was chair of the Conservative Party and, in her red leather jacket and leopard-print shoes, still considered rather racy when Roy McCloughry talked to her on 18 February 2003.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You were brought up a vicar’s daughter. What lasting values did that upbringing instil in you?
I think that one of the key things – to link it in with the political life I then went on to get involved with – was the value of service to others, always wanting to help others to make a difference to their lives.
It’s interesting, there are quite a few clergy sons and daughters in the House of Commons and I think they have that same public-service ethos.
Did you go to church as a child? Did you have to?
Oh yes. Well, I didn’t have to. I think that was one of the key things my parents have always said to me, that obviously they would very much like it if I were a regular churchgoer and so forth but they weren’t going to force me to go. And so I did it of my own choosing, and I think that was… It’s interesting, I had some friends who were clergy daughters who felt they were pushed into going to church and later on kicked over the traces.
Would you call yourself a Christian now?
I do call myself a Christian, and I am still a practising member of the Church of England. Was there ever any blinding flash, any point in time at which I can say I decided to be a Christian? No, I don’t think so. I grew up in a Christian faith, in a family where Christian faith was very strong, and I suppose there was a positive process in accepting that.
The politicians we have interviewed who have a faith seem to fall into two camps. Some see it essentially in terms of moral values; others see it as a spiritual commitment, which may actually be quite private. Do either of those sound like you?
I’m not sure I would describe myself as falling into either. For me, there is a genuine question about the extent to which politicians are in the business of imposing moral values on people. I think this is an interesting issue for us as politicians today, which of course challenges those of us who are Christians. Yes, my Christianity does give me a moral backing to what I do and I would hope that the decisions I take are taken on the basis of my faith and it is that faith that – it’s terribly jargonistic if I say ‘informs’ those decisions, but, yes, is part of the background.
Did your Christianity lead you to conservatism?
I think – yes, it did in a sense. I haven’t toyed with any other party. It did because when I was growing up there was a clear-cut choice between conservatism and socialism – and, though a Christian moral argument is often put for socialism, I think that because it (and its extreme form, communism) denies the value of the individual, it actually isn’t based on what I would call ‘Christianity’. To me, conservatism is a set of values that recognises the value of the individual but also recognises their relationship with others in society and their need to contribute to a society, to be part of that greater thing.
The age of deference has gone. Now we live in a world of consumer politics
When Margaret Thatcher was in power, the idea of the individual was somewhat separated from that of the community. There was an isolationist view of the individual, wasn’t there, which was a rather inadequate basis for conservatism?
There were certainly problems for us as a party towards the end of our time in government [from 1979 to 1997].
There had been, I think, a very real need to release the energies and abilities of individuals and to give them that opportunity to blossom, to shine, to do what they wanted to do, rather than feeling that the state was stopping them from (if you like) being able to achieve what they wanted to achieve. I think that was where we started, and it was very important, to release that dead hand of state control.
What happened towards the end was that, rightly or wrongly, people felt it was becoming something that just promoted the individual without promoting the community and realising their role in society as a whole. I think that was where many people felt that the party wasn’t going down the route they wanted it to go down – and that was one of the reasons we lost the general election in ’97.
You have pointed out that the idealism of the young is focused more on single issues now. Do you think that political parties should be saying, ‘OK, we’re democrats. If we want to represent these people, we must pay much more attention to ecological issues [say] than we have done before’?
I think there is a real need for political parties to recognise where the vote is at, if you like, to recognise the issues that are concerning people and be willing to talk about them and do something about them. And particularly, I think, we need to be more open to campaigning on single issues than we have been in the past. You know, the days when political parties could say to people, ‘This is our ism, this is our ideology’ and that’s it are gone. Of course, you’ve got to have those values and principles and beliefs that shore up what you do as a political party, but people are much more looking at what you are going to do on particular issues.
How do you find the correct compromise between giving the public what they want – which politicians call ‘responding to public opinion’ – and offering us what you think is right or necessary?
The job of a politician is to balance people’s views with what they believe to be right. MPs are not delegates – we’re not sent to Parliament simply to do what voters say should be done. We owe voters our judgement, as Edmund Burke said.1‘Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion’ – from a speech to the ‘electors’ of Bristol in 1774
However, I would argue that too many MPs in the past have taken the view that they knew best and didn’t need to test public opinion at all because their constituents trusted them always to get things right. That age of deference has gone now. Obviously there will still be occasions when politicians choose a particular course in spite of public opinion – the current debate on war in Iraq is a good example – but we live in a world of consumer politics now and people do expect to be given an explanation of the stance being taken.
You’re trying to associate the Tories with the notion of ‘compassionate Conservatism’. Given the many years when Thatcherism put the emphasis on individualism, is it going to take a long time to turn the party round?
What I think about compassionate, or caring, Conservatism – whatever phrase one attaches to it – is that it is actually, if you like, core Conservatism. We have always been a party that believes that people and society flourish better if government gives people a helping hand to help themselves and others. And we’ve always been a party that believed that, while we should be releasing the abilities and energies of individuals, people do have a place within society and we should always ensure that the Government provides a safety net for those who can’t help themselves and, for a whole variety of reasons, find themselves in particular difficulties. That is, if I may say, what has always been Conservatism.
We have always been a party that believes that people and society flourish better if government gives people a helping hand to help themselves and others
What happened was that, in ’79, we had a very real need to do something urgently, about the state of the economy in particular, because – we all know the things they said about this country at the time: ‘the sick man of Europe’ and so on. We had to turn that around.
Do you think there are Christian beliefs at the heart of the Tory party? And, if so, how do they differ from those that are said to be fundamental to Labour?
Well, to go back to your first question, the concept of service to others, I think, has always been at the core of the party – the belief that in society people should be free to help others. There should be that safety net from government, but what happens is that government denies people’s ability to find how they want to be and to make decisions for themselves, their families and their local communities.
To me, the Christian faith is not just about the moral issues but about enabling people to be individuals, while recognising that ‘no man is an island.’ We are interlinked with others and have a role to play in giving service to others and improving (if you like) the common good by what we do.
Traditionally, it has come down to taxation policy: those who want to increase personal freedom have low taxation and those who want to raise the quality of public services have high taxation. At present, you are still talking about freeing up the person but you also have a commitment to high-quality public services. How can you reconcile those two things?
Oh, I think very easily. First of all, I would argue that some of the individuals who want to be freed are actually trying desperately to work in the public services and to deliver quality services but they find that, because of the way the system operates, they are not free to do so because there is too much centralisation, too much state control, too much imposition from the top. Our approach is not just about freeing individuals, it’s about freeing communities as well. It is about freedom at that much more local level, if you like.
The other point I would make is this: I think one of the problems we’ve had in the UK is that for too many years the debate has been stereotyped. As you say, it’s been ‘Either you raise taxes, spend money on public services and deliver quality services or you lower taxes, don’t spend so much on public services and therefore don’t have quality services.’
The days of those arguments are gone, I think, because what we see from experience in places like France and Germany is that actually it’s not about the level of money you spend, it’s about how you spend that money. I believe you can be a lower-tax government and deliver better public services, and part of that is about freeing the individuals who deliver public services to be able to do what they see as right in terms of quality of service.
Do you think that as a nation we’re becoming spiritually bankrupt?
Yes, maybe there is a real issue that a lot of people are yearning for something more spiritual in their lives but don’t find a way of achieving that. I think there are issues for the church, as well, in how it presents itself and offers that to people.
Have you come to any conclusions yourself about how the church could address this issue? It’s something we’re all struggling with.
I don’t know. I don’t have a magic wand or a single answer. I think we need to accept that very often the church can touch people in ways that aren’t obvious, and a lot of what it needs to do (and in many areas is doing) is about just being alongside people. Regular worship is crucial, but it isn’t saying: ‘If you’re going to achieve some spirituality, you have got to come and do it like this.’
If a politician is interested in things like shoes, it shows that we’re normal
I’m thinking, for example, that my father was very good at visiting people in the village – to him his job wasn’t just doing services on Sunday mornings – and when he died I remember we heard from somebody in a previous parish that he had touched their life enormously. They had never darkened the doors of the church but he visited them and talked to them and so on – and yet this was somebody he hadn’t ostensibly had any impact on.
Now, I’m not saying that no one should be coming to church – attendance at worship is crucial – but…
Friendship is very important.
Friendship is very important. Some of the churches I’ve been involved in have been very lively and have had a lot of people, and it has often started because they offer activities and that sort of thing and then people start to feel comfortable coming in and they probably know they want something else in life…
You take a strong interest in disability. Why is that?
My mother had multiple sclerosis and towards the end of her life was a wheelchair user, so I’ve seen it at close hand.
You have become famous for your red leather jacket and leopard-print shoes. Is this an attempt at self-branding, or are you trying to make a point?
I started wearing leather jackets because they came back into fashion. I don’t wear either them or the shoes as a ‘brand’ – I just like unusual shoes. I had no idea they would generate so much interest.
Do you think they have distracted attention from your substance to your surface?
I don’t mind the attention they got… Obviously I want people to think about what I say as well as what I wear, but I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. Also, I think that if a politician is interested in things like shoes it shows a normal side to us that many people suspect doesn’t exist.
What do women bring to politics that men do not?
Men talk, women do.
You want a 50-50 gender split in the party…
I think we need to get more women into politics. I think women bring a lot of experience and a lot of understanding of the issues that face most voters.
And how would it change the party?
Oh gosh, what would happen? I think we’d have a party that would more naturally focus on issues that matter to people on a day-to-day basis.
You mean it would be much more in touch?
I think so, yes.
A longer version of this interview was published in the April 2003 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||‘Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion’ – from a speech to the ‘electors’ of Bristol in 1774|
Theresa May was born in 1956 and educated at Wheatley Park School, a comprehensive school near Oxford. She studied geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, gaining an MA in 1977.
She embarked on a career in banking in the economic intelligence department of the Bank of England. In 1983 she moved to the InterBank Research Organisation, and two years later she joined the Association for Payment Clearing Services. She was head of its European affairs unit from 1989 to 1996, and then a senior adviser on international affairs.
She sat on the council of the London borough of Merton from 1986 to 1994, serving as chair of education in 1988–90 and as deputy group leader and housing spokesperson in 1992–94.
She first stood for Parliament in 1992, as Conservative candidate for Durham North West. She stood again in 1994, in a by-election in Barking, and was finally elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997. She held the seat four years later.
In her first year in the House, she sat on the select committee on education and employment and was joint secretary of the backbench home affairs committee, joint chair of the all-party disablement group and chair of the Conservative disability group.
In 1998 she spoke for the party on schools, disabled people and women, and the following year she entered the Shadow Cabinet as shadow secretary of state for education and employment. In 2001, she was promoted to shadow secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions. In 2002, after that huge department was broken up, she (briefly) took the brief for transport until she was made chair of the Conservative Party.
She has been married since 1980 and has no children.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2003