Theresa May's Confusing New 'Conservatism'

The new new thing.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

You’d think managing Britain’s exit from the European Union would be enough to keep Theresa May busy. But it seems the U.K.’s prime minister wants to design a whole new kind of conservatism as well -- one that works not just for Britain’s frequent-flyer elite but also, as she puts it, for “the whole nation.”

Whether her ideas are coherent won’t be clear until the government starts setting out new policies, but the situation bears watching. Some of the ideas she’s suggesting look promising; others, anything but.

A post-Brexit Britain, May says, ought to strive for free trade in goods and services. But the country also needs “a new industrial strategy” that will identify sectors of the economy to “encourage, develop and support.” She says fairness requires, among other things, that consumers and workers get representatives on company boards. It also demands that jobs that could go to U.K. workers shouldn’t be given to foreigners.

There’s tension in this prospectus, to put it mildly. The case for free trade in goods and services is essentially the case for competition and free enterprise -- the Tories’ traditional platform. Trade is good because it creates competition on a wider scale. Competition is good because it wrings out inefficiency and drives growth in productivity more effectively than governments can. The case for free trade is a variant of the case for limited government.

May is calling for free trade -- plus more, and more ambitious, government, together with new obligations on companies that go beyond their duty to make money for their shareholders. Here and there, this agenda might yield some smarter policies, but it’s important to keep this kind of populism in check, because it could easily do more harm than good.

Supporting strategic sectors makes sense if it means, for instance, clearing away needless regulatory obstacles, providing better infrastructure, and improving education and training. If it means industry-specific subsidies or, worse, protection from foreign competition, the results are likely to disappoint.

Putting representatives of consumers and workers on corporate boards is a puzzling idea. Consumers have always had the power not to consume any particular product or service, which is not insignificant in a free-market economy. And while worker-representatives have been successful in Germany, with its tradition of consensual labor-management relations, the U.K. has the opposite tradition. In any case, one wonders, what exactly are these worker-representatives supposed to do?

The emphasis on employing local labor, again, could go either way. Better training would help to deal with skills shortages and raise local wages. But punishing firms for employing (legal) immigrants while such shortages persist would be both unfair and unwise.

May is right to recognize the popular disenchantment with a political and economic elite that, as she said, finds their patriotism “distasteful,” their concerns about immigration “parochial” and their vote to quit the EU “simply bewildering.” To make a success of Brexit, however, the U.K. will need to welcome foreign investors and skilled immigrants, and to let its businesses concentrate on business.

May says she wants a global, outward-looking Britain, but she’s muddling that message. She’d be wise to worry less about reinventing conservatism and more about making Britain competitive enough to thrive in new and testing circumstances.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.