In her speech to Tory conference yesterday, Theresa May spoke of how the ‘British dream’ guided both her politics and those of the Conservative party.
While risible, such an obvious imitation of American ideals makes sense given the prime minister needs to foster a sense of purpose for the remainder of her tattered premiership.
And after the loss of her two most trusted aides following June’s general election result – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – that was never going to be easy.
Timothy was the mastermind behind the ‘dementia tax’ – without doubt the single biggest disaster of the Tories’ campaign. Enjoying a reputation for big ideas, what did for the highly-regarded adviser was a habit of overthinking both problems and solutions – not something typically associated with the British right.
To his credit, Timothy correctly grasped the need for a new narrative arc: neoliberalism was failing, and globalisation had hit the rocks. In a world of Brexit and post-crisis capitalism, he was right in concluding that David Cameron-style ‘centrism’ would only go so far.
With Timothy gone, the British dream represents a combination of his ideas with those of Ed Miliband – the former Labour leader speaking just a few years ago about the ‘British promise’.
What is it?
With regard to the specifics, May defined the British dream as the unspoken pact between the generations, that each “should do better than the one before it. Each era should be better than the last.” It was this, the prime minister added, which “inspired people from around the world to come to Britain. To make their home in Britain. To build their lives in Britain.”
So the British dream means continually rising living standards – neither particularly British nor recent. Indeed since around the middle of the 19th century, the lot of working people – at least in the Global North – has steadily improved, with lower infant mortality rates, longer life expectancy and increasingly widespread home ownership being the hallmarks of modern democracies.
Theresa May recounted the story of her grandmother to highlight that trajectory – her life and those of her children and grandchildren corresponding to the same sequence of events: “She worked hard and made sacrifices, because she believed in a better future for her family. And that servant – that lady’s maid – among her grandchildren boasts three professors and a prime minister.”
No mention, of course, that none of those grandchildren paid tuition fees or that house prices were significantly lower compared to average wages when they entered the world of work. No mention of the NHS being created by a Labour government, nor the state pension being introduced by a Liberal one.
But while the ascent of the Mays had more to do with the historic gains of the 20th century than anything else, the rhetorical intention was clear: David Cameron was a distant relative of William IV, George Osborne the heir to a baronetcy in County Waterford – Theresa May, meanwhile, is one of us.
For a certain generation of Britons that’s possibly true. But for another, it most certainly isn’t.
How do you measure it?
How do we measure this British dream – so as to confirm its progress or descent? Unsurprisingly for the prime minister, it readily mapped onto the traditional signs of Tory virtue: home ownership, a solid job and a decent income. In other words it’s working when more and more people can buy homes, where wages are rising and work is easy to find.
Right now, little of that is happening.
While the Tories are keen to point to unemployment figures, whose impressive performance correlates with rising in-work poverty, when it comes to the other two the picture is bleak.
Home ownership is at its lowest level since 1985, with the reverse in home ownership most obvious among the young.
In 2000 20% of those aged 20-39 rented, but by 2025 that figure is projected to rise to 50%. Young adults are more likely to be living with their parents than at any other time in the past 20 years as record numbers struggle to fly the nest and the fall in home ownership has dropped dramatically.
In 1996, the year before Tony Blair’s Labour swept into power, 55% of 25-29 year olds owned a property, as did 68% of 30-34 year olds. This has dropped to 30% and 46% respectively, and with each passing year home ownership is falling.
The idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’, the backbone of the popular conservatism of the last century, is – for many – a thing of the past. And it isn’t coming back.
Besides home ownership, the Tories have always emphasised hard work as the means to improve one’s life, something repeated in May’s speech yesterday.
And yet between 2007 and 2015 real household wages – pay measured against inflation – fell by 10.4% in Britain – more than anywhere in Europe except Greece (where it was the same). More recently, last month saw real wages fall yet again, with inflation at 2.9% but wages increasing by only 2.1%.
Expect that trend to only continue in the run up to 2019, and its aftermath too. Wages haven’t fallen like this since the 80s – the 1780s.
Again, this trend is worst among the young. In 2013 the Resolution Foundation discovered that hourly pay for those in their 20s had fallen by 12% since the financial crisis, more than held true for the public at large. As with elsewhere, one can wager this trend has only got worse since, and will likely deteriorate further until something is done about it.
Then there is the issue of the minimum wage – which makes a farce of any pretensions of equality under the law. If you are over 25 the minimum wage is £7.50 an hour; between 21 and 24 it’s £7.05; between 18-20 it’s £5.60 and for anyone under 18 it’s a pathetic £4.05. For apprentices under 19 the minimum wage is £3.50 an hour.
Even the top rate of the minimum wage, if you are working full time, amounts to £15k a year – technically a poverty wage for a household. Even worse, a young adult on a minimum wage – working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year – can expect an annual income of £11.2k. Nobody with any real world experience, or a sense of decency, thinks that’s acceptable.
Then there is debt. In the tail end of his premiership David Cameron spoke of young people having the choice of either ‘earning or learning’. In reality the choice was between in-work poverty or being severely in the red. The average student now graduates with a debt of more than £50k – which is strange given the Tories say they are focused on reducing the deficit so as to not lumber future generations with a large national debt.
Young people are more likely to be working in poverty and they are less able to buy a home – as they rent instead from people who enjoyed a much better deal than them. They are burdened with more debt than their parents for accessing the kinds of things – primarily a university education – which made possible the ascent of Theresa May and her siblings from the stairwell to the stars.
There is no such thing as the British dream, but if there was it would be the things won by working people since the days of Theresa May’s grandmother: unemployment insurance, pensions, free healthcare, free education, housing for all, the means to be whoever you wish to be.
These are all things the Tories want to destroy. But we won’t just stop them – we are about to push them back a thousand miles.