A care-oriented state pursue a far-reaching, cultural reversal of the Osbornite, neoliberal condemnation of welfare-recipients. In fairness, there have already been signs that the more punitive end of recent welfare policies will be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how much more there is to come in that regard. But for the time being, it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of humans in general.

Protection… and protectionism?

Economic liberals are already nervous that the new British Prime Minister is a protectionist. Outside of her Home Office brief, there are signs that her thinking – and that of her policy advisor, Nick Timothy – departs from the Thatcherite, neoliberal consensus in key ways. Abandoning Osborne’s austerity targets and declaring war on tax evaders are signs that the financial sector and very wealthy can no longer view the Conservative Party as their tool. Timothy’s vision of ‘Erdington conservatism‘ (named after a working class area of Birmingham) imagines the state intervening in the economy, to defend the interests of the immobile against the mobile, for reasons that liberals will never really understand because they’ve probably never experienced hardship. Resonances with ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Toryism’ have been widely noted.

There is obviously no contradiction between social conservatism and economic protectionism: both are hostile to the fluidity, cosmopolitanism and perceived snobbery of liberalism. Theresa May’s comment at this week’s Conservative Party conference, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” was pitched as much at bankers as at leftwing intellectuals. Whether it was also a ‘dog whistle’ regarding refugees probably depends on what breed of dog you are. Marine le Pen certainly didn’t disagree. But if anything, it was the Thatcherite effort to weld social conservatism to economic liberalism that was contradictory – as Stuart Hall famously diagnosed [pdf] at the outset – and not this latest turn towards economic interventionism. This latest reconfiguration of conservatism could ultimately be a more sustainable one even than Thatcher’s.

We currently have no idea what her actual intentions are in this respect, just as we have no very clear idea of how actively she would like to police the boundaries of ‘British citizenship’. In all likelihood, the two agendas – the economic and the nationalist – will emerge in tandem, just as we got a hint of with the suggestion that companies be forced to list their foreign workers. Prejudice in society is far more plausible when it is also pursued in the economy. The reason German neoliberals (or ordoliberals) of the 1930s and 40s were so hostile to cartels and monopolies was not because they saw them as necessarily inefficient, but because they viewed them as a necessary precondition of the Nazi political economy: non-market economies can be more easily requisitioned in the service of political goals. By contrast, competitive markets perform a liberal function, because they offer a blockage to the social and political ambitions of interventionist leaders. Without suggesting any direct analogy here, if neoliberalism is indeed now over, we should remain aware of the various new social and cultural opportunities this offers the state, and not only the new economic ones. Protectionism (of indigeneous industries and workers) is never simply an economic policy, but involves clear statements of who is in and who is out.

The European Union was founded partly around ordoliberal principles, hence the inclusion of anti-trust and anti-State Aid provisions in the Treaty of Rome. Member states are simply not allowed to ‘pick winners’ and defend ‘national champions’ or look after those that have greater claims to indigeneous economic rights (though the application of these rules has been variable). This European post-nationalism is what Brexit was pitted against. May and Timothy therefore have far greater legal and political opportunity to pursue a protectionist agenda, now that Britain is on its way out from that ordoliberal framework. If May was a secret Brexiter, one can understand why. The question is to what extent any of the grave fears of the ordoliberals will be realised as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the ordoliberal framework.

Post-class Conservatism

Britain is a more unequal society than it’s been since World War Two. Class is a powerful determinant of the lives people lead. However, one reason why May’s ‘protective state’ has become possible and necessary is that class doesn’t perform quite the same cultural and political role in sustaining the status quo that it did prior to neoliberalism, and certainly not as it did prior to the 1960s. One thing that Brexit demonstrated, which May is clearly keen to exploit, is that cultural divisions no longer map tidily onto economic ones. Working class lives are buffetted by change, including the changes represented by immigration, but New Labour only ever invited people to embrace even more change. Traditional and aristocratic middle classes have not been in the driving seat of British politics for over 30 years, as financial elites and nihilistic investment funds exploited the modernistic exuberance of fin de siecle Britain, London especially. I heard it said that Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son.

Clearly May wants to change that. But the new cultural coalition that she aims to represent – of working class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists- scarcely holds together as a single identifiable group. Nor are the boundaries around these identities very clear cut. I’ve no doubt that they may aggregate into a fearful electoral resource, which could yield May a big majority in 2020. But it is quite another thing for the state to actively intervene to look after these people, when historically it was the job of cultural institutions, ties, networks and communities to preserve their way of life, for all the reasons pre-Thatcher conservatives celebrated. To wed a Burkean ideal of community to a Hobbesian ideal of the protective state is problematic and potentially dangerous. The difficulty for Burkean conservatives today is that neoliberalism destroyed the resources on which ‘little platoons’ depend and thrive, meaning that tacitly understood conventions and rituals are now to be reintroduced by the very thing that conservatives traditionally wanted to avoid depending on, namely the modern state. The gaping hole in Blue Labour and Red Tory agendas was always the question of state-craft: what exactly will the state do to promote ‘faith, flag and family’?

A danger lies in the fact that the state is going to have to start performing the acts of conservative discrimination that historically were performed via cultural capital and softer forms of power. An example of how deranged this can look lies in Nick Timothy’s suggestion that work visas only be granted to foreign students of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities: the dull snobbery of a General Melchett-type, with scant understanding of the modern world, risks being translated into government policy. Equally, where the state starts to intervene in ways that are culturally or nationally biased, policy-makers will find that snobbery or chippiness work perfectly well when vocalised in the pubs of Dorset, the op-ed pages of the Daily Mail or the working men’s clubs of Scarborough, but start to feel far more troubling when converted into the heavy-handed, printed word of the statute book.

Whose values?

It sounds as if the ‘protective state’ is ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life. May is not afraid of trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. This may be why grammar schools symbolise something important for her, regardless of the evidence pitted against them. In that respect alone, there is continuity with neoliberalism, which sought to divide ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ in a range of different tests and competitive arenas.

The key difference from neoliberalism is that the latter uses rivalry itself to identify the worthy. The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to discover what rises to the top. The question that any neoliberal or liberal might now want to ask is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy, Theresa May? Are we now simply to be driven by the contingency of biography, where Timothy is fuelled by the anger he felt as a lower middle class boy in the early 1990s, or May is guided by the example of her Anglo-Catholic clergyman father? Is the fact that liberals haven’t experienced being the victim of regular petty crime or a failing school now going to be the main basis for ignoring them?

Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Thatcher spoke a nationalist, militarist language, while doing considerable harm to many institutions and traditions of Britain. Blair had his football, coffee mug and badly-fitting jeans. Conservatives have often struggled to find a coherent post-Blair cultural scheme, alternating between fake displays of liberalism (Cameron’s huskies) and the embarassing reality of their party base. Right now, however, it seems as if the small symbols are no longer merely semiotic in nature. Matters of nationality and cultural tradition no longer seem like window-dressing: once the state is offering to look after some of us, but not all of us, how one looks, talks, behaves and learns might come to be the most important political issue of all.

This post originally appeared on the PERC Blog http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/the-protective-state/ on 6th October 2016

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