Theresa May may have been the best viable candidate for Prime Minister. Compared to the other Conservative Party candidates, she has a comparatively good record on issues such as LGBT rights, and she understands the importance of prioritising British access to the Single Market in the Brexit aftermath. She may be, at least comparatively, a ‘safe pair of hands’, which has some merit given the current turbulence of global politics.
However, her much touted ‘competence’ has been significantly exaggerated. By her own standards, her time as Home Secretary was not successful. She failed to lower net migration to the “tens of thousands”. She failed to get the first incarnation of the “Snoopers’ Charter” through Parliament. She was also instrumental in drug legislation that was so badly written it would have accidentally made scented pillows and catnip illegal.
More than this, her reputation has developed not because of what she did, but by contrast with others. She appears competent because she is not especially incompetent, unlike some of her formercabinet colleagues. Her stable six year reign at the Home Office largely stands out in contrast to the scandals and embarrassments that engulfed many of her predecessors’ careers and reputations.
In any case, her record as Home Secretary indicates that any competence she does have is not necessarily positive. She has been quite efficient in constructing a cruel and vindictive system for vetting new migrants from outside the EU (although, as noted, this has not translated into actually significantly reducing immigration). Her enthusiastic efforts towards eroding privacy and her open antipathy towards the European Convention on Human Rights indicate a chilling determination to attack civil liberties.
Having said this, it is important to note that May’s record is not unusual. It is, in fact, very much par for the course at the Home Office. Since the 1970s, Home Secretaries in Labour and Conservative led administrations have been responsible for an increasing growth of state power amounting to creeping draconian assault on civil society.
There have been three major issues behind this: terrorism, public perceptions of immigration, and the war on drugs. As first the IRA and then various Islamist groups have targeted UK civilians with violence, there has been an understandable pressure to prioritise security ahead of liberty. Since 1974, and especially since 2000, anti-terrorism legislation has progressively extended detention without charge. Hideously illiberal measures such as control orders have been introduced. Stop and search powers have continuously expanded, as have various police privileges, such as the right to not be photographed if this could ‘assist terrorism’. Mass surveillance has become normal.
The Home Office has also been pursuing an absurd whack-a-mole effort to maintain the ever more quixotic drug war. Even as de facto decriminalisation of cannabis becomes imminent, with police forces beginning to realise current drug policies are unenforceable and a waste of resources, the Home Office continues to ineffectively fight the drug war with unabated authoritarian fervour.
Successive Home Secretaries have consistently dismissed significant evidence that the current classification system is entirely arbitrary and that enforcement is failing. With the exception of the short-lived reclassification of cannabis, the trend has been to ban more substances with no sign of legal liberalisation.
The illogical conclusion of this was May’s aforementioned anti-catnip bill, the Psychoactive Substances Act, which banned all psychoactive substances (coffee and alcohol had to be expressly exempted) in an over-zealous and ill-conceived attempt to clamp down on legal highs (which themselves emerged as an inevitable by-product of prohibition).
The ability to control migration has of course been compromised by the European Union. This has not stopped Home Secretaries, and May in particular, from pursuing harsh and economically damaging policies to curb migration. May’s non-EU graduate visa policy stands out as a particularly unpleasant and economically illiterate example.
Interestingly, this has gone alongside moderate cultural liberalism. With the exceptions of the puritanical motives behind the drug war and the nationalistic tone of anti-immigration rhetoric, British social policy since the 1960s cannot accurately be called socially conservative. Indeed, May herself contrasted with other Conservative candidates, such as Andrea Leadsom and Stephen Crabb, in having a relatively pro-LGBT attitude and voting record.
Although no Home Secretary since Roy Jenkins’ first stint in the post has come close to the breakthroughs he oversaw and supported, there has been no serious possibility of them being reversed either. Abortion and homosexuality are still legal, divorce has remained (comparatively) liberalised, and the death penalty has stayed dead. Indeed, the age of consent has since been equalised and same-sex marriage has been legalised.
This does not change the fact that successive governments have been increasingly authoritarian. It is just that, in many cases, the new illiberalism is more informed by regressive leftism than cultural conservatism. Censorship on the grounds of obscenity and blasphemy has diminished since the Lady Chatterley trial, in spite of Mary Whitehouse’s comedic rear-guard struggle. However, hate crime legislation and the spectre of promoting terrorism have created new limitations, whilst policing of social media is steadily increasing.
This is not a left-right or conservative-liberal issue, but a civil libertarian-authoritarian one. The UK desperately needs a government and Home Secretary that is not only committed to a bold policy shift on drug policy, but is also willing to make the difficult decision of protecting and preserving civil liberties and free speech in the face of all too real security threats and popular pressures. A bold articulation and defence of the economic and cultural benefits of immigration would also be welcome*.
Whilst Theresa May’s record essentially amounts to business as usual at the Home Office, it is not something that inspires confidence in the future of her administration.
*As an aside, making such social and civil policies a priority would be an interesting angle for the Liberal Democrats to pursue with an eye to getting the most out of a coalition in the medium term.