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The “Very British Populism” of Theresa May

March 24th, 2019

May is (at least at the time of writing) our first populist PM. Whaaaat?!?!? A woman about whom it might be said that far from lighting up a room when she enters it, she trails gloom behind her, a populist? She has no charisma, no wit, no ability to charm or work a crowd, no followers, no chanting fans. She cannot speak – sometimes literally. She asserts, she repeats, she reprimands. She cannot persuade. In what sense then is she remotely a populist?

Consider the following:-

  • June 2016: The People have spoken. This is her mandate. Nothing should constrain their “General Will”. It is her duty to enact what they instructed. Everything must be subordinated to this: existing treaty obligations, scruples, objections, principles, changed facts, changed minds, practicalities. Nothing must stand in the way of this sacred task. Only the heart-plucking music and uniforms are missing. The way she talks about the People’s decision, you’d have thought those who voted against Brexit amounted to 48 people not 48% of them. A politician who truly understands in their bones how a liberal democracy works, especially when difficult decisions are required, would seek to shape an outcome that reflected the result, not one that ignored everyone but the winners, imposed their own narrow interpretation of the result and then grandiosely announced that they were speaking for the People.
  • Her imperious demand for an increased mandate in 2017 because “While the country is coming together, Westminster is not.” Set aside for a moment the dubious nature of the former claim, the idea that Parliament should be there to do her bidding is one more commonly associated with populists than with politicians who really understand and seek to work within the checks and balances of liberal democracy.
  • Her determination to ignore the message that the much lauded People was telling her when they denied her not just an increased majority but her existing one.
  • Her contemptuous attitude to Parliament, viewing it as a body primarily existing to do the government’s bidding rather than one whose function is to scrutinise legislation and hold the executive to account. Parliament must not be consulted, it must not be allowed to vote unless it votes how she wants, it must be ignored, it must be sidelined, it must be lied to, it must be bullied into an exhausted last-minute Hobson’s choice decision. But it must obey. (Much criticism has been made, not all of it unfair, of MPs refusing to decide, arguing about fantasy solutions, voting in favour of what they claim to dislike and against what they claim to want. But all this fury, all this argument has only happened because MPs have been excluded until far too late. They should have been allowed to get involved months ago and listened to. Had they been, maybe now a cooler more rational analysis might be prevailing.)
  • The exasperated hectoring when MPs refuse to do what they are told. It is all their fault and the People will be very cross with them. (The People of course must not actually be asked what they think. They had their say. Once. No need to bother them again. She knows what they think.)
  • The outrage at the Opposition parties opposing, even for entirely glib, cynical and opportunistic reasons. How very dare they? One sometimes wonders if Mrs May understands how Parliament works or even remembers her own party opposing tuition fees when they were in opposition and reversing this when in government. This is normal politics not some hitherto unimaginable act of bad faith.
  • The shamelessness in ignoring the results of votes, what negotiating parties tell her, what advisors tell her. The refusal to listen. Reality is what she insists it will be.
  • The way one of the most significant decisions Britain has ever taken – a caesura in its economic and foreign policy with unknowable and incalculable consequences, whether good or ill, for years to come – has become all about her. As if it is all a gigantic homework test for Theresa – a sort of political Duke of Edinburgh award, PM class.  She is working constantly. Night and day, in fact. Look at her determination, her persistence, her insistence on doing her duty. She is working so hard at this, she deserves her prize; it would be churlish, wicked even, to deny her the result she has put all this effort into achieving. But it’s all about her. Her promises. Her hard work. Her deal. Not the government’s deal. Let alone the country’s. This is not how grown-up Parliamentary democracies are meant to work. Just as the Iraq war will forever be Blair’s war, so Brexit will forever be May’s Brexit. If only she’d confined her narcissistic tendencies to her shoes.
  • The focus on irrelevancies: empty slogans, a date which she has promised, the project which must be delivered (treating Brexit as if it were an administrative project – much like the deportation of Abu Qatada – rather than as a significant reordering of the political landscape) no matter what. These are deemed more important than whether the project is deliverable on the terms sold, whether the agreement is good or in Britain’s interests or has real and lasting consent. Process over content wins and, ironically, the focus on the former stops any real attention being given to the agreement’s content which is, perhaps, not as bad as all that.
  • The tendency to turn the whole issue into May vs Others: her critics, those in her Cabinet who won’t agree with her, her MPs, the courts, Parliament, the EU, those ghastly citizens of nowhere, the queue jumpers, the immigrants, the naysayers. And while she is not responsible for press commentary, she has been slow to defend those institutions which matter, which are essential to any functioning democracy: judges, courts, Parliament. She has enabled or been largely indifferent (one Conference speech excepting) to a climate where people expressing opposition or concerns are called “traitors”.

May is not the only party leader to behave like this. Corbyn exhibits many of the same traits: he too considers his mandate to come from the membership, ignores the votes he doesn’t like, keeps a closed circle, is contemptuous of his MPs, is shameless in saying whatever is needed to for a particular audience regardless of its truth or consistency, seems to have little regard for independent institutions or opposing views, treats all criticism as a form of lèse-majesté and creates the impression that he is Labour and Labour is him. There is more than a touch of “l’état c’est moi” about both of them.

Both parties seem in the grip of an illiberal political culture with two of the most unimaginative, rigid and unintelligent leaders around. Populism à la Anglaise.

Whatever else Brexit turns out to be, it is a reordering of Britain’s political, social and economic landscape cutting across traditional party divides. At such a time it is surely important to sustain our independent civil, legal and political institutions, to hang onto a liberal democratic culture, so that the changes, the rupture Britain is seeking to make can be done in a way that causes (or tries to cause) the least damage and at least offers the prospect of improvement.

Perhaps this will prove impossible. But it is one of the many ironies of Brexit that it is the EU (which some have sniffily dismissed as lacking Britain’s stable democratic culture) which, in its elegantly brutal agreement to an extension, is offering Parliament a chance to see if it can achieve this. We will see if Parliament is up to the task.

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