It’s usually difficult to describe the lasting legacy of a British Prime Minister in one word. For many, Theresa May (2016–19) seems to be the exception: failure. She inherited a small Conservative Party majority in the House of Commons and was under no political or constitutional pressure to hold a general election until 2020, but she called one nevertheless in 2017 and ended up losing that majority, forcing her to govern in coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party for the remaining two years of her premiership. Her first attempt to get the House of Commons to approve the Withdrawal Agreement her Government had negotiated with the European Union was rejected by 432 MPs, the largest defeat of any British government in history. She attempted twice more to get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed and failed on both occasions, thus making her the self-styled “Brexit Prime Minister” who failed to deliver Brexit. Notwithstanding all this, she was a Prime Minister who presided over several successes which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Just a month before she assumed office in July 2016, Her Majesty’s Treasury predicted that a recession was on the way. The Treasury, as well as many other economic authorities, predicted that firms would flee Britain en masse in light of the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit vote, putting at least half a million people out of work.
However, Theresa and her team helped to allay the fears of business. Throughout her tenure, policies were pursued that maintained the country’s reputation as a place it was safe to do business in. Just some examples: Business rates were cut by a third for small businesses, saving them £900 million a year; new technical training qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds were announced (T Levels); and £67 million was set aside for investment in broadband infrastructure so businesses could use the internet with speed and ease. Such initiatives won the support of leading industry groups, most notably the CBI, which lauded the Government for restoring “pride and confidence in British business.”
It cannot just be a coincidence that May’s premiership coincided with international investors being drawn to the shores of the U.K. In both 2018 and 2019, Forbes ranked Britain as the best country in the world to do business in. Starbucks scaled down its operations in Amsterdam, consolidating its head office in London. Chanel came across the channel from France, relocating its headquarters to London. Boeing opened its first European factory in Sheffield.
We were told to expect doom and gloom but instead Theresa May oversaw a jobs boom. The U.K. employment rate currently stands at 76.1 percent, the joint highest on record. Unemployment is 3.8 percent, the lowest rate since the autumn of 1974. Over a million more people are in work compared to when May took office.
Skeptics say these are fiddled figures that don’t account for the “explosion” of zero hours contracts. In reality, only 2.4 percent of the labour force are on zero hours contracts and 72 percent of them have said they don’t want more hours.
It’s also untrue that the quality of employment has been sacrificed in favor of quantity. Most of the new jobs that have been created since May took power have been permanent and full-time. Research reveals that this period has actually been one of “occupational upgrading,” with new professional and managerial roles making up the majority of the employment increase, particularly in business, real estate, healthcare and education. Since 2016, the number of people in part-time or precarious work has declined.
The jobs miracle is all the more miraculous when we consider that the parts of the country that have benefitted the most have been areas with previously low levels of employment such as Merseyside and South Yorkshire. The biggest beneficiaries are disproportionately from disadvantaged demographics such as people on low-incomes and ethnic minorities. The least-qualified third of the working-age population accounts for almost half of the net increase in employment and people with disabilities account for around one third. The employment rate for women currently stands at 72 percent, the highest in recorded history.
Given that there is no other economic variable more strongly correlated with unhappiness than unemployment, the British people should view the May Government’s maintenance of its downward trajectory as a good achievement. Members of Britain’s working-age population are more likely to be earning a wage now than they were three years ago—a wage that has risen by an average of 3.4 percent in the past 12 months.
The Just About Managing
On the 13th of July 2016, Britain’s second female Prime Minister was appointed by the Queen. Yet the ideology underpinning her inaugural speech was different to the free market fundamentalism associated with Margaret Thatcher, the country’s first female Prime Minister. Theresa May pledged to fight “burning injustice” and said she would govern on behalf of the “just about managing.” Such rhetoric has been followed up with real action.
Unravelling 40 years of EU integration is one of Britain’s biggest historical legal challenges, not least because a sizeable chunk of the legislation that protects workers’ rights originated in the EU. The outlawing of discrimination based on being a part-time or fixed-term worker and the right to rest breaks and paid holidays derived from EU directives. Many were concerned at the prospect of the Conservative Party presiding over the U.K.’s departure from the EU because several Tories who were also leading Leavers seemed to suggest that some of these workplace rights were “red tape” that needed to be torn up. Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith and Dominic Raab have all made such noises.
But one of May’s first steps was to promise not to water down workers’ rights. The European Union Withdrawal Act (not to be confused with the stillborn Withdrawal Agreement Bill) enshrined all existing EU employment legislation in U.K. law. Writing in the Financial Times, the Prime Minister pledged the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history.” And these weren’t mere words.
In September 2018 the Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Act was passed, granting working couples a day-one right to two weeks’ leave if they lose a child or suffer a stillbirth. Despite decades of Labour governments, no such legislation previously existed.
Theresa May was able to court big businesses while not capitulating to the demands of their lobbyists, instead raising workers’ wages. Her Government raised the minimum wage multiple times in spite of warnings by business groups that it would lead to lay-offs. In April 2019 the minimum wage was raised to £8.21, the greatest hike since its introduction in 1998. The U.K. now has one of the highest minimum wages in the OECD and yet employment continues to climb.
Companies that fail to comply with minimum wage law are also far more likely to get caught than they were three years ago. Funding for enforcement has more than doubled since 2015. In July of last year, 239 employers were named and shamed for underpayments, forced to pay up to £20,000 per worker in fines and collectively £1.44 million in backpay to those they had underpaid.
And it’s not just the 1.6 million minimum-wage workers who have benefitted from these changes. The percentage of low paid in the workforce as a whole has fallen from 20.7 percent in 2015 to 17.1 percent in 2018. Low pay in the U.K. is defined as less than two-thirds of median hourly pay, an amount that is higher than the minimum wage. Nevertheless, raising the wage floor has had a “spillover” effect on those earning above the minimum wage as employers have increased the wages of all their employees to preserve differentials between the lowest earners and those above them in the wage hierarchy. This constitutes the first sustained fall in low pay since the 1970s.
More money has been put into the pockets of the poorest and those on modest means through targeted tax cuts. The Personal Allowance—the amount you earn before you start paying income tax—has been increased. It currently stands at £12,500, meaning the average earner takes home £1,500 more each year than when May took office.
In addition, millions of ordinary working people have benefited from freezes to fuel duty, preventing a hike in the price of petrol and saving the average driver over £1,000 a year.
Young people haven’t been neglected either—far from it. Youth unemployment is at a record low, university fees have been frozen and students will not pay back their loans until they earn £25,000 instead of £21,000. It is estimated that this seemingly small change will save the average graduate £10,000 over a lifetime, or £15,700 for middle earners.
As employment and earnings have continued to climb, poverty has declined. Material deprivation is a metric that counts people who are unable to pay for four or more of the following: arrears on mortgage or rent payments or other loans, a one-week annual holiday away from home, a meal with meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every other day, unexpected financial expenses, a telephone, a colour TV, a car, a washing machine or adequate heating for the home. This fell from 5.2 percent in 2016 to 4.1 percent in 2017. Absolute child poverty also decreased by two percentage points in the first two years of May’s premiership.
Persistent poverty has also declined. In 2017, the U.K.’s rate was 7.8 percent, the eighth lowest in the EU—higher than in the Scandinavian countries but below the rate in both France and Germany. This means that Brits who find themselves in poverty aren’t likely to be poor for very long. The jobs boom and wage growth have worked in tandem. About 14 percent of people who exited poverty in 2017 did so because they found a job, while nearly half of the working poor exited poverty thanks to higher wages.
Theresa May’s Government also demonstrated how economic progress doesn’t have to be sacrificed to protect the environment. As with workers’ rights, she safeguarded and extended EU environmental standards. In a signature speech on the subject, she made it clear that “Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards.”
Britain was the country that led the industrial revolution and, under May, it has been leading the low-carbon revolution. Analysis from 2016 reveals the U.K. is decarbonizing at the fastest rate in the G20. Carbon intensity fell by 7.7 percent in 2016, which is almost three times the global average of 2.6 percent. This has been achieved through cuts to coal consumption which halved in 2016, falling to 3 percent in 2019—lower than ever before.
May’s Government co-founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance with Canada in November 2017 and in less than two years the initiative has received the support of over 70 countries, companies, cities, regions and other entities that have combined to phase out traditional coal power around the world.
The oceans, as well as the atmosphere, are now better protected. It’s estimated that every year over 150 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans and, as a result, one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating and getting tangled up in plastic waste. The May Government responded to this monumental problem with a multitude of ideas and initiatives.
For instance, the sale of products containing microbeads—tiny pieces of plastic used in personal care products—has been banned, something praised by green groups as one of the toughest bans in the world. (Just one shower is said to send 100,000 of them down the drain and into the ocean.) The sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds are also due to be banned. There are plans for a U.K.-wide deposit return scheme to be introduced by 2023, putting a price on the packaging of drinks that consumers can reclaim if they take their bottles back to the store.
Marine mammals and birds aren’t the only animals who’ve benefited from May’s green conservatism. CCTV is now mandatory across all abattoirs in England. The threat to elephants posed by poachers has been reduced with the Ivory Act 2018, criminalizing the sale of ivory. A Government-backed bill, pending in parliament, will make the maximum sentence for the most atrocious acts of animal cruelty five years—a tenfold sentencing increase.
Many further plans have been put in train by Theresa May. A new Northern Forest has been approved and has started to be planted, creating 50 million trees over 25 years. The next government will be bound by a pledge to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Astoundingly, on the 11th of June, May made more history by committing Britain to being the first major G7 country to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050. This will completely end the U.K.’s contribution to climate change. And far from being an empty promise, May has already put the country on course to achieving this goal. In 2019, the U.K., for the first time, is now producing more power from zero-carbon sources such as wind, solar and nuclear than from fossil fuels. It’s safe to say that Theresa May has left the country cleaner and greener than before.
It’s easy to forget that in 2016 May was the U.K.’s most popular politician. Her popularity persisted, with her favorable poll ratings six months after inauguration described as the longest honeymoon period enjoyed by any sitting Conservative Prime Minister since the end of World War II. Just last year, she was still the most liked living Prime Minister. May’s 2017 manifesto, which resolutely rejected “untrammelled free markets” and “the cult of selfish individualism,” saw her win the highest share of working-class votes for the Conservatives since 1979, even if she did lose her Party’s parliamentary majority. Ironically, in trying to break away from Europe, her approach was strikingly similar to the continental conservatism of Angela Merkel—one of the longest-serving leaders of the Western world. Had it not been for Brexit, and under a different set of circumstances, May might have been blessed with a better fate.
There’s a lot to learn from the legacy of the outgoing Prime Minister. Theresa May taught us that attracting employers doesn’t have to come at the expense of riding roughshod over the rights of employees, that choosing between the economy and the environment is a false trade-off and that capitalism and compassion can coexist.
Tal Tyagi is an independent journalist. Read other selections of his writings here.
Feature photo by Drop of Light / Shutterstock.