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Chatham House, London: In her final speech as UK Prime Minister, Theresa May says she sees “grounds for serious concern” about politics in the UK and around the world
“This will most likely be the last time I will speak at length as Prime Minister and I would like today to share some personal reflections on the state of politics in our country and around the world.
I have lived politics for half a century. From stuffing envelopes for my local party in my school years to serving as a local councillor, fighting a by-election, winning a seat, to serving for 12 years on the opposition front bench, and for nine years in the Cabinet as Home Secretary and Prime Minister.
Throughout that time, in every job I have done, I have been inspired by the enormous potential that working in politics and taking part in public life holds.
The potential to serve your country, to improve peoples’ lives, and – in however big or small a way – to make the world a better place.
Looking at our own country and the world of which we form a part, and there is great deal to feel optimistic about.
Globally, over the last 30 years extreme poverty and child mortality have both been halved.
Hundreds of millions of people are today living longer, happier and healthier lives than their grandparents could even have dreamed of.
As a world, we have never cared more deeply about the ecology of our planet’s environment.
From treating the earth as a collection of resources to be plundered, we have within a generation come to understand its fragile diversity and taken concerted action to conserve it.
The UK is leading the way in that effort with our commitment to net zero emissions.
Social attitudes in our country and many other western countries have transformed in recent decades.
There are more women in senior positions today than at any time in history.
When I was born, it was a crime to be a gay man, legal to discriminate on the basis of sex or race, and casual bigotry was a socially acceptable fact of daily life.
All that has changed – and greatly for the better.
There remains a long, long way to go to achieve what we should rightly seek – an economy, a society and a world that truly works for all of its people.
Where everyone has the security of a safe home and enough to eat; the opportunity to get a good education and a satisfying job to support their family; and the freedom of thought, speech and action to do and be everything their talents and hard work fit them for.
The generation of young people growing up today – in the UK and around the word – have it within their grasp to achieve more in the decades ahead than we today can imagine.
They will have the chance to harness the great drivers of change in the world today – from artificial intelligence and the data economy; cleaner forms of energy and more efficient modes of transport; to the technological and medical advances that will extend and improve our quality of life.
The twenty-first century has the potential to be a pivotal point in human history – when economic, social and technological progress reach a combined apogee with the benefits multiplied and with everyone enjoying a share.
It will not come about without effort.
We will all have to work hard – individually and collectively to reach that better future.
Crucially, the full power and potential of a small, but strong and strategic state must be brought to bear in that effort, establishing and maintaining the legal and economic structures that allow a regulated free market to flourish.
Co-ordinating its own interventions to maximum effect – supporting science and innovation, supplying crucial public services and infrastructure, leading and responding to social progress.
At our best, that has been the story of the democratic century that we celebrated last year when we marked the first votes for women and working men in 1918.
It has been democratic politics, an open market economy and the enduring values of free speech, the rule of law and a system of government founded on the concept of inviolable human rights that has provided the nexus of that progress in the past.
And a healthy body politic will be essential to consolidating and extending that progress in the future.
It is on that score that today we do have grounds for serious concern. Both domestically and internationally, in substance and in tone, I am worried about the state of politics.
That worry stems from a conviction that the values on which all of our successes have been founded cannot be taken for granted.
They may look to us as old as the hills, we might think that they will always be there, but establishing the superiority of those values over the alternatives was the hard work of centuries of sacrifice.
And to ensure that liberal inheritance can endure for generations to come, we today have a responsibility to be active in conserving it.
If we do not, we will all pay the price – rich and poor, strong and weak, powerful and powerless.
As a politician, my decisions and actions have always been guided by that conviction.
It used to be asked of applicants at Conservative candidate selection meetings, ‘are you a conviction politician or are you a pragmatist’?
I have never accepted the distinction.
Politics is the business of turning your convictions into reality to improve the lives of the people you serve.
As a Conservative, I have never had any doubt about what I believe in – security, freedom and opportunity. Decency, moderation, patriotism. Conserving what is of value, but never shying away from change. Indeed, recognising that often change is the way to conserve. Believing in business but holding businesses to account if they break the rules. Backing ambition, aspiration and hard work. Protecting our Union of nations – and being prepared to act in its interest even if that means steering a difficult political course.
And remaining always firmly rooted in the common ground of politics – where all great political parties should be.
I didn’t write about those convictions in pamphlets or make many theoretical speeches about them.
I have sought to put them into action.
And actually getting things done rather than simply getting them said requires some qualities that have become unfashionable of late.
One of them is a willingness to compromise. That does not mean compromising your values.
It does not mean accepting the lowest common denominator or clinging to outmoded ideas out of apathy or fear.
It means being driven by, and when necessary standing up for, your values and convictions.
But doing so in the real world – in the arena of public life – where others are making their own case, pursuing their own interests.
And where persuasion, teamwork and a willingness to make mutual concessions are needed to achieve an optimal outcome.
That is politics at its best.
The alternative is a politics of winners and losers, of absolutes and of perpetual strife – and that threatens us all.
Today an inability to combine principles with pragmatism and make a compromise when required seems to have driven our whole political discourse down the wrong path.
It has led to what is in effect a form of “absolutism” – one which believes that if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end. Or that mobilising your own faction is more important than bringing others with you.
This is coarsening our public debate. Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.
Online, technology allows people to express their anger and anxiety without filter or accountability. Aggressive assertions are made without regard to the facts or the complexities of an issue, in an environment where the most extreme views tend to be the most noticed.
This descent of our debate into rancour and tribal bitterness – and in some cases even vile abuse at a criminal level – is corrosive for the democratic values which we should all be seeking to uphold. It risks closing down the space for reasoned debate and subverting the principle of freedom of speech.
And this does not just create an unpleasant environment. Words have consequences – and ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on a continuum towards ill deeds – towards a much darker place where hatred and prejudice drive not only what people say but also what they do.
This absolutism is not confined to British politics. It festers in politics all across the world. We see it in the rise of political parties on the far left and far right in Europe and beyond. And we see it in the increasingly adversarial nature of international relations, which some view as a zero sum game where one country can only gain if others lose. And where power, unconstrained by rules, is the only currency of value.
This absolutism at home and abroad is the opposite of politics at its best. It refuses to accept that other points of view are reasonable. It ascribes bad motives to those taking those different views.
And it views anything less than 100 per cent of what you want all the time as evidence of failure, when success in fact means achieving the optimum outcome in any given circumstance.
The sustainability of modern politics derives not from an uncompromising absolutism but rather through the painstaking marking out of a common ground.
That doesn’t mean abandoning our principles – far from it. It means delivering on them with the consent of people on all sides of the debate, so they can ultimately accept the legitimacy of what is being done, even if it may not be the outcome they would initially have preferred.
That is how social progress and international agreement was forged in the years after the Second World War – both at home with the establishment of an enduring National Health Service and, internationally, with the creation of an international order based on agreed rules and multilateral institutions.
Consider, for example, the story of the NHS. The Beveridge Report was commissioned by a Coalition Government.
The Health Minister who published the first White Paper outlining the principles of a comprehensive and free health service was a Conservative.
A Labour Government then created the NHS – engaging in fierce controversy both with the doctors who would work for the NHS, and with a Conservative opposition in the House of Commons which supported the principles of an NHS, but disagreed with the methods.
But the story does not end there. Just three years after the NHS was founded, Churchill’s newly elected Conservative Government was faced with a choice, a choice between going back over old arguments or accepting the legitimacy of what had been done and building on it.
They chose to build on what had been established.
Today, because people were willing to compromise, we have an NHS to be proud of – an institution which unites our country.
Similarly, on the international stage, many of the agreements that underpinned the establishment of the rules-based international order in the aftermath of the Second World War were reached by pragmatism and compromise.
The San Francisco Conference, which adopted the United Nations Charter – the cornerstone of international law – almost broke down over Soviet insistence that the Security Council veto should apply not just to Council resolutions and decisions, but even to whether the Council should discuss a matter.
It was only a personal mission to Stalin in Moscow from US President Truman’s envoy Harry Hopkins that persuaded the Soviets to back down.
Many States who were not Permanent Members of the Security Council did not want the veto to exist at all. But they compromised and signed the Charter because of the bigger prize it represented – a global system which enfranchised the people of the world with new rights, until then only recognisable to citizens in countries like ours.
It’s easy now to assume that these landmark agreements which helped created the international order will always hold – that they are as permanent as the hills.
But turning ideals into practical agreements was hard fought. And we cannot be complacent about ensuring that they endure.
Indeed, the current failure to combine principles with pragmatism and compromise inevitably risks undermining them.
We are living through a period of profound change and insecurity. The forces of globalisation and the pursuit of free markets have brought unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity for the country and for the world at large. But not everyone is reaping the benefits.
The march of technology is expanding the possibilities for humanity in ways that once could never have been conceived. But it is changing the nature of the workplace and the types of jobs that people will do. More and more working people are feeling anxious over whether they and their children and grandchildren will have the skills and the opportunities to get on.
And although the problems were building before the financial crisis, that event brought years of hardship from which we are only now emerging.
Populist movements have seized the opportunity to capitalise on that vacuum. They have embraced the politics of division; identifying the enemies to blame for our problems and offering apparently easy answers.
In doing so, they promote a polarised politics which views the world through the prism of “us” and “them” – a prism of winners and losers, which views compromise and cooperation through international institutions as signs of weakness not strength.
President Putin expressed this sentiment clearly on the eve of the G20 summit in Japan, when he said that the “liberal idea has become obsolete”…because it has “come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
This is a cynical falsehood. No one comparing the quality of life or economic success of liberal democracies like the UK, France and Germany to that of the Russian Federation would conclude that our system is obsolete. But the fact that he feels emboldened to utter it today indicates the challenge we face as we seek to defend our values.
So if we are to stand up for these values that are fundamental to our way of life, we need to rebuild support for them by addressing people’s legitimate concerns through actual solutions that can command public consent, rather than populist promises that in the end are not solutions at all.
In doing so, we need to show that, from the local to the global, a politics of pragmatic conviction that is unafraid of compromise and co-operation is the best way in which politics can sustainably meet the challenges we face.
Take the example of how we address some of the concerns and fears over globalisation.
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But we know it is free and competitive markets that drive the innovation, creativity and risk-taking that have enabled so many of the great advances of our time. We know it is business that pioneers the industries of the future, secures the investment on which that future depends, and creates jobs and livelihoods for families up and down our country.
And we know that free enterprise can also play a crucial role in helping to meet some of the greatest social challenges of our time – from contributing to the sustainability of our planet to generating new growth and new hope in areas of our country that have been left behind for too long.
But you do not protect the concept of free market capitalism by failing to respond to the legitimate concerns of those who are not feeling its full benefits. You protect free market capitalism and all the benefits it can bring by reforming it so that it works for everyone.
That is why I have introduced reforms to working practice and workers’ rights to reflect the changes in our economy. It is why I launched the Taylor Review into modern forms of employment like the gig economy – and why we are delivering the biggest improvements in UK workers’ rights for twenty years in response to it.
It is why I have advanced changes in corporate governance – because business must not only be about commercial success but about bringing wider benefits to the whole of our society too.
And it is why we have put in place a Modern Industrial Strategy – a strategic partnership between business and government to make the long-term decisions that will ensure the success of our economy. But crucially, a strategy to ensure that as we develop the industries of the future, so the benefits of the trade and growth they will give rise to will reach working people – not just in some parts of the country, but in every part of our country.
These are steps rooted in my Conservative political convictions. They are not a rejection of free enterprise. But rather they are the very way to restore the popular legitimacy of free enterprise and make it work for everyone.
I believe that taking such an approach is also how we resolve the Brexit impasse.
The only way to do so is to deliver on the outcome of the vote in 2016. And there is no greater regret for me than that I could not do so.
But whatever path we take must be sustainable for the long-term – so that delivering Brexit brings our country back together.
That has to mean some kind of compromise.
Some argue I should have taken the United Kingdom out of the European Union with no deal on 29th March. Some wanted a purer version of Brexit. Others to find a way of stopping it altogether.
But most people across our country had a preference for getting it done with a deal. And I believe the strength of the deal I negotiated was that it delivered on the vote of the referendum to leave the European Union, while also responding to the concerns of those who had voted to remain.
The problem was that when it came time for Parliament to ratify the deal, our politics retreated back into its binary pre-referendum positions – a winner takes all approach to leaving or remaining.
And when opinions have become polarised – and driven by ideology – it becomes incredibly hard for a compromise to become a rallying point.
The spirit of compromise in the common interest is also crucial in meeting some of the greatest global challenges of our time – from responsibly harnessing the huge potential of digital technology to tackling climate change; and from preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons to upholding and strengthening international rules in the face of hostile states.
During my premiership, the UK has led the way both domestically and internationally in seeking a new settlement which ensures the internet remains a driver of growth and opportunity – but also that internet companies respond more comprehensively to reasonable and legitimate demands that they take their wider responsibilities to society more seriously.
That is why we are legislating in the UK to create a legal duty of care on internet companies, backed up by an independent regulator with the power to enforce its decisions.
We are the first country to put forward such a comprehensive approach, but it is not enough to act alone.
Ultimately we need a realistic global approach that achieves the right balance between protecting the individual freedoms of those using the internet – while also keeping them safe from harm.
That also holds the key to further progress in the fight to protect our planet.
Here in the UK we have recently built on the 2008 Climate Change Act by becoming the first major economy to agree a landmark net zero target that will end our contribution to climate change by 2050.
Of course, there were some who wanted us not just to make that net zero commitment but to bring it forward even earlier. And there are others who still question the science of climate change or the economic costs of tackling it.
But we were able to come together to agree a target that is supported across the political spectrum, across business and civil society – and which is both ambitious and also deliverable.
Just as the nations of the world were able to come together and agree the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, a settlement which if unravelled would damage us all and our planet.
And just as we seek to protect the hard fought Paris Climate Agreement, so I also believe we must protect the similarly hard fought JCPOA – the nuclear deal with Iran, whatever its challenges.
Once again it took painstaking pragmatism and compromise to strike that deal.
Of course, there are those who fear a reduction in sanctions on a country that continues to pursue destabilising activity across the region, and we should address that activity head on.
But whether we like it or not a compromise deal remains the best way to get the outcome we all still ultimately seek – to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and to preserve the stability of the region.
Being prepared to compromise also means knowing when not to compromise – and when our values are under threat we must always be willing to stand firm. Just as we did when Russia deployed a deadly nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury, and I led international action across the world to expel more than 100 Russian intelligence officers – the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.
We are here today at St James’ Square – the location from which Dwight Eisenhower led the planning for D-Day. And it was standing on the beaches of Normandy with other world leaders last month – remembering together all that was given in defence of our liberty and our values – that most inspired me to come here today to give this speech.
Eisenhower once wrote: “People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable…Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”
I believe that seeking the common ground and being prepared to make compromises in order to make progress does not entail a rejection of our values and convictions by one iota, rather it is precisely the way to defend them.
Not by making promises you cannot keep, or by just telling people what you think they want to hear. But by addressing the concerns people genuinely hold and showing that co-operation not absolutism is the only way to deliver for everyone.
For the future, if we can recapture the spirit of common purpose – as I believe we must – then we can be optimistic about what together we can achieve.
We can find the common ground that will enable us to forge new, innovative global agreements on the most crucial challenges of our time – from protecting our planet to harnessing the power of technology for good.
We can renew popular support for liberal democratic values and international co-operation.
And in so doing, we can secure our freedom, our prosperity and our ability to live together peacefully now and for generations to come.”
On Day 1042 of her premiership Theresa May resigns in an emotional speech in front of 10 Downing Street (her resignation to be effective June 07, 2019) thereby triggering a leadership race within the UK Conservative Party sometime in July 2019.
The Arc of Theresa May’s premiership
- Theresa May was hired by the Conservative Party to be ‘The Brexit Prime Minister’ and she no doubt (even her political enemies agree) tried her level-best to deliver a worthwhile Brexit but ultimately failed in that task.
- Her premiership excelled in fixing the economy, attained record employment levels, increased healthcare spending and healthcare rankings, and in many other ways she succeeded, yet failed to deliver Brexit.
- Conservatives will likely hire a Brexiteer Prime Minister who will now match the EU’s ‘businesslike’ approach in order to secure Brexit.
The Different Negotiating Strategies Between the UK and the EU Played a Significant Role in Theresa May’s Downfall
In the end, Brexit was Theresa May’s nemesis because she employed a ‘diplomatic’ approach (which put her on the moral high ground) while the EU used a ‘businesslike’ approach to Brexit (which allowed them a better chance to ‘Win’).
And now that they’ve ‘Won’ (thus far) by preventing Brexit in 2016, 2017, 2018 and now well into 2019, I wonder how they feel about the prospect of a possible WTO Brexit being directed by one of the Conservative candidates for the PM’s position who will almost certainly be a Brexiteer.
EU negotiators and their (hard-nosed) ‘business tactics’ have surely contributed to or caused Theresa May’s fall from Conservative Party grace and subsequent resignation and they must now deal with the fallout of their approach. Good luck!
Thumbnail image courtesy of euractiv EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER
Full transcript of Theresa May’s Manchester speech (February 6, 2018) marking the centenary of women’s suffrage
“One hundred years ago today British democracy was transformed. With the passage of the Representation of the People Act on 6 February 1918, most women aged over 30 and the 40% of men who did not own property gained the right to vote in Parliamentary elections for the first time, and with it, a say in making the laws of the land.
It was a great expansion of democratic participation – tripling the size of the electorate and empowering voices and perspectives which for centuries had been excluded.
Gender equality at the ballot box was not achieved for another ten years, and I am proud to say under a Conservative government.
But with the 1918 Act, the die was cast.
And it is wonderful to be here in Manchester to mark its anniversary. This great city was one of the centres of activism for women’s suffrage. It was the birthplace and home of one of the icons of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. I heard about the campaign for women’s votes from my godmother, whose parents were active in the cause and knew the Pankhursts.
So I am delighted that this year, with funding from the government, a statue of Mrs Pankhurst will be erected in this city as a lasting monument to her courage and vision.
And as Leader of the Conservative Party, and the co-founder of Women2Win, which works to encourage more women to stand for public office, I am proud that Emmeline Pankhurst was one of our pioneers, being selected as the Conservative candidate for the Whitechapel and St Georges constituency in east London in 1928. And the simple fact is that we don’t have nearly enough monuments to the great women of our country’s past – and I am pleased that we are now starting to set that right.
Today we celebrate a huge and irreversible step towards creating a truly universal democracy, and the beginning of a representative public debate.
But I also want to take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of our public life today.
As we remember the heroic campaigners of the past, who fought to include the voices of all citizens in our public debate we should consider the values and principles that guide our conduct today, and how we can maintain a healthy public debate for the future.
For while there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening.
That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process. I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralistic public debate.
Freedom of speech in a democracy
In that task we build on the finest of traditions and the firmest of foundations. Britain’s liberal democracy has long been respected around the world for its tolerance and decency. It is defined by values which have a universal appeal. Freedom of thought and expression within laws which are democratically made. The competition of ideas leading to collective progress and improvement. Respect for those with different viewpoints.
These principles have been at the heart of the British tradition of liberty for generations. From John Milton at the height of the English Civil War arguing against censorship and in favour of the ‘free and open encounter’ of different opinions, to John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, advocating ‘searching for and discovering the truth’ by way of free speech and debate, a philosophy of freedom of expression in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance has been one of this country’s great intellectual gifts to the world.
In an open market-place of ideas in which different viewpoints can coexist and people are free to make the case for their own beliefs opinions can be changed, arguments won and progress achieved.
Votes for Women
Mill, working in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor, was a leading advocate of women’s rights. But the cause of women’s suffrage had to overcome entrenched opposition, just to be heard. As an early campaigner, Margaret Wynne Nevinson, wrote:
Sometimes, the hostility of the people was so great that the police were alarmed. Occasionally, we were taken to the police station and kept there for safety till far into the night.
Those who fought to establish their right – my right, every woman’s right – to vote in elections, to stand for office and to take their full and rightful place in public life did so in the face of fierce opposition.
They persevered in spite of all danger and discouragement because they knew their cause was right.
Eventually, through a free and open encounter with the opposing view, the truth of their arguments won the day. And we are all in their debt.
Progress to be proud of
A century on from the first votes for women, we can look back with pride on the enormous strides which we have taken as a society.
A century ago women were forbidden the franchise, could not sit on a jury or be admitted into the professions. Today, I am proud to serve as Britain’s second female prime minister in a Parliament with more female MPs than ever before.
In 2018, the United Kingdom’s most senior judge is a woman. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is a woman. The Director of the National Crime Agency is a woman. Women serve as England’s Chief Fire Officer and Chief Medical Officer. The CBI and the TUC are both headed by women. At Holyrood, a female First Minister debates against a female opposition leader. In the National Assembly for Wales, a woman leads the third party. The two largest parties in Northern Ireland are led by women. And at Westminster, where suffragettes chained themselves to statues and hid in a broom cupboard on census night, the Leaders of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are women. Black Rod, whose predecessor ejected suffragettes from the palace precincts, is a woman. A century ago the Home Secretary and Director of Public Prosecutions were grappling with the direct action of suffragettes. Today, both those offices are held by women. And just like the movement for women’s votes, many other causes began as marginal and unpopular campaigns. They sent down their first roots into the stony ground of indifference and hostility.
They were championed by courageous people from all parties and none who braved abuse and ridicule, violence and persecution in a tireless quest for justice.
Sixty years ago, being gay was a crime and it was legal to discriminate on the basis of race.
Fifty years ago firms could advertise the same jobs with different salaries for men and women.
Thirty years ago, there was no legal compulsion to provide facilities for disabled people.
Today there are more openly gay people in prominent positions in public life than ever before.
More people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds are in Parliament, in the media and business.
And disabled people play a more active role in our society than they ever have.
Real injustices still remain for women, for LGBT people, for black and minority ethnic Britons, for people from poorer families and for people with disabilities.
But if we cast our eyes back to well within living memory, we can see just how far we have come.
These improvements have been achieved through free and open debate leading to progressive, democratic change.
Collectively, they have helped to create an ideal as yet still not fully realised, but closer today than it has ever been of a public sphere where wealth, gender, sexuality, race, and disability present no barrier to full and active participation on a basis of equality.
A society where every voice counts. And when everyone has a say in the laws and policies of our country, everyone benefits. I have seen it in during my years in Parliament. As it has become a more diverse and representative place, it has better reflected the concerns of all sections of society. And in my experience, women often bring a different approach to politics than do men. For women, politics can be as much about listening and learning from others as it is about broadcasting your own views and opinions. And that is all to the good. Because when there isn’t just one way of doing things or one perspective on an issue, our understanding is enriched and we can achieve better outcomes.
The threat to our public debate
But today, the ideal of a truly plural and open public sphere where everyone can take part is in danger. A tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate. In public life, and increasingly in private conversations too, it is becoming harder and harder to conduct any political discussion, on any issue, without it descending into tribalism and rancour.
Participants in local and national public life – from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators – have to contend with regular and sustained abuse.
Often this takes the form of overt intimidation. Social media and digital communication – which in themselves can and should be forces for good in our democracy – are being exploited and abused, often anonymously.
British democracy has always been robust and oppositional. But a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation. When putting across your point of view becomes trying to exclude and intimidate those with whom you disagree.
Women in the nineteenth century had to contend with open hostility and abuse to win their right to vote in the twenty-first century it cannot be acceptable for any women – or any person – to have to face threats and intimidation simply because she or he has dared to express a political opinion.
Sadly, that has all too often become the case.
A hundred years after bringing all voices – male and female, rich and poor – within our Parliamentary democracy we now face the prospect of our country’s public debate becoming oppressively hostile and participation in it a risk which many are unprepared to run.
We can all see this change happening and I know that many share my concern about it.
Just last week, the Leader of Haringey council resigned, citing, ‘sexism, bullying, undemocratic behaviour and outright personal attacks’ which had left her ‘disappointed and disillusioned.’
It is a depressing coincidence that in the week we are celebrating the first inclusion of women in the democratic process, one of the most senior women in local government has in effect been hounded out of office. In our universities, which should be bastions of free thought and expression, we have seen the efforts of politicians and academics to engage in open debate frustrated by an aggressive and intolerant minority. It is time we asked ourselves seriously whether we really want it to be like this. Whether we are prepared to accept a permanent coarsening and toxifying of our public debate, or whether, together, we will take a stand for decency, tolerance and respect.
Whether we choose to be a society in which we define ourselves by our differences or whether we want to be members of a community of common interest.
Those of us – the vast majority of all political persuasions – who want a healthy and pluralist public debate, where civility and tolerance are the default setting and abuse and intimidation have no place where every voice counts and no one is bullied out of speaking their mind have a responsibility to stand up and help deliver it.
Action we will take
Last year I commissioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an investigation into intimidation following last year’s general election.
Their report makes sobering reading.
In this centenary year of votes for women its finding that ‘candidates who are female, black and minority ethnic or LGBT are disproportionately targeted in terms of scale, intensity and vitriol’ is a cause of deep concern. Such abuse risks undermining the diverse democracy which we have built in this country over succeeding generations.
But the committee’s report also points the way forward.
It presents a credible plan of action to help build a more civil public debate and I welcome its recommendations. All of us in public life have a responsibility to challenge and report intimidating behaviour wherever it occurs.
We must all seek to uphold the highest standards of conduct.
We must set a tone in public discourse which is neither dehumanising nor derogatory and which recognises the rights of others to participate.
In word and in deed we should never engender hatred or hostility towards individuals because of their personal characteristics.
And we must not allow disagreements about policy or questions of professional competence to lead to vitriol and hostility.
These responsibilities fall on each of us as individuals, and collectively on the political parties.
My Party has already put in place a new code of conduct for all representatives which puts respect and decency at its core.
And we have proposed that the other political parties follow us in signing a respect pledge for all campaigning, and I hope that they will take us up on that suggestion.
For its part, the government will act on the Committee’s recommendations.
We will take action to make our electoral process more robust and offer greater protections for people taking part in elections.
While intimidation is already a crime, we will consult on making it an offence in electoral law to intimidate candidates and campaigners.
And because some candidates and their families have been targeted for abuse in their own homes, we will extend to candidates for local government the same protection which parliamentary candidates have to keep their home addresses secret.
I can also confirm that the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing will implement each of the recommendations in the report which refer to them.
This includes ensuring a clear standard is set for the police when dealing with intimidation and online activity during an election.
And it is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs.
Social media is one of the defining technologies of our age. For millions of people, particularly young people, it is the means by which they engage with the world, express opinions and communicate with family and friends. In many cases this is clearly a force for good. More voices can find clearer and wider expression. Campaigns can gain publicity and traction.
Through the ‘Me Too’ movement, victims of sexual harassment and assault have felt empowered to speak out using social media.
But as well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse.
This is true for children facing the daily misery of online bullying, where a smartphone allows their persecutors in effect to follow them home and continue to torment them even after school has finished. And it is also true for many adults. This squanders the opportunity new technology affords us to drive up political engagement, and can have the perverse effect of putting off participation from those who are not prepared to tolerate the levels of abuse which exist. The Committee on Standards in Public Life makes a number of recommendations for action which social media companies can take to address this problem.
It sets them a clear challenge to do much more to ‘prevent users of their platforms from being inundated with hostile messages on their platforms, and to support victims of this behaviour.’ The social media companies themselves must now step up and set out how they will respond positively to those recommendations So far, their response has been encouraging, and I hope they will continue in that spirit. For its part, the government will publish our Internet Safety Strategy in the spring. It will set out details of a comprehensive new social media code of practice. It will cover the full range of issues we considered in our green paper – from enforcing community guidelines, to preventing the misuse of services.
It will make it easier for people to report inappropriate, bullying and harmful content when they come across it and ensure that firms have clear policies for taking this content down.
We will also establish a new Annual Internet Safety Transparency Report, to provide UK-level data on what offensive online content is being reported, how social media companies are responding to complaints, and what material is removed.
And to ensure that the criminal law, which was drafted long before the creation of social media platforms, is appropriate to meet the challenges posed by this new technology, the Law Commission will conduct a review of the legislation relating to online offensive communications.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life also called for the government to legislate to shift the liability of illegal content online towards social media companies.
These platforms are clearly no longer just passive hosts of the opinions of others, so we will look at the legal liability that social media companies have for the content shared on their sites.
The issue is far from straightforward, so we will consider carefully what approach we should take.
We are already working closely with international partners and social media companies themselves, to understand how we can make the existing frameworks and definitions work better and assess whether there is a case for developing a new definition for these platforms.
Changes in technology are also having a profound impact on one of the cornerstones of our public debate – our free press. Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion. It is a huge force for good.
But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism. Over 200 local papers have closed since 2005.
Here in Greater Manchester, several local newspapers have closed, including the Salford Advertiser, the Trafford Advertiser and the Wilmslow Express.
This is dangerous for our democracy.
When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy.
So to address this challenge to our public debate, we will launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press.
It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism. And because digital advertising is now one of the essential sources of revenue for newspapers, the review will analyse how that supply chain operates. It will consider whether the creators of content are getting their fair share of advertisement revenue. And it will recommend whether industry or government-led solutions can help improve the sustainability of the sector for the future. A free press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built and it must be preserved.
Tolerance and decency
But the action we need to take to secure our democracy goes far beyond rules and reviews. It goes to the heart of how we conceive of political differences and, more profoundly, how we treat each other. At its best, British public life is characterised by the values which we have traditionally been most proud of as a nation. Fierce rivalry, yes, but also common decency. A rejection of extremism and absolutism. We have seen that spirit most clearly at some of our darkest moments. We saw it during the Second World War, when Conservative and Labour politicians put their rivalries and political differences aside to unite in defence of our common values. And we saw that spirit again recently, when Tessa Jowell made her deeply moving speech in the House of Lords about her own experience of suffering from a brain tumour and what more we can do to help people live well with cancer. She held peers from all parties spellbound, and all responded to a speech of great courage with an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. Because while political differences may separate us, and while those differences may at times be profound, so much more unites us. When we forget that fact, when we harden our hearts against those with whom we disagree when we exaggerate differences, doubt motives, accuse others of bad faith we risk destroying genuine debate and we leave open the path to extremism and intolerance.
We were reminded of that truth so tragically in 2016, when a politically-motivated extremist murdered the MP Jo Cox. Following that outrage, some inspirational words from Jo’s maiden speech rightly entered into our common political lexicon. Describing her experiences as a candidate, the new MP for Batley and Spen, said:
While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.
It is a lesson which we must never forget.
That sentiment chimes much more closely with how the public feel about politics than do shrill and tribal insults. Most people don’t view politics through an ideological prism. They want politicians to work together to improve their lives and our country. They expect disagreements and debate about the best way forward. But they also want practical solutions which will improve people’s lives. As the famous suffragette battle cry put it – they want ‘deeds not words’.
And each day in Downing Street when I pass the framed portraits of my 53 predecessors, 52 of whom were men I focus not on what I can say but on what I can do to make our country a better place.
Negotiating a Brexit deal that respects the vote of the people and delivers a prosperous future for everyone.
Improving our schools, our colleges, and our universities, so every young person in this country, male or female, from every background, has the greatest chance to get on and do well in life.
Tackling the injustices which still hold too many people back.
And as the woman at the head of our country’s government, a century after my grandmothers were first given the right to vote, my mission is clear.
To build that better future for all our people, a country that works for everyone, and a democracy in which every voice is heard.”
Published 6 February 2018