Within three weeks of Britain voting to leave the EU, Theresa May has seen off her competitors and will now replace David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party and as prime minister. Here, our experts take the measure of her six years running the Home Office and look at the areas where she really made her mark.
Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham
Theresa May cares about your communication data. A lot. As home secretary, she has fought numerous parliamentary battles to ensure that security services can access them. But in these battles, she has not been entirely intransigent. Details have certainly been negotiable, and her willingness to respond to well-founded criticisms in the context of the Investigatory Powers Bill in particular has been notable.
That is to her credit. But her concessions tend to be on details only, important as they may be. When it comes to the big questions about the necessity, usefulness and effectiveness of systems for retaining metadata or other forms of communication surveillance she has been resolute – even though many have opined that the benefits of the sweeping approach taken in recent laws are far from well-established.
This is indicative of May’s approach to many security-related issues: she is resolute in her policy decisions but willing to listen and to change questions of design and detail within reason. In this she shows firm convictions, but at least some openness to expertise and (to some extent) rights-based claims – notwithstanding her general conviction that human rights as currently applied by courts, and especially the European Court of Human Rights, can make us “less secure”.
Read more about the latest Investigatory Powers Bill here.
Psychoactive substances bill
Nick Davis, Manchester Metropolitan University
Home secretaries, particularly Conservative ones, like to “get tough” on all sorts of things. But in today’s more liberal climate it is increasingly difficult to find things to get tough on. Previous home secretaries have cracked down firmly on the right to silence in police interviews and the right to trial by jury. But cracking down on drugs, on the other hand, is always a winner.
UK drugs legislation is already fairly comprehensive. The Misuse of Drugs Act divides substances into classes, and assigns different levels of punishment to the possession or supply of each class. So possessing magic mushrooms is viewed less seriously than supplying heroin. These classifications are not without controversy, but at least there is a fairly clear legal structure.
So how did May get tough on drugs in 2015? She targeted “legal highs”. The Misuse of Drugs Act assigns each known substance to a class, but the drug market moves quickly; novel compounds can be created to mimic the effect of known drugs, escaping legal classification. Since these substances are not illegal, the police have fewer powers to monitor their sale or to seize potentially dangerous batches.
So May and her Home Office colleague Lord Bates duly came up with the Psychoactive Substances Act, which proposed a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances that are not covered by existing drug or medicine laws.
The problems with this idea quickly emerged. Incense used in churches can induce a trance-like state in some people, so the government had to reassure worshippers that incense would not be banned. Similarly, poppers have been used by gay men in particular for decades; the government proposed to ban them, then (possibly) un-ban them, and then finally excluded poppers from the legislation altogether.
The legislation is now in place, but its troubled birth leaves the sense that May pushed too hard for strong legislation in an area that requires nuance and a more open-minded approach instead.
Read more about the Psychoactive Substances Bill here.
Alex Balch, University of Liverpool
The problem with being home secretary is that gradually, everything ends up being about immigration. The political obsession with the topic led to the speedy downfall of a number of May’s predecessors, so her extraordinary longevity is something of a puzzle. Her record on immigration is less puzzling, however. She clearly understood once in office that she needed to constantly target immigration, both rhetorically and with big pieces of legislation.
The two immigration acts passed under her tenure are fairly draconian. Both are deeply politicised; they focus on making Britain a “hostile environment” for migrants, reducing migrants’ rights (particularly to welfare), mobilising as many Britons as possible (landlords, for instance) to crack down on them, and criminalising breaches of the immigration rules.
Special mention should also be given to the widely criticised Operation Vaken, a 2013 campaign against irregular migrants infamous for its “Go Home” vans. It was widely derided for achieving almost nothing beyond alienating immigrant communities.
This isn’t much of a change from the last years of Gordon Brown’s government, a greater level of theatre and a sharpening of rhetoric perhaps, but nevertheless a continuation and intensification rather than a paradigm shift. One explanation for her longevity is that the public discourse has been so toxic and the opposition in such disarray that there has been little political scrutiny of the rather illiberal developments brought in. Instead, the discussion has too often centred on her party’s ill-advised “pledge” to reduce net inward migration to the tens of thousands. Predictably, it has failed to meet that target, and net migration has actually gone up in the last few years.
While this haunted Cameron in the EU referendum, May’s current leadership credentials rest on her ability to dodge and weave and create distance from rash pledges of this kind, demonstrating some political skills. Despite clearly failing to deliver, she has been able to blame others (coalition partners, the EU etc.) even in one memorable interview “mis-remembering” the promise as a mere “comment” in the run-up to the 2015 election.
James Mehigan, Open University
Perhaps the highest profile insight into Theresa May’s relationship with the police is her 2014 speech to the Police Federation. Facing a relentless series of scandals from Rotherham to excessive use of stop and search, the police were (and continue to be) in a deep credibility crisis.
Covering a range of misdeeds, from the death of Ian Tomlinson to the Plebgate affair, May held little back: “The federation was created by an act of parliament and it can be reformed by an act of parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you.” This she told them before they implemented 36 changes recommended by an independent review.
The relationship has not improved significantly. At the 2016 conference an officer was applauded for saying May had given them a “telling off” on their performance on domestic violence.
While it is laudable to take on the police and demand they improve, it’s hard not to see these arguments on policing policy as a proxy battle in a larger industrial relations war – another in a series of struggles between a senior Tory and a powerful trade union.
The Fed, as it’s known, is an exceptionally powerful organisation, representing some 122,000 rank and file officers. For all that it may do in making statements on law and order and public policy, it is essentially a trade union. The police are barred from membership of traditional unions, so they have the Fed to represent them as a “staff association”. It is one of the most powerful unions in the country. They have the sorts of resources – mandatory membership, a massive war chest, political unity, and the ear of public officials – that other trade unions can only dream of.
So for all that May’s 2014 broadside was a bold and brave move, it won her a formidable adversary, too.
Fiona de Londras, Professor of Global Legal Studies, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham; Alex Balch, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Liverpool; James Mehigan, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University, and Nick Davis, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University