Next Tory leader will only continue Theresa May’s legacy
ON Friday, Theresa May choked out a speech littered with bizarre lies and nonsense before staggering off into Number 10 in tears.
Incredibly, she claimed: “Brexit was not just a call to leave the EU but for profound change in our country, a call to make the United Kingdom a country that works for everyone.”
I must have missed that among the dog-whistle politics, rampant xenophobia and resurgent Anglo-British nationalism.
Suddenly, improbably, this hopelessly inflexible and socially dysfunctional politician was all about compromise and social inclusion.
Perhaps less amusingly, the woman who sent out “Go Home” vans and sabotaged the Dubs Amendment dared to invoke the Kindertransport hero Sir Nicholas Winton in her defence. Graceless doesn’t quite do it justice – it’s breathless cynicism.
She leaves behind her a showreel of terrible vignettes and cameos: her dancing in Africa, her speech at conference where the staging collapsed around her and a series of humiliating social events across the capitals of Europe where her complete inability to communicate, negotiate or navigate a strategy meant that she wasted months and years of time.
Her reign of power will be remembered as an exercise in futility that opened the door to an even more toxic Tory leader and oversaw the rise of Ukip and the Brexit Party.
But if May’s departure was peppered by odd, incoherent language, completely contradictory statements and an impression this was almost completely inauthentic, this was appropriate as that was the characteristics of her time in office.
Her reign has been littered by almost gnostic phrases and half-quotes that hint at something but remain obscure, the language of a woman who was always slightly out of control: “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed,” she said at the launch of the Welsh Conservative manifesto in Wrexham.
“I have to confess, when me and my friend, sort of, used to run through the fields of wheat, the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”
“No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
“Brexit means Brexit.”
“Crush the saboteurs.”
These phrases hang in the air like dark epitaphs, memorials to May’s dismal reign.
She’ll be remembered as the PM who couldn’t deliver Brexit, but she should be remembered for other things too. Despite her notion that Brexit would mean Britain would become a “country for everyone”, this week saw the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty slam the austerity inflicted by successive UK governments.
In a damning indictment of the British welfare state, Philip Alston said policies introduced after the coalition government took power in 2010 had continued “largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences” such as record levels of hunger and homelessness.
His report found that although the UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy, one-fifth of its population – 14 million people – live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017, while close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.
“Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated,” said Alston.
As part of the fact-finding mission, Alston said he met with women who had sold sex for money or shelter, young people who felt gangs were the only way out of destitution and people with disabilities who are being told they must go back to work – against their doctor’s orders – or lose support.
The report finds that in the face of these problems, the Government had remained “determinedly in a state of denial”, concluding that “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War had been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.
The reality is that these damning indictments of British welfare policies are not new – they are the outcome of years of ideological consensus. But this idea that the social cohesion that bound Britain together has been unbound is key. The Union will not collapse because the people of Scotland want self-determination, because there’s a border poll in Ireland or because the Welsh wake up. The Union will collapse because the institutions and structures and the social capital has been systematically destroyed.
IN the post-May Tory Party there is deep unease about how this is all going to play out. Stirling Tory MP Stephen Kerr told MPs he is “worried about the fragility of the Union” and called on the UK Government to “seriously consider” the idea of setting up a new ministry focused on cohesion between the different countries in the UK.
Setting aside the obvious colonial feel that the proposed “Department for the Union” evokes, it does smack of an attack on devolution. Kerr writes: “Scottish local authorities are separated from their English counterparts, Scottish Enterprise competes with UK Government agencies and systemic incompatibilities in the health service make staff transfers difficult. There is no good reason for any of this. A road that needs repair, a child that needs support or a disease that needs curing is no different on either side of the Border. Surely by working together across governments, parliaments and throughout society we can achieve much more for the good of everyone. This is the message I receive consistently from my constituents in Stirling.
“The Canadians have a Department of Intergovernmental Affairs that provides the impetus for co-operation at all levels of government. It holds meetings throughout the provinces with staff representing all parts of Canada. The Canadian prime minister is the ‘unity minister’ in charge of this department.
“Here, a Department for the Union could replicate this function, drawing staff from all parts of the UK with a mission to drive co-operation and partnership working. It would help spread good ideas and improve services where difference has driven successful innovation and serve as a respectful place to negotiate where there are arguments to be had.”
I don’t think they’ve thought through the “optics” of this one, as the saying goes.
The problem for the Conservative vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that they’re getting high on their own supply. The vapours of nationalism, the idea of an Imperial Britain sailing off into a sunset of greatness is thin on detail. But it’s intoxicated the Tory mind.
Where once the Union was treated as something to be nurtured with condescending platitudes and crumbs, bought-off and assimilated politicians and enough symbolism and ceremony to keep the Jocks placid, now it’s treated as something to be imposed. Conservative paternalism is dead and you can see this across their approach to social policy as much as constitutional thinking.
The arrival of any of the contenders for the vacant leadership role will only exacerbate that further.
But if a Boris Johnson premiership would no doubt be a major boost to the cause of independence, we should not forget the role that May has played in laying the groundwork.
In assessing May’s time in office we shouldn’t let her personal fragility and the isolation she experienced within her own party and cabinet to blind us from the darkness of her own policies and world view.
The following is a verbatim transcription of real audio from a speech she gave in 2017 in which the Prime Minister of Britain compares those who argue for self-determination for Scotland with Daesh: “It’s about ensuring we are a more united nation. That means taking action against the extremists who try and divide us. But it also means standing up to the separatists who want to break up our country.”
May’s reign in office will be remembered as the time when Britain dissolved in humiliating shame and farce, and the case for independence was made by the election of people previously thought unfit for office.