Theresa May's speech - image, number 10.
Theresa May’s historic speech at Lancaster House will go down as one of the last manifestoes of English imperialism and perhaps its final call. The latter depends on the response of the other European powers as well as Scotland and whether they have the will and capacity to call her bluff.
The ostensible purpose the speech was to set out the U.K.'s Brexit strategy. But May stated at the start, “That means more than negotiating our new relationship with the EU. It means taking the opportunity of this great moment of national change to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be”. Her answer, “I want us to be a truly Global Britain”.
She mentioned "Global Britain" eleven times. The phrase was branded on the lectern as well as the wall behind her. If it strikes you as more than accidental that “global” alliterates with “great” you would be right. For the phrase Global Britain is capitalised in the official text of the speech on the Downing Street website. Global is not used as a regular adjective, it has become part of the country's proper name. It is no longer credible to boast of ourselves as Great Britain. But rather than lose the imperial brand, we can replace it with Global. Greatness modernised!
There was another twist to the imperial subtext when she addressed herself directly to "our friends across Europe". She wanted to explain to them – the audience was made up of ambassadors from EU countries – the reason for the referendum’s outcome is that the country wants “to restore, as we see it… national self-determination…”. Coming from the mouth of Downing Street, which has had to grant national self-determination to many a colony, usually under duress, this a provocative dig at the imperial pretentions of the EU. It is an endorsement of Brexit as a liberation from an occupying power. And it plays that familiar gambit of bullies everywhere, it makes out that Britain is a victim.
At the start of her description of the kind of country she wants us to self-determine, May said, “we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead”. And, “A stronger Britain demands that we do something else – strengthen the precious union between the 4 nations of the United Kingdom”. She mentions three of the nations by name, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was no mention of the fourth. Yet at the end of this section she spoke in a commanding, possessive tone, saying the government was determined that there will be no new barriers “within our own union”.
Then she added, and, “as we do this, I should equally be clear that no decisions currently taken by the devolved administrations will be removed from them”. This looks like a gesture of respect if not generosity. In fact it is an outrageous claim. It presumes she has the unilateral power to reduce the authority of the “devolved administrations”, should she so wish. Who is occupying whom in this case? It is not just up to her as to whether decision making will be “taken” from the Scots and the Welsh, or without the agreement of Dublin from the Northern Irish. Nor are they simply “devolved administrations”, these are governments authorised by their own parliaments. This is not an acknowledgment of other governments within the Kingdom but of “devolved governance”, as if to recall the phrase of Enoch Powell’s “power devolved is power retained”.
What we are witnessing in Theresa May is an English voice, full of its own conceit, presuming itself to be in sole charge of its “precious union”, so as to bend Britain to its will. Doing so, she told the Europeans, because:
Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.
This sets her face against any constitutional reform at this moment of profound change. We are not going to update the UK or become a modern country with a written, democratic constitution. We will stay as we are. The reference to coalition is a signal to her own party that we don’t want any more of that if we can help it – and there will be no change to the voting system. It is also an aggressive push back against Scotland too.
But Scotland today enjoys a government based on popular not parliamentary sovereignty. Its constitution is not yet written down in an independent document, however, its powers are codified, its legal tradition is rooted in Europe’s codified one, and its parliament is permanent. As Adam Ramsay set out in an openDemocracy article widely read in the approach to Scotland’s independence referendum of 2014, it is not Scotland that's different it is Britain that's bizarre.
The prime minister called for both sides in the coming negotiations between the UK and the EU to show “imagination”. If Europe’s leaders were to show some real imagination and stop pushing Scotland out of the EU against its wishes, they would offer it generous economic terms to ensure it remains. If they did, Theresa May’s proclamation of continuity would be just words.
She is aware of this vulnerability. Hence the extraordinary threat that she made, behind her smiling pitch for a free trade agreement. Agree, or it will prove to be “an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe”. Because if the EU does not do as she wishes, it “would jeopardise [its] investments” in Britain as well as its trade with “one of the biggest economies in the world”. So there!
She backed up her menacing talk by claiming, “if we were excluded from accessing the single market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model”. As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform notes, this is a hollow threat. If she tries to turn the UK into a low-regulation Singapore undercutting the EU, the prime minister will upturn the one set of positive changes she pledges for Britain after Brexit: robust workers’ rights and – perish the word – a European industrial strategy.
The more significant incoherence is institutional. Whatever the tensions in negotiation with the EU, Global Britain, she says, will be unified at home, “Because after all the division and discord, the country is coming together”. In May’s view, “The referendum was divisive at times. And those divisions have taken time to heal. But one of the reasons that Britain’s democracy has been such a success for so many years is the strength of our identity as one nation…”.
Hold on, "one nation"? This is the same person who in the same speech refers to “the 4 nations of the United Kingdom” and our “union of nations” has collapsed them into one? Some cognitive dissonance.
One nation style unity is on the way because, “the importance we attach to our institutions means that when a vote has been held we all respect the result. The victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously. The losers have the responsibility to respect the legitimacy of the outcome. And the country comes together”.
in this speech, there is not the slightest concession to anyone this side of UKIP
This is a very striking claim. May supported Remain but she speaks here as if she is a victor. But where is the magnanimity? the word implies not simply telling the losers to accept the outcome, but stretching out to them with some concessions to meet their concerns. Yet she makes not the slightest concession to anyone this side of UKIP. This is not a formula for coming together or unity. After May made her first speech about Brexit in October last year, I showed how the Daily Mail had taken power. When they are magnanimous, she will be. Until then, if you are not with her, you are an enemy of the people.
Which brings me to the NHS. The word 'England' may have been missing in her utterly English presumption about the country’s sovereignty, but its absence is an old trick. What is more surprising is the absence of any reference to the NHS. The campaign for Brexit was notoriously tattooed with a pledge to pump money into it. If there is one institution everyone, whether Remain or Leave, attaches importance to it is the Health Service. About this, and its desperate need for funds there is silence. Under Blair, New Labour pledged to bring UK expenditure of the NHS up to European levels, of over 10 per cent of GDP. Current projections seem to suggest it will sink back to below 7 per cent by 2020. Is this a preparation for the prime minister’s threat to alter the country’s “economic model”? Inflicting calamitous harm on the institution that most unites the country, in “one of the biggest economies in the world”. It does not make sense – unless the Daily Mail has taken over your brain.
The media understandably focused their response to the speech on the big story of what Theresa May is saying about Brexit. But her setting out “what kind of country we want to be” is as important. At the start she heralded a “great moment of national change”. Yet she is not proposing that Britain changes the way it is governed one bit. Instead of offering the Scots a federal settlement, giving the English who drove Brexit a voice (see Nicholas Boyle’s recent philippic), proposing an inventive solution for Northern Ireland, and acknowledging that London, a world city with its own directly elected mayor, voted to remain by 60:40, she insists we can make our greatness global and appears to want to take the country back to 1971, if without its then troublesome trade unions. Her Daily Mail approach has led the prime minister to place too much emphasis on firmness. What works for a headline does not good policy make. Every holder of her office is now haunted by the way Margaret Thatcher reshaped the country. But Thatcher's conviction was harnessed to a formidable programme of genuine domestic transformation and a new culture of government, whether you liked it or not. There is no such depth to May’s announcement of her beliefs.
Anthony Barnett is writing THE LURE OF GREATNESS: England's Brexit & America's Trump which can be pre-ordered here.