Today David Cameron has stood down as Prime Minister and replaced by former Home Secretary Theresa May, what kind of leadership can we expect? Libertarian or Authoritarian?
The woman who popularised the term “the Nasty Party” during a 2002 speech to Conservative conference in which she criticised the “narrow sympathies” of traditional Conservative stances has now become the UK’s second female Prime Minister.
Much has been made of May’s rise to the top role, especially in the aftermath of the EU referendum and in the context of the unusual leadership election contest that followed Cameron’s resignation. However, perhaps of equal importance is what a May premiership will mean for LGBTI equality, and human rights more generally. Can she lead a genuinely united Conservative Party that has the will to promote human rights and preserve hard-won protections, or is she set to preside over the same Nasty Party she so openly denounced 14 years ago?
Rhetoric, voting record and policies
Her voting record alone presents an unclear picture. On LGBTI rights, May has a somewhat mixed record. In 1998 she voted against equalisation of the age of consent. In 2000 she voted against repealing the infamous Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, and two years later also opposed same-sex couples being given the right to adopt. In 2008, May also voted in favour of a defeated bill to prevent lesbians accessing IVF treatment on the basis that “that IVF rights should require a male role model”. In spite of making the decision to break up the UK Border Agency in 2014, following criticisms that LGB people were being “interrogated” about their sex lives, she had herself wanted to retain procedures that required asylum seekers to prove their sexuality. May has also abstained on every vote relating to the Gender Recognition Act.
However, she supported the introduction of civil partnerships in 2004, and her views seem to have evolved in recent years, especially in the years since David Cameron became Prime Minister. In advance of the 2010 election, May supported “changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage” – and later worked closely with the Liberal Democrats’ equalities minister Lynne Featherstone, who was effectively the architect of the same-sex marriage legislation, to ensure the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act became a reality. While in 2010 many LGBTI activists were openly hostile to May becoming Home Secretary, in the last week Pink News went so far as to describe her as the “unsung hero” of marriage equality.
May has also publicly distanced herself from some of her previous voting record. On an edition of Question Time, she said: “I have changed my view. If those votes were taken today, I would take a different vote. On gay adoption I have changed my mind… because I have been persuaded that when you are looking at the future for a child, I think it’s better for a child who is perhaps in an institutional environment, if they have an opportunity of being in a stable, family environment – be that a heterosexual couple or a gay couple.”
Was this a sincere and long lasting change of mind, or, as some commentators suggest, an adaptation to the PM line’s of “liberal conservatism”, which successfully pulled the “libertarian rug” under Labour’s feet for an electoral success? Is she a real liberal at heart or does she change her view according to a very cold calculation political power and of where the wind is blowing?
May seems to have also changed her mind on whether to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). A little over two years ago, the then Home Secretary was passionately advocating withdrawal from the ECHR, through which anyone being discriminated against can bring a case to an international court, and replacing the Human Rights Act with a British “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”. In April of this year, May was arguing that the UK must leave the ECHR as it “binds the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights”. She claimed it had done “nothing” for Britain, in spite of it being central to many of the early LGBTI rights victories and guaranteeing protections for LGBTI people.
However, in launching her leadership bid, May dramatically confirmed that she would no longer be advocating the proposals she had been pushing for so long. She said: “I’ve set my position on the ECHR out very clearly but I also recognise that this is an issue that divides people, and the reality is there will be no Parliamentary majority for pulling out of the ECHR, so that is something I’m not going to pursue.” Reading carefully into that statement the stress is placed on “the reality [that] there will be no Parliamentary majority for pulling out of the ECHR”, meaning she temporarily accepts that she can’t do it, but her views on the matter have not changed.
The question, however, is whether she can be trusted to protect human rights given her record. There can be no escaping that, whatever her position on the ECHR, she has voted to repeal the Human Rights Act and has often criticised human rights legislation for inhibiting the powers of government. While she tended to vote in accordance with the government line as Home Secretary, in 2014 she abstained on a series of votes on human rights protections within the immigration bill. Her consistent promotion of the British “Bill of Rights” to replace the Human Rights Act has the potential not only to dilute human rights but also to set the UK government on a collision course with the Scottish government.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously said: “I have made clear that the Scottish Government opposes any weakening of human rights protections – not just in Scotland, but across the whole of the UK. My administration has been elected to take forward a progressive agenda – embedding human rights in everything we do, not seeking to erode safeguards which matter to everyone in society. And I have also made clear that UK legislation which attacks human rights cannot expect consent from the Scottish Parliament.”
May also consistently supported going to war in Iraq, as well as the use of UK troops in Afghanistan, Syria, and Afghanistan.
In one recent TV interview, she refused to rule out the deportation of EU nationals following Brexit. Worse still, at her leadership campaign launch, she suggested that EU nationals could be a useful “negotiating point”, that is a bargaining tool for what post-Brexit deal the UK can get from the EU. It seems that the liberties of millions of people in Britain are, for May, little more t a card to be played in Brexit negotiations.
As Home Office Minister she pushed policies that saw hundreds of asylum seekers, including LGBTI, vulnerable women and children, kept in detention centres across Britain with appalling conditions, deprived or rights and dignity, before being deported on secret charter flights.
May was also behind the billboard campaign telling immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”; where advertising vans were driven around displaying the slogan and and a phone line for immigrants to call so they can leave the country.
May also abolished the two-year work visas traditionally applied to foreign students at the end of their degrees, which resulted in the deportation of tens of thousands of students. Based on heresy they were accused of fraud, refused their day in court. Instead students were rounded up into vans turn that turned up in dawn raids and taken into the infamous detention centres. They kept them there, without any information about when they would be released. A later legal case has seen these people vindicated. It found the evidence the Home Office was relying on was worthless. They had done all this to innocent people.
May also clamped down heavily on ancestral visas for the kids and grandkids of expats, and raising the “minimum salary” requirements for continued visa renewal to an staggering £35,000.
Then consider her position on pushing the investigatory powers bill, also known as the snoopers’ charter, which creates a database of personal information on every British citizen. It allows the police and security services extraordinary powers to spy on British citizens and offers little safeguards against this extraordinary overreach of state power.
She also voted for a scheme where employees could sell their rights, among them the right to redundancy pay and the right not to be unfairly dismissed from their jobs, for shares in the company they work for.
Libertarian or Authoritarian?
There is something very contradictory about Theresa May: a staunch authoritarian when it comes to asylum seekers but speaks of a “just immigration system”. She’s someone who has consistently voted to undermine human rights, but changed her mind on LGBTI rights when David Cameron became leader, and later on the ECHR. She’s an autocrat-technocrat who took on the police, the Remainer who is happy to use EU nationals as a tough bargaining tool. May was an ostensibly pro-EU minister who whipped up anti-European rhetoric about “British sovereignty” when ECHR directives prevented her from deportation without adequate guarantees for human rights, one of the discourses that aided the Leave campaign and soured our relationship with our closest allies in Europe. She may claim to be pro-workers and for a One Nation Britain – she yesterday went to far as to claim her time at the Home Office was one of putting social justice first – yet voted for policies that saw whole neighbourhoods falling apart, increasing income disparity and severe austerity that hit many of the most vulnerable in our society.
She adapted to Cameron’s ideas of social liberalism but meanwhile promoted traditional nationalist conservatism; the theme that seems to become apparent is a superficial and populistic appeal to “liberty” while the policies she pursued show deep contempt for civil liberties, and an authoritarian streak to use state power to achieve them.
Is Theresa May’s alliance of liberalism with conservatism and austerity deep or was it just a temporary?
No doubt, we’ll have a clearer idea of what May’s leadership means for human rights and LGBTI equality once her cabinet is announced. Early indications suggest promotions for Amber Rudd and Justine Greening, the creation of a more gender-balanced cabinet and (less positively) Chris Grayling becoming Home Secretary. But behind statements and occasional concessions that seem to fit on the surface libertarian politics, her track record is firmly on the authoritarian side.
What is certain is that May is tough to the point of inflexibility. Nick Clegg found her particularly difficult to work with, and it is also reported that her relationships with other colleagues were equally bad. Alex Dziedzan, a former Clegg adviser, said: “There were lots of disagreements between Theresa May and the Liberal Democrats on asylum, immigration and issues involving human rights. But she is the toughest negotiator I have ever seen and she was the most formidable person we ever came across in government without a shadow of a doubt. I expect her to be much more forceful in delivering her policies than Cameron ever has been.”
Former Chancellor Ken Clarke was recently recorded referring to her as being a “bloody difficult woman”. Quite how difficult we may soon discover.