Theresa May has announced her upcoming departure, in a speech (transcript) closing with tearful ‘enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’
I found her speech really frustrating, and the ‘oh you’ve got to feel sorry for her, on a human level’ responses troubling.
If you feel for May in that moment, I can understand why – but bear with me here. I’m not asking you to harden your heart, but quite the opposite.
First, let’s look a bit at how she ‘served’ the country.
For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton — who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport — was my constituent in Maidenhead.
At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.
He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.”
It’s too easy to harp on May’s pathological stubbornness in the face of that advice, so I’ll focus on the irony of her using this man in particular as anecdote fodder.
The Windrush scandal isn’t something a government rooted in the humanitarian ideals that motivated Kindertransport could be responsible for. British citizens were denied access to healthcare, made redundant, homeless, or deported – thanks in large part to May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which sought to actively make the country unwelcoming, such as by sending vans round telling people to ‘go home’. Lovely!
Politico’s Jack Blanchard puts it plainly: ‘May has been badly exposed by the Windrush affair, which is difficult to see as anything other than the responsibility of whomever was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.’
What’s more, a report this year found that the Home Office was doing ‘as little, rather than as much, as possible to find and help people affected by its actions’. People are still suffering because of this – effectively because they’re the wrong colour.
That this scandal alone didn’t bring May’s career to an immediate and shameful end says something dark about us a nation. We think so little of people who came here, faced enormous prejudice, and spent their lives contributing to society.
I have striven to make the United Kingdom a country that works not just for a privileged few, but for everyone. […] I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan.
Well then, she’s failed utterly, hasn’t she? By pretty much any standard inequality has ballooned. I mean, the DWP made someone starve to death. Even ‘I, Daniel Blake’ didn’t go quite that far.
UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK makes for stark reading, with ‘2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.’
Alston was right to say that ‘The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial [but] many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations[.]’ Routinely, May and her ministers shook their heads, laughed, or resorted to misleading stock phrases and massaged stats in response to the opposition et al raising these issues.
With Universal Credit linked to suicide risks, how can May claim to advocate for mental health?
I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower
And the Fire Brigade Union’s response:
‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.’
72 deaths, no prosecutions.
the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.
This is a very ‘trickle down’ version of feminism, in which a woman leading is woke regardless of what she does.
The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.
Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.
This is another purely performative statement. This solidarity applies unless you’re from Windrush, or poor, or disabled, or…
Oh, did you know the government deports LGBT asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk and tells them to ‘pretend to be straight’?
Aside from that, Theresa May is on your side.
Journalist Owen Jones pointed out on Sky News that we should be feeling sympathy for the victims of May’s policies. To which the interviewer said, ‘You can’t just respond on a human level?’ But as Jones said – ‘I have’.
I’ve commented on my issues with civility-centered discourse before, and here it is again.
A political opponent isn’t a member of an opposing sports team, with the codes of sportsmanship and noblesse oblige which that implies. They have different values, and implement policy accordingly. It’s one thing to suggest a role for compromise and mutual understanding in the world, that we recognise the humanity of opponents and work together where appropriate. But if their policy leads to death and misery, we’re supposed to shake their blood-soaked hand at the end of the match as though it didn’t happen?
What is the appropriate way to respond on ‘a human level’ to someone responsible for mass misery and hardship weeping in their resignation speech? What could be appropriate but to center their victims?
YouTuber Mexie has discussed the distinction between the sort of flashy fast violence that’s easy to appreciate as such, and the more systemic, genteel type of violence that happens in offices distant from the scene.
It’s hard to grasp quite what May’s career has involved. This kind of violence can be abstract, passing through the rapid news cycle. Even reading the reports and checking the stats doesn’t do it justice.
Imagine May, during her speech, throwing a grenade into a crowd (selling weapons to Saudia Arabia, despite Yemen). Or imagine she took you from your house in the middle of the night in winter, and locked you in a cage outdoors to die of exposure (soaring homelessness). Or imagine she bundled you in a van and abandoned you in another country (unjust deportations).
Really think about it. See what I mean?
The only differences between the direct violence I’m asking you to imagine, and her government’s ruinous policies, are scale and ‘legitimacy’. It would have been better if May committed direct violence rather than stamping documents, since one person can’t inflict anywhere near as much harm as a state apparatus. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.
How is lobbing a grenade in a crowd different from arming Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen? The latter kills more people. Would you ‘feel for’ the bomber being arrested? No? So why feel for an arms dealer resigning?
The thing is, after all that, I still think Theresa May is a human. Of course she is, and due universal inalienable rights as such. Recognising that, though, doesn’t have to imply throwing all perspective out the window, to the point of ignoring the reality of her actions.
It’s hard to genuinely wrestle with the humanity of people you profoundly disagree with, who are responsible for terrible things. It’s much harder than pretending political opponents are just like players on a different sports team, so you can take the real challenge out of ‘love thy enemy’ and still feel magnanimous.
The fault isn’t simply hers, but endemic in a Conservative party which measures human life by market value, despite the performative rhetoric and crumbs from the table. When May sobbed I think she genuinely believed she’d done good, really saw herself as trying to ‘serve the country I love’. That’s tragic and frightening. It shows just how little of an impression reality has on the spin, how little some people count.
Here’s a human level: it’s heartbreaking for all involved that Theresa May never served the country in the way she claims to have wanted to.