“These were only a few of his known kindnesses; there were signs and rumours of dozens of others, and no doubt many more were quite unknown except to himself and the recipient. He once gave the very shoes off his feet to a woman who had pleaded that she could not go to church for want of a pair, and had added, meaningly, that she took a large size and that a man’s pair of light shoes would do very well. He gave away so much that he could only have kept just enough to keep himself in bare necessaries. His black overcoat, which he wore in all weathers, was threadbare, and the old cassock he wore indoors was green and falling to pieces.”
So Flora Thompson wrote about a local clergyman in Lark Rise to Candleford, adding that “he was what is now known as an Anglo–Catholic”. Theresa May’s father may not have worn a coat that was fading away, but he was also an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, and doubtless carried out many unrecorded kindnesses too. We can glean an intense sense of duty from what she has said about him: “I recall once being in the kitchen and looking up the path to the back door where a whole group, a family, had come to complain about an issue in the church – just knocked on the door and expected to see the vicar”. The Prime Minister has said that her father “couldn’t always be there when you wanted him to be”.
If you seek a key to May’s speech to the Conservative Conference today, you would do better to look back at her upbringing rather than cast around for an ideology. Her character seems to have been formed by a sense of duty and service. No tale of her rebelling against the self-sacrificing ethos integral to her upbringing has yet been told. Her Desert Island Disc choices suggest that she looks back on her childhood with affection. She referred during it to a hymn, “Therefore we, before him bending”, an adaptation of “Pange Lingua Gloriosi”. It is sung while kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. It seems that the Prime Minister did so as a child. She may also have gone to confession.
Anglo-Catholicism has tended to take an active view of the state. Read Allan Mallinson’s Times article, if you can get behind the paper’s paywall, on its history of social activism and its involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. But my point is not so much about May’s beliefs (she now worships as a middle-of-the-road Anglican) as her sympathies. That sense of duty was formed by an upbringing in a public institution, the church, and she has chosen to work amidst another public institution, the state. No wonder she has a certain sympathy for its role and responsibilities – one heightened by her experience as Britain’s longest-serving post-war Home Secretary, conscious that a terror attack might come any day and signing warrants late into the night.
So when Nick Timothy came long with his belief in state intervention, shaped by his own upbringing in the city in which this conference is taking place, he was knocking on an open door. In one sense, Theresa May’s speech today, with its endorsement of an activist role for government (“identifying injustices, finding solutions, driving change”) and explicit rejection of libertarianism, is a turning-away not only from Margaret Thatcher but from Tory leaders since. David Cameron said that is such a thing as society, but that “it’s not the same thing as the state”. Our first woman Prime Minister wanted to roll back the latter’s frontiers. Our second is willing, in certain ways, to roll them forward.
Hence her backing for that “real industrial strategy”, her Home Office support for more data surveillance, the race audit, her hint today of price controls for energy companies, and employers compelled to provide a record of the number of their foreign workers: all summed up in her appeal to “the good that government can do”. The free market think tanks will hate it all. Guido Fawkes already does. But in other ways May is not a break from Thatcher but a continuum. The latter cast herself as a rebel against a complacent, stuffy and discredited establishment. The Prime Minister is doing the same, contrasting the elites with the people: “They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient”.
Party activists might not have found those words convincing were it not for May wrapping herself this week in the flag of Brexit – first by announcing her “Great Repeal Bill”, then by setting a date by which Article 50 will be moved. She has set out a journey from there can be no U-turns – to strike another Thatcherite note. But there is another reason why the internal opposition she faces has so far gained no traction. The Prime Minister has been a Party activist herself since university, a local councillor to boot, and Party Chairman as well as Home Secretary. She didn’t sweep grandly in and out of receptions at this conference. She stayed and chatted and mingled. She is One Of Us.
So much for the Party. What about the country? May is trying to manage the trick of promising change while being continuity. One would never had guessed, listening to her speech, that she had backed Remain (in a fashion), and scarcely have grasped either that she has recently finished serving in another Conservative Government for over five years. I gasp at the bold intent of parking Tory tanks not so much on Labour’s lawn as in its kitchen – the brazen transition from “hardworking people” to “working-class people”. And I love her insistence that liberarianism’s fixation with the individual is a misreading of what people are. There is no opposition to speak of as she declares her ground the centre ground. Labour is rudderless. UKIP is leaderless. The Liberal Democrats have Tim Farron.
Conservative Home is with May on her long march. But our role must balance cheers with criticism, and there is reason to wonder whether it will all work. Setting ambitions high doesn’t look so good if delivery turns out to be lower. Opposition to libertarianism can leak into too much spending and borrowing. Great aims can get knocked off course. There is now a gap in the Tory market for a force for smaller government and personal freedom – something with a city lights rather than a provincial feel. Theresa May name-checked George Osborne, which was prudent, because he is the most likely person to provide it. And government can do harm as well as good. None of the last has yet come out of the child abuse inquiry, a reminder that the Prime Minister’s record at the Home Office was not unblemished.
The great Brexit question is not whether it is to be hard or soft (that seems settled), but whether it will be open or closed. Will Britain opt for social protection, tarriff barriers and very low immigration? Or will it go for lower taxes, trade deals, lower spending and less regulation, before all are forced on us anyway? Is she on the right side? Perhaps Hammond the businessman is the real counterpoint in the Government to May the moralist – and interventionist. Mention of morals is the place for any take on the Prime Minister’s speech to end as well as start. At the heart of her speech was the story of the Brownlee brothers, and how one paused in his quest for Olympics glory to aid the other.
“And there in that moment, we saw revealed an essential truth,” May said. “That we succeed or fail together. We achieve together or fall short together. And when one among us falters, our most basic human instinct is to put our own self-interest aside, to reach out our hand and help them over the line.” This was the Prime Minister’s Good Samaritan moment. Is it fanciful to hear in those lines an echo of the sermons she would have heard and be raised with as a child? To catch an echo of her father’s voice? One cannot be sure. But that vicious swipe at Philip Green, and her insistence that politics is “about doing something, not being someone”, was a reproof to what has come before and will have come from deep within.
May is too retiring to claim personal virtue. None the less, she has unhestitatingly set out to lead by example and head a government that reforms the behaviour of others: corrupt policemen, greedy businessmen, tax-dodging tycoons, cynical lawyers who prey off suing our soldiers, fat cat energy bosses…and Cameroon Ministers whose approach she found below the mark. Our new Prime Minister is not so much an interventionist politician as a moral force. Her dad would have been known as Father Brazier. Now we have Mother Theresa. The Party and the country must pull their socks up.