Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher together moved the world decisively back toward classical liberal principles in the 1980s. Thatcher was elected earlier than Reagan, and she was a harbinger of what was to come in America and the world. Thus, it is significant today that new Prime Minister of Britain, Theresa May, is moving the Conservative Party decisively in the opposite direction—toward more statism and less liberty. It is not only in the United States that the party of the right seems to have lost its classical liberal bearings.
May supported remaining in the EU but now relishes the opportunity for mercantilism rather than free trade. She hopes that local governments in Britain can now buy British. She also wants the British central government to prevent some British companies from being bought out by foreign companies.
She is also intent on regulating the affairs of corporations. For instance, she will propose laws to limit executive compensation. She is also interested in requiring that workers be put on corporate boards. This policy moves away from making corporations accountable to their owners toward making them instruments of whatever stakeholders that the government deems important. It is is the opposite of what Thatcher did in freeing corporations from the grip of unions.
And not only is she moving to regulate markets, she is also signaling a slowdown in reforming public services. She sacked Michael Gove, the leading reformer in David Cameron’s government, as Justice Secretary and his protégé, Nicky Morgan, as Education Secretary, although the law and education continue to need substantial reform.
I was skeptical of Brexit, although the question seemed close. But May’s ministry provides yet more evidence that Brexit is not helping organize British life around classical liberal principles.
It is not substantial political pressure from the left that is prompting May’s leftward turn. The Labor Party is in complete disarray with a far left leader facing a challenge from a soft left leader. Hers is a choice not dictated by short term tactics but no doubt by a sense, prized of almost all politicians, that she is moving with the current of the times. The May ministry may be a more troubling sign for classical liberalism than the rise of Donald Trump, precisely because she is a politician rather than a showman posing as one.