THERESA MAY Why Britain Needs an Anti-Thatcher

Great Britain’s new prime minister has a tough agenda before her — not least steering the Brexit and tackling Britain's gaping social inequality.
Sticky times ahead for Britain but Theresa May is getting ready with a new cabinet.

 

When at the end of the 1990s, Theresa May became a member of the House of Commons, an experienced party member is said to have given her this advice: “Don’t pay attention to small things!”

Ms. May deliberately disregarded that tip: She earned a reputation for being a micro manager. She is loathe to delegate responsibility and decides on important issues with a small group of confidants.

This week Ms. May took over as Great Britain’s new prime minister, making her the second woman after Margaret Thatcher to hold that office in the country’s history.

Now it’s time for Ms. May to take seriously the counsel given at the beginning of her career, because she faces some extremely daunting challenges.

She must never lose sight of the uppermost goal: a United Kingdom, not only on the map, but also 'united' in economic and social terms.

At the top of her to-do list is managing Great Britain’s departure from the European Union. But in comparison to all the other things she will have to handle, that is probably not even the toughest task ahead.

She must also preserve the unity of the country. The Brexit referendum has revived the issue of independence for Europe-friendly Scotland. What is more, the violent conflict in Northern Ireland could be reignited. Moreover, closer to home, Ms. May must keep Great Britain from plunging into recession and reduce massive economic inequality on the island.

Others have promised that before her – most recently, Ms. May's predecessor David Cameron. But the situation hasn’t gotten any better. On the contrary: The austerity policies of Mr. Cameron’s government widened the gap.

Now, only 25 percent of Britons believe that they have a chance of improving their lot. Ten years ago, the figure was still almost 40 percent.

The country is split into an economically strong southeastern region and an industrial wasteland in northern England – full of cities in the decline where poverty and fear of foreign infiltration prevail. Mr. Cameron continued to support the financial industry and, contrary to all his promises, neglected the manufacturing and processing sectors.

Ms. May has described her challenge in these terms: Great Britain must become a country that works for everyone – not just for the privileged.

So an abrupt break from the past is needed. And this must be accomplished by none other than a woman who stands more for continuity, who belonged to the previous government and, with regard to E.U. membership, supported the status quo.

This politician, who is known to be pragmatic and unconstrained by ideology, must now embark upon a grand endeavor. She must think of the bigger picture, without allowing herself to get bogged down in trivial matters.

These days, Ms. May is often compared with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both of their fathers were pastors. Both are childless. Both attained the top office in their countries.

Others see more parallels to Gordon Brown, who governed Great Britain from 2007 to 2010. Like Ms. May, he came to power without a parliamentary election. And like her, he was obsessed with control and excessively attentive to details.

But in view of the tasks awaiting Ms. May, another comparison suggests itself: Tony Blair. Through his New Labor program, he estranged the Labor Party from its traditional base and awakened the “Cool Britannia” zeitgeist.

Ms. May needs a new Tory agenda and a “Caring Britannia” spirit. She must bring her party closer to the people and make it socially aware, so that it is not seen only as representing high earners, bankers and the economic elite.

And Ms. May must impart a different feeling to people who see themselves as outsiders. After all, it is this feeling of exclusion which fed the Brexit decision.

For many Britons, the referendum wasn’t a vote about the European Union, but a protest against the politics of their country. Great Britain’s “first-past-the-post” voting system means that quite a few votes don’t count in the end— so many individuals used the leave-or-remain referendum to vent their frustration.

Ms. May has described a few steps toward creating a country with a social conscience. There must be an end to excessive salaries, and workers should participate more in decision-making. It’s clear that Ms. May will have to overcome many obstacles, particularly in the economy, to reach these goals.

Up to now, she has never avoided controversy. As home secretary, she fought with several colleagues – with finance minister George Osborne about immigration policy, and with London’s former Mayor Boris Johnson about the use of water cannons.

As prime minister, she will face more controversies but she must never lose sight of the uppermost goal: a United Kingdom, not only on the map, but also 'united' in economic and social terms.

In a certain sense, Ms. May must become an anti-Margaret Thatcher — whose rigorous economic liberalism still weighs on the country a quarter century later.

 

To contact the author: [email protected]