One Business Historian’s Thoughts About Theresanomics

6 10 2016

The recent Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham may likely be regarded by future historians as a turning point in the British Conservative Party, the moment when the party repudiated the individualist/free-market Hayekian ideas of the Thatcher era and moved towards in a more illiberal era. Along with the Brexit vote, it may also be regarded as a turning point in the history of global economic integration and the beginning of another de-globalization era. There is some evidence in the trade data and investment flow data to suggest that de-globalization began with the 2008 financial crisis, but I’m more interested in the erosion of the cultural foundation of globalization represented by the recent turn of events in the UK (see here, here, and here).

I’m struck by the increasingly illiberal rhetoric of the Conservative Party. In this context, I am using liberal in the strict sense to refer to a world view that favours open markets and borders and the liberalization of international trade. At the Conservative Party conference, Theresa May presented what some observers regarded as an inconsistent mixture of left-wing economic and right-wing cultural ideas.  I’m inclined to agree with ITV’s Robert Peston that her cocktail of policies can be regarded as an intellectually consistent system, albeit one that it is profoundly at odds with the individualism espoused by the Conservative Party in the Thatcher Era. In his analysis of her speech, he kept referring to it as “illiberal”.

Theresa May presented an economic agenda that would have been regarded as unacceptably leftwing for even a Labour Party leader just a few years ago, when the last embers of 1980s-style neoliberalism were still burning faintly. Her conference speech, which was explicitly designed to appeal to working-class Englishmen and Englishwomen, spoke of heavier taxes on companies, tighter restrictions on immigration, and, of course, direct worker representation on corporate boards, an astonishing innovation in Anglo-American corporate governance. On top of this, she appears to favour a “Hard Brexit,” a policy opposed by almost all large firms in the UK.  As journalists have noted, her rhetoric on these economic issues was essentially left-wing.  Theresa May also spoke of a law and order agenda and of cracking down on criminals, particularly the foreign born.  Someone I know who hails from a large country in Continental Europe quipped that May’s agenda was “national socialist.” It’s a farfetched comparison and one I found faintly offensive, as the UK remains a deeply liberal country in every sense of the word. (UK Tories are immensely liberal compared to say, the Trump Party of the United States or the truly xenophobic parties of the Accession States in the eastern parts of the EU). However, there is a grain of truth about this joke about our direction of travel.

Here is a sample of the rhetoric from Theresa May’s speech.  I’ve put certain words in bold for emphasis.

tax is the price we pay for living in a civilised society. Nobody, no individual tycoon and no single business, however rich, has succeeded on their own. Their goods are transported by road, their workers are educated in schools, their customers are part of sophisticated networks taking in the private sector, the public sector and charities. We’ve all played a part in that success. If you’re a tax-dodger, we’re coming after you.

the central tenet of my belief is that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest.We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations. We have a responsibility to one another. And I firmly believe that government has a responsibility too… the Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the rich and powerful, but by the interests of ordinary, working class people.

Only time will tell whether Theresa May’s government is, in practice, radically different in its economic policies than its predecessors, the brief Cameron majority, the Coalition, and the New Labour and Conservative governments before that. The rhetoric, however, is strikingly different from that of any party of government in Britain since the 1970s.

I see two connections between the trends in political culture represented by Theresanomics and the strands in my research portfolio. The first of these connections relates to my research on the impact of deglobalization on business culture and strategy. One of my research themes is about the tension between liberal and cosmopolitan and illiberal/nationalist sentiment in British business culture in the early twentieth century. As Charles Jones persuasively argued long ago in an unfairly neglected work, the years immediately prior to the First World War witnessed the fragmentation of the transnational bourgeoisie associated with the Era of the Free Trade and classical liberalism: the rise of economic nationalism within and around business communities promoted the rise of more intense national consciousness on the part of business people. The mid-Victorian liberal dream of a world economy in which national borders and citizenship was eclipsed in this era. I have a couple of paper projects that relate to this period, which saw the end of the pre-1914 era of globalization and the inauguration of several decades of deglobalization.

The second connection between Theresanomics and my research relates to the Prime Minister’s adroit use of the past, or, in the parlance of many organization studies scholars, her “rhetorical history.” Part of my research is now about how companies use history and I am therefore fascinated by how Theresa May has used historical figures and heroes to stake out her own identity as a Tory collectivist. It is no coincidence that the Conservative Party conference was held in Birmingham, the home of Joseph Chamberlain, the Conservative politician who pioneered a series of left-wing policies, including municipal socialism and who later came to advocate an end to Britain’s policy of Free Trade. Chamberlain was a deeply polarizing figure in British politics in the first decade of the twentieth century, the era I have been researching in the business-historical papers discussed above. Theresa May regards Joseph Chamberlain  something of a role model (see here and here).

P.S. The excellent Evan Davis presents a radio programme called The Bottom Line. This week he was speaking to four business leaders about “Theresanomics.” I’ve borrowed that term, which was also used by The Economist, for my blog post,

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7 11 2016
Non-British Workers Representation on UK Corporate Boards? | The Past Speaks

[…] proposal, which is really an attempt to water down May’s idea. As I have pointed out in a previous blog post, Theresa May appears to be channelling the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain, the Edwardian collectivist […]

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