Theresa May needs a post-Brexit vision of a ‘United Kingdom free to chart its own way in the world’. The election will test her leadership
Theresa May is no Margaret Thatcher. She is bolder — much bolder. With the example of Edward Heath’s disastrous 1974 snap election a recent memory, Mrs Thatcher never took the risk of a calling an election until she had served a full term of office and was confident of victory. She stood on her record and left it to the voters to decide what mattered most to them.
Mrs May, by contrast, is attempting to win a landslide on a single issue after less than a year in office. It is a bigger gamble than it looks. Even if the electorate agrees with her request for a mandate to negotiate Brexit, she could come unstuck. There is no appetite in the country for a rerun of last year’s referendum. But she will have to show that Brexit is just part of a much grander vision of the kind of country she wants Britain to be.
Europe, after all, was the answer given by the British political class to Dean Acheson’s cruel jibe more than half a century ago: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” If not Europe, then what is our role? She needs to have a better answer to that than any we have heard so far. In her speech announcing the election in Downing Street, the Prime Minister evoked “a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world”. Fair enough; but what is it exactly that we require that freedom for? What is our own way in the world? And what is the destination?
These are questions that are unlikely to be answered, or even asked, in this election campaign. It is almost certain that many of the 17 million Britons who voted for Brexit will stay at home. But the underlying concerns that led to last year’s vote have not gone away. Immigration has been an issue for at least half the country since 1968, yet it is only now that the voices of what David Goodhart calls “Somewheres” — those who feel attached to a particular place and a certain enduring idea of the nation — are being heard. Yet even now, politicians are uncomfortable explaining what it is to be British in the 21st century. Border control is at the heart of what most people mean by “taking back control” over their lives. The single market requires open borders to EU citizens. Yet Remainers, led by the Liberal Democrats, persist in maintaining that Britain can belong to the single market, even outside the EU, without mentioning that this would make border control meaningless. Mrs May, our longest-serving Home Secretary for decades, knows better than most why border controls are necessary. She should be in a strong position to address the border anxiety that made Brexit happen.
Since the election before last, just seven years ago, the number of people in the UK who were born outside it has grown by more than 1.4 million. Many of them are Muslims, whose numbers are doubling every decade, due not only to migration but also natural increase and conversion. London now has a population of more than a million Muslims, including the Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Despite successful examples of integration, a recent poll suggested that almost half of Britons would like all Muslim immigration to cease. They are worried by signs of radicalisation and hostility, such as the fact that more Muslims volunteered for Isis than for the British armed services. A month ago, an Islamist convert attacked the Houses of Parliament, killing five people. They included a policeman, PC Keith Palmer, whose obsequies aroused an unprecedented outpouring of grief and national solidarity. There was no backlash, but nor was there much evidence that Muslim communities cared that the radicalisation of Khalid Masood occurred while he attended mosques in Birmingham and East London. A common response to terror is not soul-searching but closing ranks.
This election may be the first in which the place of Islam in British society takes centre stage — not, we must hope, under the duress of a major terrorist attack. The Labour Party is often seen as “the Muslim party” — a factor that helps to explain its strength in many urban areas. But Labour’s claim that it does not tolerate anti-Semitism collapsed after Ken Livingstone avoided expulsion despite his attempts to identify Zionism with Hitler, echoing Communist propaganda. Labour has undoubtedly boosted its pro-Islamic credentials by endorsing anti-Zionism, yet many British Jews are not only appalled by the party’s direction, but are even wondering about the long-term future in a Britain where at least one of the two main parties denies the legitimacy of their attachment to Israel. In the last election this brutal disenfranchising of a community that has flourished in Britain for centuries was somewhat obscured by the fact that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was the son of Jewish refugees. This time, the presence of Jeremy Corbyn — a lifelong anti-Zionist — removes any ambiguity about Labour’s requirement to repudiate the Jewish State. By contrast, Mrs May has repeatedly demonstrated her admiration for Israel, even raising the possibility of a royal visit to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Parties that play identity politics by setting one minority against another must beware of the consequences. That Britain is already a bitterly divided society was made obvious last year by the referendum. The Conservatives, having held office for seven years, must bear some responsibility for this state of affairs. And Theresa May’s brief premiership has indeed been marked by a sincere attempt to reunite the country around the Judaeo-Christian values to which she appealed in her Easter message. However, the three opposition parties of the Left — Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists — do not speak her language. Their unifying values are those of either socialism or European federalism, or both. They intend to carry on guerrilla warfare, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, to reopen all the issues voters regard as settled — though derailing Brexit is only a means to the end of deconstructing the nation state and its institutions in favour of supranational ones.
Mrs May has an answer to the opposition: she says that “the country is coming together, but Westminster is not”. This, as various commentators and the Labour politician Yvette Cooper pointed out, is questionable on both counts: polls suggest that Leavers and Remainers (or Somewheres and Anywheres) mostly voted according to their perceived interests, so few have (like Mrs May) switched sides. And the government was getting its business through both Houses, despite a small majority in the Commons and none in the Lords.
Yet the Prime Minister was right to compare the country favourably with Westminster and, by implication, what Goodhart calls the global village (which includes the BBC, academia, the civil service and the City). Most people are not obsessed with politics; they are too busy getting on with their lives. They may or may not have liked the referendum result; either way, they accepted it and moved on. In so far as it affects them, their instinct is to make a success of it. That is not how Westminster works. Its adversarial system sees everything as a zero-sum game and consequently goes on rehearsing old arguments interminably. The Leavers may have “won the argument” on Europe, but the Remainers in Westminster and their allies in Whitehall live to fight another day, awaiting their restoration.
Mrs May has decided that the time has come to crush the resistance by the ultimate sanction of a general election, with all the risks that entails. She has invited this Rump Parliament of the pre-Brexit era to dissolve itself, though not in terms quite as harsh as Oliver Cromwell’s: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” The new Parliament will, we must hope, be representative of the new dispensation, not the old. But even assuming she is right, there is always the danger that the revolution might go too far and end by devouring its own children.
Mrs May’s leadership will be required to ensure that Brexit won’t (as Donald Tusk declared) be a horror movie directed by Hitchcock, but more like Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. The play ends, not with the victory of Agincourt, but with Henry’s gentler conquest of the French Princess Katherine. When the latter asks if it is possible for her to love the enemy of France, Henry woos her thus: “No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well, that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.” She replies: “I cannot tell vat is dat.” There is no reason why post-Brexit relations with Europe should be any less good-humoured; after all, the British have not just slaughtered the flower of the French nobility, or anybody else for that matter, but are merely exercising their legal right to leave the European Union.
Mrs May’s watchwords are certainty, stability and strong leadership. She needs to demonstrate leadership in order to preserve stability and banish uncertainty. She has promised that “we will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders”. But the United Kingdom will only be free to chart its way in the world if it really is united. A large majority for the May government would probably see off the threat of another Scottish referendum, especially if Nicola Sturgeon receives the result in this election that the SNP’s indifferent record in government deserves.
The real challenge to any Conservative prime minister worthy of the name is not the break-up of the UK, but its political, social and cultural hollowing out from within. To reinvigorate the body politic, Mrs May cannot preserve it in a state of suspended animation while negotiations with Brussels drag on; she must deliver a full programme of reform at the same time as Brexit. She may not be a thinker, but she is certainly thoughtful. Right now she needs the visionary courage of a Thomas More combined with the ruthless realpolitik of a Niccolo Machiavelli. She must be a woman for all seasons: not only now, in the springtime of a Europe of nations, but later, too, in the winter of our discontent. Over the next seven weeks, she needs to give the electorate a much clearer notion of her aims and values. Not the sense of an ending, but of a new beginning; not just the necessary but negative goal of disengagement from Europe, but the positive inspiration of a greater, more gracious Britain. Theresa May must be the Prime Minister of a kingdom united in the pursuit of life, liberty and, yes, Western civilisation.