The highly anticipated moment of this year’s Conservative Party Conference had arrived — Theresa May stepped on stage, ready to deliver her speech. Only a day earlier at the exact same spot Boris Johnson had once more highly criticised her Chequer’s plan, and moments before she was ready to address the conference’s attendees and the whole nation, her fellow MP James Duddridge submitted a letter, demanding a vote of no confidence in her name. Off to a rocky start …
‘In unity there is strength’. This was Ms May’s underlying message throughout her one-hour speech. She emphasised it initially in the context of World War I commemoration, remarking that the lesson we ought to learn from that generation is ‘if we come together there is not limit to what we can achieve — our future is in our hands’. The same message was applied to several themes, which she touched upon — standing up against ‘Corbyn’s party’, defending Great Britain’s national interests at home and abroad, and the country’s economic recovery and prosperous future.
Perhaps it is exactly what the Tories and their supporters needed to hear amidst the chaotic several months they have been experiencing — polarisation in opinions on Brexit, Britain’s position in the global economy, issues of housing and energy. Despite the universal and incontrovertible nature of her message, one cannot help but wonder the extent to which May had slipped into utopian generalisations. For this reason, let’s explore each of the prominent topics in her speech.
Firstly, standing up against ‘Corbyn’s party’. Whereas I have never been a huge fan of ‘attack your opponent to strengthen your position’ technique, May did point out a fact about the Labour Party — it has not been the same since Corbyn had taken leadership in 2015. She called his extreme approach to politics ‘a national tragedy’ that has appalled millions of people. The moral of the story remained simple — through radicalisation we foster divide, and divide weakens the nation.
May continued to distance the Conservative Party’s ‘decency and moderate patriotism’ from Labour’s actions by placing the two parties on a spectrum with an ever-more expanding opinion gap in the middle. The Conservatives work ‘in the interest of the people’ by respecting the Leave vote, whereas Labour’s attempts for a second referendum are an example of their working in their own political interests. Prime Minister May is ready to keep a strong position against the EU’s ‘lack of respect’ towards the UK, whereas Prime Minister Corbyn would have accepted any deal Brussels would have come up with, ‘regardless of how bad it would be for the UK’. In this context her earlier message of ‘staying together’ in times of hardships seems to have dissipated.
A more dangerous alternative was her claim that British resilience could withstand a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, even though initially the country will face economic difficulties, as a result of protectionist measures and checks at the border. This brings about a critique I have towards May’s claim — whereas in the long run, the UK economy will be able to compensate for the initial drop in GDP, we should not disregard the short-term consequences — ‘In the long-run we are all dead’ famously said John M. Keynes.
In a ‘no-deal’ world the most likely impact would be a drastic fall in consumer and business confidence in the months following Brexit. Confidence is positively correlated with spending — the less UK consumers trust the political and economic climate, the less likely they are to spend. The less domestic and foreign producers believe in the prosperous development of the country, the less they are willing to invest in it. This means that the probability of a recession is likely. More importantly, those with little economic security, amongst which are young people, who have just entered the labour market, will experience the consequences of an economic contraction the most. This is because there would not have a ‘safety net’, on which they can rely in times of financial struggles. Although this is just a hypothetical, simply believing in the nation’s ‘unity’ is a rather irresponsible approach to battling potential economic stagnation, regardless of what deal the UK strikes with the EU.
Another interesting point Ms May made was that leaving the EU will provide ‘the people’ with a voice in policy-making … But which people? Did she mean consumers, producers; did she involve the youth in this persuasion, or are we only talking about citizens eligible to vote? Did she take into account ‘the people’ from different countries, who have lived here for years or only those with British passports? There is nothing factually wrong with her statement, however the level of vagueness surrounding Brexit has not changed, ever since the beginning of the Leave campaign. Much in the same spirit, May promised ‘security, freedom and opportunity’ for Britain’s future. Financial security and security from threat foster freedom, and expand the range of opportunities Britons can explore. Once more May did not provide any additional details about how the ruling party is going to implement these principles in action.
More importantly, when discussing Britain’s economic and political future, one aspect that often gets left out is young people, who are literally the future of the country. May’s speech was no exception. In the context of financial security, the only youth angle the PM presented was the record-low youth unemployment. In and of itself this is a great accomplishment, yet in order for the Tories (or any other government) to keep on building on it, we need to see solid plans and actual policy suggestions that would provide better resilience to the vulnerable newcomers in the labour force. Anything besides this fosters uncertainty amongst us — exactly the opposite of the Conservatives’ first principle.
How are we then expected to make the most out of the ‘infinite range of opportunities’ ahead of us? Perhaps next year the Tories are going to provide an answer to this question.