Theresa May’s ‘one-nation’ policies are incoherent and divisive.
Theresa May came to office declaring that she would lead a ‘one nation government’ and promising to ‘make Britain a country that works for everyone’. In holding out her progressive politics on ‘race’, May suggests a willingness to investigate claims that the police spied on the Stephen Lawrence family campaign, a tough attitude to discrimination within stop and search and a concern about the over-representation of BAME communities within the criminal justice system. With some fanfare, in August she launched the Inequality Audit, demanding that all government departments collect and publish data on outcomes on key issues such as health, education and employment broken down by ethnicity, gender, income and location.
Speaking with forked-tongue?
But are these moves indicative of a commitment to genuine racial equality, or do they rather suggest a studied pragmatism at play? The Conservative government she leads has consistently cut legal aid to those fighting discrimination, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has seen its budget cut from £70m in 2009/10 to £17m in 2014/15. The national helpline on discrimination, operated under EHRC’s auspices, has just been subcontracted to G4S, a private company that is ‘manifestly ill-equipped to provide advice on discrimination and human rights’, according to a letter to parliamentary committees signed by forty-one human rights and equality groups. And veteran campaigners, including those around the Stephen Lawrence case, suspect that her tough stance on policing (seen in her speeches to the Police Federation conferences, particularly in 2014 and 2016) owes more to her desire to break up and privatise the police, than to further the struggle against institutional racism.
May, it seems, seeks a free market that operates rationally; discrimination is inefficient. At best she advocates being ‘colour-blind’ and encouraging greater diversity within the professions. She aims vaguely towards some sort of ‘equality of outcome’ (rather than of opportunity) – but note, this is for citizens, not for migrants and refugees.
Cementing social division
More recently, in her self-declared quest to turn Britain into the ‘world’s great meritocracy’, May suggests that the lifting of the ban on the creation of new grammar schools will forge ‘a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow’. Her grammar school gambit was immediately denounced by many, including in her own party, as pursuing a system which had already proven socially divisive. Rather than providing a ladder for mobility, it would entrench and re-establish divisions, divide the deserving sheep from the feckless goats. But what is less obvious, and needs to be noted by those in the racial equality sector, is that exactly the same contradiction is being thrown up by May in terms of her policies on race and immigration.
First, in respect of settled BAME communities, her vocabulary only holds out hope of change for the ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ (ie, the ‘strivers’), while ignoring the structural racial inequality that affects the poorer and unemployed or under-employed sections of BAME communities (the ‘scroungers’ mired in a culture of poverty). Remember her strident attack on Gordon Brown’s tax credits in 2009, where she claimed that a ‘benefits culture passed down the generations’ changed norms of whole communities ‘from hard work and discipline to anti-social behaviour and idleness’. And there was, too, a draconian response to young people following the 2011 ‘riots’, amidst an absolute refusal to countenance poor policing and stop and search as factors contributing to the disturbances. At the same time as May considers racial profiling within stop and search ‘an unacceptable affront to justice’, she is happy to see the religious profiling of the Muslim community continue, via Prevent. Further, though there may be lip-service paid to issues such as the over-criminalisation of the Black community, we witness simultaneously a new racism, originally unleashed by her 2013 policy as home secretary of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, sending out vans with ‘Go Home’ billboards, requiring proof of status before migrants can open a bank account or get a driving licence, forcing private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, creating new offences of working and driving while an undocumented migrant, and increasing budgets for the policing of immigration.
May’s politics are fundamentally divisive, in that they drive a wedge between settled BAME communities and newly-arrived migrants and refugees. Hers is an ‘insider-outsider’ politics; a politics rooted, in other words, in xenophobia. In many ways, the election of Theresa May to the leadership shows that the Conservatives have drifted so far to the Right that they are now in clear nativist and anti-immigration terrain.
The signs were there, long before the referendum, as the Conservatives in the European Parliament had broken with the centre-right European People’s Alliance, led by Merkel’s CDU, to sit with the European Conservatives and Reformist bloc which includes some of the most nativist, authoritarian and anti-democratic parties in Europe, such as the Danish People’s Party, Finns Party and Law and Justice in Poland. Though it is now questioned as to how firm May was about remaining in the EU, she was clear that the UK should exit the European Court of Human Rights. She not only doesn’t really get the idea of universal human rights, but gives an impression of instinctive distrust of ‘foreigners’. Could there also be a reflex action against the idea that you can become British by naturalisation, rather than by blood? Citizenship, according to May, is a privilege to be earned, for the non-native, and not to be taken for granted: witness the legislation pushed through by May as home secretary to enable naturalised citizens to be made stateless, or the 25 per cent hike in fees for settlement and for citizenship applications (up to £1,875 and £1,236 respectively) in March 2016.
But it is her proposals on refugees that reveal May’s dark side, her apparently total lack of empathy towards that vast category of people of the world, the ‘non-British’ – within a world view that the Guardian‘s correspondent Patrick Kingsley has described as ‘quasi-Darwinian’. In her speeches in September 2016 to the UN general assembly and to Obama’s special summit on refugees, May made it abundantly clear that she will move heaven and earth to prevent safe passage for refugees to the UK, even using the UK aid budget to do so. And last February, the Home Office began work to cut the numbers of those claiming asylum in Britain with a view to providing just ‘temporary protection’ to all but ‘the most deserving refugees’.
As she indicated in her speech as home secretary at the 2015 Conservative Party conference, May wants to narrow the definition of the term ‘refugee’ enshrined in the Geneva Convention. For her, the personal horror and desperation of families and children forced to flee violence and war are reduced to ‘mass uncontrolled population movements’.
Playing the race card is not of course new. But what is new is the significance of the symbolism in the rhetoric deployed by nativist politicians across Europe. For it is in the realm of border politics that they are now perceived as exercising authority and power, ‘projecting an image of moral resolve’ and ‘propping up the state’s territorial authority.’  This is what May does so well. She not only provides the funds needed to build physical walls, militarise borders and reinforce internal borders, but through the dichotomies of included and excluded, insiders and outsiders, we are encouraged to erect borders within our minds.
That’s why it is essential that all those engaged in struggles for racial equality speak with one voice about the dangers of xenophobic, racist and nativist policies. Post-referendum racial violence has not distinguished between insiders and outsiders, citizens and non-citizens. And in the fight against racism, nor should we.
IRR News article: ‘What can we expect from immigration and asylum policy post-referendum?‘
IRR discussion paper: ‘Entitlement and belonging: social restructuring and multicultural Britain‘