Chamberlain, Timothy and May

A piece from the Economist examines Threasa mays new chief of staff, “ON JULY 7th 1906 Joseph Chamberlain led an 80-car rally to celebrate his 70th birthday. Thousands of Brummies lined its 17-mile route. “Our Joe” had fought for Birmingham’s workers as mayor and, on the national stage, had advocated tariffs protecting its industries. The city was a palimpsest of his achievements: its schools for the poor, its magnificent parks, its grand civic buildings, its whirring workshops and clanking factories full of confident, well-fed workers. Still, eyebrows twitched when, in a speech almost precisely 110 years later, Theresa May cited him as an example. She was campaigning for the Tory leadership and, though he had ditched the Liberal Party over its tolerance for Irish autonomy, Chamberlain had never been a Tory. That the woman who today runs Britain praised him had everything to do with her closest adviser: Nick Timothy. He is one of the most interesting figures in her government. The son of a steelworker and a school secretary, he venerates Chamberlain’s interventionism and wrote a biography of the man. He even wears a long Victorian beard”.

The article goes on, “Those close to Mrs May differ on how much Mr Timothy influences her, but only between “quite a lot” and “enormously”. Like her he is a cricket fanatic (he lives a big six away from the Oval ground). He shares the post of Downing Street chief-of-staff with Fiona Hill. For most of their boss’s spell as home secretary this duo was her praetorian guard: bossing around civil servants, telling David Cameron’s aides to mind their own business and generally exhibiting an unflinchingly protective loyalty to her”.

Interestingly it adds, “Admirers credit this with Mrs May’s unusually long (six-year) stint in the job. Critics fret that the control freakery will now constipate Whitehall: “You couldn’t blow your nose without Nick or Fi knowing,” recalls one former colleague. It is not an exaggeration to discern a direct line between Mr Timothy’s upbringing and Mrs May’s vision. He provides a pragmatic prime minister with an idealistic edge. His credo is captured in an article he wrote in March (one of a series for ConservativeHome, a Tory-aligned website) about “modernisation”. Here a bit of history helps. Back in the early 2000s, when the Conservatives were in the doldrums and the reactionary old farts were doing battle against modernisers, Mr Timothy was with the modernisers. But with David Cameron’s rise to the leadership in 2005, the debate shifted to what modernisation should mean. There was “Easterhouse modernisation”, a focus on the poorest, named after a Glasgow housing estate. There was “Soho modernisation”, an urban social liberalism named after a trendy part of London. But Mr Timothy reckoned a third leg of the stool was missing: “Erdington modernisation”, a concentration on the struggling, patriotic working-class named after the industrial suburb of Birmingham where he grew up”.

The writer goes on to note how “His writings expatiate on the idea. At home: more intervention in the economy, a clamp on immigration, less greenery, tough measures against crime, more religious schools and selective education rewarding poor, bright kids. Abroad: closer links with the Commonwealth—akin to Chamberlain’s proposed imperial economic union—and looser ties to Europe, which features in Mr Timothy’s output only as a source of bad public policies, corrupt leadership and justifications for Brexit. It also means a cooling of Britain’s links to both America, to which he reckons Tony Blair was too close, and China, to which he believes Mr Cameron was too craven. Overall it means a government keener to confront foreigners, vested interests and especially the sort of polenta-munching elites who share each other’s globalising enthusiasms, holiday villas and platforms at Davos”.

It adds “May’s premiership is not a month old. But already it bears Mr Timothy’s stamp. Britain has lost a department dedicated to climate change and gained one devoted to “industrial policy”. She has sidelined the “Northern Powerhouse” programme to integrate the big northern cities and committed to reining in foreign takeovers. A Chinese bid to finance Hinkley Point, a nuclear power station, has been put on hold. The new prime minister’s speech to the Tory conference in October (in Birmingham, as it happens) should be a Chamberlainite symphony. Renewal, a think-tank founded in 2013 to promote working-class Toryism, is emerging as the new regime’s brains trust. Mr Timothy’s analysis of his party—that it can appear not to “give a toss about ordinary people”—is accurate. The Cameroons’ brand of modernisation owed too much to noblesse oblige, to a vision of society that treated the welfare state as the institutional equivalent of giving one’s gardener a Christmas bonus. Mrs May’s authoritative mien and middle-class roots, combined with Mr Timothy’s instinct for working-class priorities, makes her party newly formidable, propelling it into landslide territory (an early election is surely not off the cards). Moreover, she and he have a point. Britain is too unequal. The past years have been brutal to the sorts of left-behind places that have been denied the boom enjoyed by the big cities”.

It ends “Still, the new Chamberlainites have questions to answer. Britain has found confidence and relative prosperity as a linchpin of globalisation. It is good at the sort of service industries that demand flexible labour markets, urban clusters, worldly universities and fast-moving capital: think not just the City of London but successful provincial centres like Swindon, Milton Keynes and Manchester. Where manufacturing survives, it is often thanks to the country’s openness to foreign investors. All this has bypassed some towns. But for decades Britain has sought to make the most of its strengths while helping those who have lost out to adapt or move. Mrs May and Mr Timothy seem to reckon those strengths—and globalisation itself—are much more malleable than their predecessors have realised. The burden of evidence is on them”.

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One Response to “Chamberlain, Timothy and May”

  1. “Politicians need to respond to the howl of protest” | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] kinds of issues that the vote revealed rest, nevertheless, in the hands of the British government. Training, education, the provision of adequate housing, and ensuring a more equal distribution of the spoils of globalization are all matters for which […]

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