Bob Dylan called it pretty much right. When he sang ‘your old road is rapidly ageing’ he was calling time on an old order that went on to die in 1968. The events of that year ushered in a liberal order, revolutionising social norms, which lasted until Thatcher and Reagan in 1980. The conservative era then returned, sorting out the mess left by the previous era and ending the Cold War: this was the time of battle-hardened leaders, with a battle to fight (and win). Then came the Blair and Bill Clinton era, modified slightly by David Cameron – defined by a ‘third way’ unwillingness to move too far to the left or right. And now, once again, the times they are a-changing.
In his cover article this week, Rod Liddle argues that this year has been 1968 in reverse, the overthrowing of political correctness and a return to the values of flag and family. In my column for the Telegraph this week, I say that Theresa May’s style of government – more combative, less concerned with media approval – is a mood of our time. And the ‘killer queen’ persona she seems to be cultivating, as a cheerful Tory Boudica who enjoys slaying enemies, is just what she’ll need – not just for disciplining Tories (who quite like that kind of thing) but handling Brexit. Poor old Cameron spent ages buttering Europeans up, and look where that got him. His appalling treatment in those renegotiation talks is a reminder to everyone: you need to play hardball with the EU to get anywhere. And if the Europhiles see Theresa May as someone capable of anything, and not caring much who she upsets, then she stands a far better chance of getting a deal.
She’d hate comparisons with Donald Trump, but they do have a lot in common. Theresa May’s speeches are coherent and compassionate; Trump rambles in a way I still find terrifying. But they’re both sixty (or seventy)-something political punks, acting in defiance of the fashionable norms of our time. Both have values which resonate more in the provinces than they do in the city. They are wary of globalisation in general, and its high priests in particular. They want to cut immigration, and don’t seem to mind if their plans for doing so are impractical. While Blair, Clinton, Clinton and Cameron both craved media approval, Trump and May couldn’t really care less. They have become very popular, without using the usual channels. (Theresa May’s popularity, especially in the north of England and the Midlands, is one of the under-reported aspects of her premiership).
James Forsyth and I are both great fans of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the settlement it produced: the most successful, responsive and (ergo) enduring parliamentary system in the world. One that anticipates changing mood changes and adapts, obviating the need for the revolutions which have scarred so much of Europe over the generations. Right now, the EU fears another revolution – hence the idea of calling a ridiculous post-Trump crisis meeting, sensing populist barbarians at the gate. But Mrs May has no fear of this. She knows that, as Francis Fukuyama put it, populism is the name that elites give to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they dislike. If you address the concerns (as Britain did with Brexit) populists go away. While so many EU leaders live in a state of political terror, Mrs May now stands virtually unchallenged.
As I say in my Daily Telegraph column, I’m not wild about much of what Theresa May is doing. I’m sceptical of her grammar school plans and dismayed at her refusal to grant security to EU nationals living in Britain. But I’d probably qualify as one of those ‘global citizens’ that she talks about: I’m a kale-munching pro-immigration, pro-globalisation Europhile who speaks a foreign language at home (or tries to) and stands guilty of pretty much any metropolitan cliché you could throw at me. And here’s the tough thing for journalists like me to accept: Mrs May doesn’t really want our approval. And she’s doing rather well without it. The newspapers went berserk at the floated (and now shelved) plans to have companies say how many foreign workers they have. But polls show that idea to be wildly popular.
It’s still too early to tell the direction of May’s government, and she has not given us (or her Cabinet) many clues about what that direction will be. Perhaps more will come in next week’s Autumn Statement, perhaps not. Blair was often castigated for grinning too much and standing for nothing: voters punished him with three landslide majorities. But the era of those grinning plasticine politicians, the people that Max Weber referred to as the ‘ideal type’, is now over. The era of the more brittle, less fashion-conscious leaders is upon us – and Theresa May can be seen as part of this new breed.