Theresa May at Davos 2017: Globalisation that works for everyone?
On Thursday (19 January), Theresa May gave a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland. Davos hosts the annual meeting of the WEF, where academic, political and business leaders from around the world discuss global issues. But, unlike previous years, this year May’s intent to convince that businesses will fare well in a Brexit Britain was received with hostility. Her Brexit speech at Lancaster House earlier this week and her calls for a clean break from the single market, along with her threat to the EU to “accept her deal or…” left European leaders disaffected with her antics.
Theresa May’s Davos speech: A Global Britain, but a moralistic one
May stressed free trade, partnership and globalisation. She said that globalisation is “undermined” and that far left and far right parties are exploiting the disillusionment of people left behind by globalisation to further their causes. She explained that only her “centre-ground mainstream politics can respond to the concerns of the people.”
Brexit “will lead to a better future” because “British people chose to build a truly global country.” For May, Brexit means taking back control and deciding for ourselves. But this idealised notion of taking back control is then followed by her statement that “Britain’s history and culture is profoundly international. We have always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. We are, by instinct, a great global trading nation.”
May’s vision of a global country is a post-Brexit Britain “in charge of its own destiny.” But, this is a strange combination between what Brexit is essentially—a backwards movement towards a nostalgia for the past—and a desire to move forward. Of course, May’s audience at Davos is not Ukip, but the global elite, so she is delivering what she thinks they want to hear. In general, May has been strategically zig zagging, much like Trump has done, between previous governments’ positions and current opposition, trying to appear that she has a clear plan. But, depending on what kind of audience she addresses, May adjusts and adapts like a chameleon. We can still remember when, in late October 2016, a leaked recording of her talk to Goldman Sachs revealed her concerns about Britain leaving the EU. Now, her views are fundamentally different.
At Davos she said: “I want the UK to emerge from this period of change as a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too; a country that gets out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.”
But also, local
But because globalisation has left some people behind, she also recognises that “ties that bind our society together” need to be strengthened. Her example, as always, was a critique of multinational corporations, stressing that firms need to pay their fair share of tax. She said: “It is essential for business to show leadership - to show that in this globalised world, everyone is playing by the same rules.” This part of her speech was meant to satisfy the populist side of the British people who voted to leave, since she is aware this is a major trend in the US and European politics with the far right’s rise.
However, as nice as May’s desire to straighten out the naughty corporations and her consideration towards those left behind by globalisation might sound, May’s government has done nothing to make Britain a country that works for everyone. Instead, her party’s policies have always benefitted the wealthiest, and have helped big business by lowering taxes.
Theresa May’s ideas
So, what lies behind Theresa May’s facade? Although she has been repeatedly likened to the Iron Lady, —unlike Thatcher’s dismissal of society and the praise of the individual—May is putting weight on society and what she calls “the people”. Her weird combination of people and society on the one hand, and of global firms and trade on the other hand, is contradictory, to say the least.
Commentators have very often noticed May’s lack of ideas. Most eloquently, Anthony Barnett, has pointed out that whatever ideology she might have, can be found in the pages of the Daily Mail. As Bartnett writes, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, has a close relationship with May and they share the same vision: “a government that works for all those who strive to improve their lives. The concept of a country fit for all ‘hard-working, ordinary people’ is pure Daily Mail.” Dacre is a “moralist” and “unhappy with globalisation.” The Daily Mail and Theresa May’s position is one that is appealing to middle-class readers; these are also her subjects who have been left behind by globalisation. May’s politics is one of nationalism, but one that is “desperate to be contemporary, but unable to escape from its loyalty to the past.”
But while she wants to appear at Davos modern and progressive, embracing international trade, she also condemns its excesses, at least at a gestural level. The same goes with her calls for helping those who have been left behind by globalisation. She recognises inequalities at a superficial level, but she won’t strive for ways to eradicate competition and help disadvantaged groups. She wants to include everyone, creating the impression that Brexit and a global Britain will work for everyone. At the moment, she is a peculiar figure whose politics blend everything from xenophobia, to collectivity, meritocracy and global trade. A chimera that is as baffling as it is familiar.