I believe we are at the dawn of a defining decade – a decade in which building the foundations of our post-Brexit future will just be the start. From changes in the balance of global power to the impact of disruptive technologies, there are new shifts in the tectonic plates beneath us. The traditional dividing lines of politics are tilted by nationalism and populism.
In this sense, the challenges of the 2020s will not be unlike those of the 1920s, an era in which a cosy status quo was swept away by popular anger. How we as a party reflect on, and respond to, these shifts will define not only our future electoral prospects, but the direction of our country.
For most of us in Parliament, the dividing lines of our political beliefs were settled by the ideological battles of the 1980s. For me personally, I was profoundly influenced by the ethos and hard-grind approach of my parents, and instinctively felt that Margaret Thatcher was taking the tough but necessary decisions that were required to enable our country and its people to prosper.
In the wake of the Cold War, the direction of our public life became more predictable. Whether it was the role of markets, immigration or internationalism, more often than not ‘open’ trumped ‘closed’, both socially and economically.
Electoral demographics were also more predictable. While imperfect, the concept of the centre ground was a political space that most people generally understood. When I first ran for Parliament, one of the chief complaints you’d hear from voters was that the major parties ‘were all the same’. That’s certainly not a gripe I’ve heard recently.
The issue we face today goes far deeper than this. To a whole generation of voters, the pillars of our political philosophy have no purchase or meaning whatsoever. Our task is not simply to win the same arguments all over again, but to demonstrate how politics and our party can be relevant and make a positive difference in people’s lives.
First and foremost, the referendum result reflected years of underlying frustrations about the European Union, and a lack of meaningful consultation about the way it had evolved. That said, it’s also clear that the bitter divide over Europe reflects deep frustration and division in our society more broadly.
The Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008 and years of believing that Westminster had casually shrugged off concern about uncontrolled immigration have all fed a growing anger over crony capitalism and inequality. This was also personified by a political, business and financial establishment that appeared to enjoy an ever-higher standard of living while others struggled.
Theresa May was quick to highlight these issues, and the need to reach out to voters long taken for granted by Labour. There is much to be proud of in what this Government is doing day-to-day to tackle an array of social and economic problems.
But the task of negotiating with the EU has been all-consuming, and it will take boldness and imagination for our party to be heard above the din. And yet be heard we must, because if we don’t show tangible progress together in dealing with the fundamental issues facing our society, then we leave the door open for others to exploit the public’s concerns, with seductive solutions that defy economic logic and ultimately further deepen those divides.
Not since the 1980s has our discourse felt so divided: between north and south, metropolitan and rural, young and old, long-time resident and new immigrant, home-owner and home-renter. And unlike before, we now see the role of social media in reinforcing the echo-chambers still further.
To heal these divisions, we need an agenda that shares the benefits of growth, by investing in infrastructure, equipping people with the right skills, with well-paid jobs and a better chance to own their own homes. It also means strengthening our sense of shared identity, at both a community and national level. That has been a guiding principle for many of my decisions as Home Secretary, as it was at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. So that is what I will focus on in this chapter.
Responsibility for Renewal
There are two ways in which politicians can respond to division in our society: they can exploit it, or they can tackle it. They can take the path of disunity, or the path of renewal.
The first approach means doubling down on division and driving wedges between different communities. There are clear examples of such political opportunism all over the world. We know that hostile nations are cynically seeking to amplify these divisions. The evidence from across Europe makes clear that mainstream parties are at risk of succumbing to such efforts – we cannot assume that we are immune.
This has been demonstrated most vividly for me by the sight of prominent members of the Labour Party questioning the motives and sincerity of their colleagues suffering from anti-Semitic abuse. This comes from a party with a long, proud history of championing victims of racism and prejudice.
It’s clear to me that the party we used to find on the other side of the despatch box no longer exists. Both its leadership and its membership have morphed into something very different.
Their dividing lines have regressed to those of the formative battles of the 1980s we thought were already won.
Such is the path of division. There is, however, another way – the path of renewal. To heal these divisions, we need an agenda that meets the needs of everyone in our country, whatever their background.
We must be candid about the situation we face. In recent history, I cannot think of a time where there was a greater challenge to renewal within government – or greater consequences of failing to do so.
Anyone tempted into thinking that a Corbynite shock to the system won’t be so bad, that the only way to build is first to tear down, has lost sight of their sense of responsibility to our country. They are mistaken in thinking that time in opposition will give our party the opportunity to regroup and renew. Rather, our energy as a party would be spent desperately trying to hold back the tide of Prime Minister Corbyn’s most damaging policies.
That’s the nightmare scenario, but it is not yet inevitable. Three years have now been dominated by a debate on Europe, and the next steps we take will and must of course remain a priority. But we must also seize the opportunity presented by three more years of Conservative government to find bold solutions to entrenched social problems, taking us confidently into 2022.
We know that we are not the only liberal democracy that feels in a state of flux. Beyond Britain, the winds of division and extremism are blowing strong. All over the world, we see an appeal being made to intolerance, closed societies, aggressive nationalism and autocracy.
Against this backdrop, Britain has – so far – fared relatively well. It might not always feel like it, but our mainstream cultural values still unite us more than they divide us. We are – and will continue to be – a country of the rule of law, civil liberties, firm but fair immigration rules, racial equality and respect for every citizen.
But we must build on this. The conservatism of our generation is one that chooses the path of modern, tolerant, global Britain. We refuse to see the seeds of hate and nationalism sown here and bear a huge responsibility as the only party with the power and will to make headway against these forces.
Showing leadership on these issues is the right thing to do. And if we succeed, we can also earn the right to be heard from parts of the population who simply don’t trust our motivations.
That’s because there is an electoral divide between the Conservative Party and two fundamental, vital parts of our society: youth and ethnic minorities. The last election was the first where age was almost perfectly correlated with voting intention. Worse still, we went backwards with ethnic minority voters. The stark truth is that if we had merely managed to maintain our – still unacceptably low – vote share amongst BAME voters from 2015, we would have been returned with a respectable parliamentary majority. Just imagine the difference that would have made to the last two years.
This is the time to reaffirm our identity and values, as a country and as a highly successful multiracial democracy. We also need to do the same as a party – after all, a divided party cannot hope to unify a divided country. We need a bold agenda for national renewal to get behind and ensure that our country continues to remain open, prosperous and prepared for the decade ahead.
Identity, Community, Citizenship
When a society begins to lose its sense of shared identity, populism is given the opportunity to flourish. I used my last party conference speech to reflect on the need for us to reaffirm our country as a strong, safe, welcoming home with shared values and common rules. It is when we’re comfortable in our own security, identity and values that we are also comfortable being open with others.
‘One nation’ has been a well-worn phrase, but it does speak to something profound in this polarised era. How do we create a sense of belonging that speaks to everyone in our country?
From a white working-class woman living in a post-industrial town to a young metropolitan citizen of the world. From a first-generation immigrant from the Commonwealth to a European citizen who made the UK their home and may be anxious about their future.
I believe there is an authentically Conservative approach to identity. We speak of British values, of our common cultural inheritance and of a local and national experience of membership. The Left purports to speak for minorities, but its approach is too often one of segregation and a conception of identity politics that stereotypes and divides us.
As Conservatives, we don’t categorise you according to your characteristics: we seek to understand your views, your values and your actions as a person and protect the institutions that you belong to, be they your church, your family or your football team. We need fewer labels that keep groups apart, and more layers that overlap them. Layers of community, place, shared experiences, common language and national identity.
This is a central pillar of conservatism, so let me personalise it with some examples from my own experience. The first layer of identity, beyond immediate family, is the community around you. When coming into Government, our party brought new thinking to the role of local community groups and civic society, and it is clear that a sense of geographic ‘place’ is just as important, if not more important now, as it was before the impact of social media.
But the biggest thing we could do is no secret: build more houses. Not only are house prices the biggest barrier to social progress in our country today, they are also a barrier to social cohesion.
Moving from tenancy to tenancy, you feel you have less of a stake in society, and without a permanent base it’s harder to lay down roots in the community around you.
But more housing means higher quality as well as quantity – design can play a huge role in making sure the new housing we build actively engenders a sense of community. I won’t focus on all the policy solutions here, but my time at MHCLG convinced me that bold solutions can and must be brought to bear for the sake of the next generation.
Going a level up from local communities, there is a yawning gap between Whitehall and local government. There must be scope here for more decentralisation. Leaving the EU is an opportunity not just to bring back powers from Brussels to Westminster, but to give more control and more scope for investment to local and regional institutions. I pushed ahead with mayoral elections in places like the West Midlands and Tees Valley not because I thought they would be Tory fiefdoms, but because it would give them a stronger voice.
Having a common language is perhaps the most obvious foundational layer for shared identity. When developing the Integrated Communities Strategy at MHCLG, I was shocked to discover that more than 700,000 people in this country could not speak a basic level of English. I saw the consequences of this first-hand growing up, when my mother was for a long time limited by not having the language skills to fully engage in wider society. How can we build bridges if we can’t communicate with one another?
Up and down the country we find communities segregated from each other. When I was Communities Secretary, I went back to my hometown of Rochdale and visited a primary school where 90 per cent of the students were of Asian origin. Less than a mile down the road was a primary school where 90 per cent of the students were white.
Can we continue to be passive about this kind of self-segregation, or is it time to take a more proactive approach to integration? Other Western countries such as Canada and France invest heavily in integration policies and language learning. I hope we can consider this area at the next Spending Review – social cohesion is so fundamental to our society that it demands investment.
Finally, if community, language and integration are foundational layers, the top layer that brings us together has to be our national identity. We have to reclaim pride in our country from the fringes – from the bigoted jingoism of the far right, and the self-hatred of the far left. Our goal is to preserve what is good in our society, and make what is not good better.
There is much to be proud of about Britain, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to be patriotic. Not just for its own sake as an expression of identity – nothing wrong with that – but as a positive recognition of what we stand for.
Like thousands before and after them, my parents chose to come to this country, chose to live here, chose to bring up their family here, because of what it stood for. Citizenship ceremonies have been an important step. It is very moving when you hear why people say they want to become British citizens. That’s why we are bringing in more emphasis on values in our citizenship test.
And as Home Secretary I am determined to crack down on practices that fly in the face of these core values. We should be very proud that it is under a Conservative government that the first conviction for female genital mutilation has been secured, and that efforts to tackle forced marriage have been stepped up. And when I have seen dual-citizens absolutely acting against our values and security, I have not hesitated to seek to take that British citizenship away. Citizenship is about more than an entitlement on a piece of paper.
Realism about the challenges we face, and the responsibility we have. A narrative of national renewal, at home and abroad. Strengthened identity, community and citizenship. A better sense of belonging.
There may be a lot of cynicism and pessimism now, but these ideas – and others in this book – point to a positive, unifying agenda for the future. Life will continue post-Brexit – people will see that we are still the same country, with the same fundamental strengths. Our task is to make sure that it is a Conservative vision that captures the attention, the excitement and the imagination of the British people. If we can do that, we cannot fail.
This article first appeared in ‘Britain Beyond Brexit’, a collection of essays published by the Centre for Policy Studies. You can purchase a copy of the book HERE.
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