“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Those were the key words of Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference last week. My response — as a fully paid-up member of the rootless cosmopolitan class — was: ooh la la! Welcome to the new class war, Brexit edition.
On one side are the citizens of the world — the Weltbürger — who are only citizens in the sense that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane was a citizen. (Actually, we fancy ourselves as a new aristocracy, even though most of us are self-made.) We have at least two passports. We speak at least three languages. And we have at least four homes, not one of them in the town where we were born.
On the other side — seething with resentment against us — are you citizens of the nation state. You have one passport, if that. You hate the few words of French you learnt at school. And you live within driving distance of your parents or your children.
No prizes for guessing which group is more numerous. No matter how many donations the global elite made, philanthropic and political, we could never quite compensate for that disparity.
Well, we had a pretty good run. Nearly 30 years of globalisation, information technology and bubbly asset markets, from 1979 until 2008. And what fun it all was. The Bolly. The beluga. The bling. Since the financial crisis, however, the tide has turned, despite such inspired devices as quantitative easing (whose benefits to us can be, well, easily quantified). We may as well face it: 2016 has been the global elite’s annus horribilis.
When we met at Davos in January we could still laugh at Donald Trump. Then he won the Republican nomination. When we met some months later in Aspen we could still joke about Boris Johnson. Then he (inadvertently) led the Brexit campaign to victory and became foreign secretary. All summer long — from Lake Como to Martha’s Vineyard — we clung to the hope that the economic consequences of Brexit would be so dire that the voters would repent. Wrong.
Now, as the nights draw in, we rootless cosmopolitans have gathered in Washington for the usual meeting of the International Monetary Fund. Our glorious leader, Christine Lagarde, issues the perennial warning against protectionism. We congratulate another member of our club, the former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, on his appointment as the United Nations secretary-general. But we have to agree with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, when he says: “More and more, people don’t trust their elites.”
Cue Theresa May.
As my old friend Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, pointed out last week, you can’t understand “Mother Theresa” without knowing something of her upbringing as the daughter of a provincial Anglo-Catholic clergyman. (If you missed her appearance on Desert Island Discs, download it at once.)
Yet what we heard from “Her Mayjesty” last week was more than a high church version of Christian democracy. And those who think she is simply the Oxford University Conservative Association’s answer to Angela Merkel are missing some very big differences.
Her conference speech did three extraordinary things. First, she made it clear that we are destined for a “hard Brexit”. May has understood that in June the country voted to restrict immigration and that ending the free movement of European Union citizens must mean our departure from the European single market.
Her appeal to Ukip voters — to people who find themselves “out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration” — was as unambiguous as her allusion to the “social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas”. Ooh la la!
Second, this was a complete repudiation of Thatcherism aimed directly at disillusioned anti-Corbynite Labour voters. Indeed, whole chunks appeared to have been lifted from speeches by Labour leaders from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband: “A plan that will mean government stepping up. Righting wrongs. Challenging vested interests. Taking big decisions. Doing what we believe to be right. Getting the job done. Because that’s the good that government can do.”
“The good that government can do.” She used that phrase five times. She pledged “to put the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. She even asserted that “the state exists to provide what . . . markets cannot”, declaring her readiness “where markets are dysfunctional [to] intervene”.
Most breathtaking of all was the promise of “a new industrial strategy . . . identifying the industries that are of strategic value to our economy and supporting and promoting them through policies on trade, tax, infrastructure, skills, training and research and development”.
By the time May had finished, stunned Tories had signed up for workers’ representation on company boards and were cheering their new identity as “the party of the workers, the party of public servants, the party of the NHS”. After she name-checked Clement Attlee, was I alone in expecting Gordon Brown to appear on stage as postmaster-general in the new national government?
No one can dispute the audacity of this attempt to define the Conservatives as “the new centre ground of British politics”, as opposed to what she dismissively called “the socialist left and the libertarian right”.
Yet the most daring part of this speech was May’s sustained barrage against the “privileged few . . . the rich, the successful and the powerful . . . the powerful and the privileged . . . the rich and the powerful”.
Not since Edward Heath called Tiny Rowland “the unacceptable face of capitalism” in 1973 has a Tory leader talked this way.
And that is precisely what perturbs me. Months ago I warned readers that a vote for Brexit risked throwing this country back to where it was 43 years ago, when we first joined the European Economic Community. I now fear this is exactly what May has in mind.
Forget the token nod to “the world’s leading financial capital”. Discount the lame reference to “global Britain”. As the pound fell off a cliff on Thursday night, we were back in the 1970s every which way: first the industrial strategy, then the sterling crisis. The Japanese got Abenomics. Just our luck to get “Abbanomics” — named in honour of May’s favourite band.
My favourite 1970s band was the Faces, and all this reminds me of one of their greatest hits.
“Poor old Granddad / I laughed at all his words / I thought he was a bitter man / He spoke of women’s ways / ‘They’ll trap you, then they use you / Before you even know / For love is blind and you’re far too kind / Don’t ever let it show’.”
All together: “I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger.”
That song’s name? Ooh La La.