This is a fascinating read for anyone engaged in the continually unfolding Brexit drama that is dominating the headlines and dining tables across Britain. Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy and in his book, The Lure of Greatness exposed is the lie that Theresa May was really a ‘remainer’ at heart, in fact, quite the opposite. Also exposed is the almost unbelievable power and influence the Daily Mail and its infamous editor Paul Dacre had over the Prime Minister before he stood down and where Theresa May’s policy she battled for originated from.
Even David Cameron could see the damage Dacre and The Daily Mail were doing to the national narrative in terms of Europe and attempted to have Dacre fired. All of a sudden, some of the pieces of this complex political puzzle fall into place in this excerpt from Barnett’s book and a piece in openDemocracy.
The referendum’s outcome caught everyone unprepared. Michael Gove, whose forceful decision to support Leave turned the campaign, was fast asleep. He had gone to bed confident that he had made his stand and the country would continue as before. He and his wife Sarah Vine were woken by a call at 4.45, as she recounted in her column. ‘“Michael?” a voice said. “Michael, guess what? We’ve won!” There was a short pause while he put on his glasses. “Gosh,” he said. “I suppose I had better get up.” The government too was taken by surprise. Cameron simply resigned. Only the Bank of England had a contingency plan, to provide extra credit to steady the markets. This was hardly long-term.
Following Cameron’s resignation, the Brexiteers had fallen out amongst themselves in farcical confusion, and May emerged as the only disciplined and serious politician in contention. Far from being prepared herself, she had supported Remain. The way she backed the Cameron government had been low-key, reflecting her loathing of his and Osborne’s methods. But in a private, off-the-record discussion at Goldman Sachs on 26 May 2016, a month before the vote, she told its financial specialists: ‘I think the economic arguments are clear … I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think … a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe,’ and: ‘one of my messages in terms of the issue of the referendum, actually we shouldn’t be voting to try to recreate the past, we should be voting for what is right for the future’.
The country voted the other way. Cameron was decapitated. The Tory Party leadership contest was announced on the evening of 29 June, May declared her bid to be prime minister next morning – and set out what has now become the UK’s policy on Brexit. She decided she was the best person to ‘recreate the past’. At least she understood what she was doing as she put herself forward to be the party’s and the country’s leader. This is how she explained her change of mind:
“We’ve just emerged from a bruising and often divisive campaign. Throughout, I made clear that on balance I favoured staying inside the EU – because of the economic risk of leaving, the importance of cooperation on security matters, and the threat to the Union between England and Scotland – but I also said that the sky would not fall in if we left … now the decision has been made, let’s make the most of the opportunities … the task in front of us is no longer about deciding whether we should leave or remain. The country has spoken, and the United Kingdom will leave the EU. The job now is about uniting the Party, uniting the country – securing the Union – and negotiating the best possible deal for Britain.
The sense of the vulnerability of the Union as her priority is present from the start:
“The process of withdrawal will be complex, and it will require hard work, serious work, and detailed work. And it means we need a Prime Minister who is a tough negotiator, and ready to do the job from day one.”
And Brexit itself? A famous phrase was born.
“First, Brexit means Brexit. The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to re-join it through the back door, and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union, and it is the duty of the Government and of Parliament to make sure we do just that. Second, there should be no general election until 2020. There should be a normal Autumn Statement, held in the normal way at the normal time, and no emergency Budget.”
She then developed an unequivocal statement that promised a government that works for everyone; to alleviate the injustices of life for blacks, for women and for white working-class men. It was said to have been drafted for her by Nick Timothy, who had immediately joined her campaign team having, significantly, worked for Leave. He is now her joint chief-of-staff. They added this barb for Cameron and Osborne:
“Frankly, not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this, and some need to be told that what the government does isn’t a game. It’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives.”
May had met with Dacre before she made this leadership announcement and knew his concerns . The same evening ‘it must be Theresa’ was emblazoned across the Mail’s front page. Readers were directed to the editorial, which bears Dacre’s hallmarks. Normally, it said, the Mail ‘would not show its hand until the end of a contest’. But with the Tories disintegrating before the public’s eyes, ‘what the country needs most is a solid and steady hand on the tiller’. It added that May should bring senior Brexiteers into the government with her. Which she duly did. ‘The need for a new era of cleaner, more honest, gimmick-free politics has never been greater’.
The next day the Mail ran a profile of May that dug out everything positive that could be found. Its headline in bold was: ‘The vicar’s daughter who met her husband at a Conservative disco: Deadly serious. Utterly steely. After all those Etonians, could this grammar school girl, whose grandmothers were in service, be just what Britain needs?’ A question so loaded it fell off the page. Buried in the profile, a reader could discern reports suggesting she had a chronic inability to delegate.
In the short time span between the referendum and her standing for leader, Theresa May did not so much win over the Daily Mail, as the Daily Mail, its voice, views and priorities, recruited her. With no record of originality, her version of profound reflection is to declare that she ‘gets things done’. After twenty-five years in politics, Theresa May has no obvious connections to any think tank. Although she works with Nick Timothy, who has a considerable grasp of Conservative history and policy, she herself shows no interest in ideas, saying only that in order to conserve you must change. As the country faces an unprecedented concatenation of economic, strategic, diplomatic and constitutional uncertainty, and needs a leader with imagination, it has got one who prides herself in getting on with the job, not rethinking what the job is. Serious and determined, May is a first-rate second-rank politician. Beggars can’t be choosers, Dacre must have decided and did his best to project her as the new Thatcher, full of strength and inner conviction.
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 domestic transformation and a new culture of government, whether you liked it or not. During her four years leading her party in opposition, Thatcher and her team prepared for power, spending meeting after meeting analysing the nature of British decline and trying to understand how to confront it. John Hoskyns, who became her head of policy in Downing Street, ‘spent a year preparing a huge diagram showing how all aspects of decline were connected’. Not only was Thatcher the candidate of a significant network of strategists, supported by think tanks, she carried Hayek in her handbag and generated what her official biographer calls ‘wonderment at the phenomenon of a party leader in search of ideas’.
The contrast with May could not be greater. Despite this there was a striking and formidable coherence to the general direction set by the new prime minister as soon as she formed her government. Overnight, all her ministers were singing from the same song-sheet, and doing so comfortably. She turned the party’s face against the city slickers of globalisation and positioned its social and economic aims to support the ‘just about managing’, the very people Labour’s Ed Miliband had been scorned for identifying as the ‘squeezed middle’ in 2010 – and was greeted as if she were extraordinarily far-sighted. In all this, she adopted a formed ideology and set of attitudes: she embraced the perspective of the Daily Mail. She spoke like its editorials: in short, clear, purposive sentences that left you in no doubt what to think. Across her party everyone grasped the culture and its pitch – they had been reading it year in and year out: ‘The British people have spoken’; ‘Brexit means Brexit’; ‘hard work’; ‘serious business’; ‘no backsliding on Brexit’, ‘no second referendum’. Above all, Theresa May shared the Mail’s sense of England’s grievances, especially with migrants – and England’s desire to be British.
These are circulation-building stances for a newspaper. They offer the clarity, spirit and alarmism readers enjoy. But not the politics for a situation as grave as Brexit. In her first speech to her party conference as leader, in October 2015, the prime minister announced she would activate Article 50 in March 2017.
It was a moment of the utmost gravity. She should have – but did not – recognise, measure and reach out to the immense divisions that Brexit could open within the country. She could have – but did not – consider the implications for the entire continent that Britain once helped liberate from fascism. Instead, her tone, brevity and practical approach were identical to a Daily Mail editorial.
There was no offer of an open process to explore how best to proceed that might muddy the water. It was not inclusive, it was directive. The Financial Timesreports that at ‘the heart of her new administration is a coterie of loyal and long-serving advisers’. Two exceptions: her private secretary, inherited from Cameron – ‘It may be no coincidence that he came from a security background’– and her new official spokesperson … the former political editor of the Daily Mail.
She took into Downing Street a tight team drawn from her six years in the Home Office. Its bleak culture at the coalface of immigration, border control, surveillance and what America calls homeland security reinforced an approach that fits with the Mail and has a specific government culture of surveillance and selection behind it. Will Davies calls it the ‘protective state’ that is ‘ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life’ – and it will introduce grammar schools to discriminate between children. To fulfil this you need to know who is good and bad, and May’s most lasting legislative achievement before she became premier was the Investigatory Powers Act that became law at the end of 2016. This legalised all the illegal bugging and snooping that the UK’s deep state had been undertaking. The Act is the most intrusive authorisation of powers of surveillance in the West, permitting police and a wide range of officials the right to monitor metadata without a warrant.
Theresa May has become already a historic figure in the way her labile predecessor Cameron was not. She may be limited but she has integrity. Even though she supported Remain, she is now genuine in her commitment. We have seen that Cameron’s team identified those who wanted to leave the EU in their ‘hearts’ but were willing to follow the wisdom of their ‘heads’ and pockets and vote for Europe, to be the key constituency they had to convince. Theresa May shows every sign that she was one of them, willing to support remain pragmatically but longing to sign up to Leave in her heart. One public emblem of this is the 40-page pamphlet she co-authored with Nick Timothy in 2007, on how to restore parliament’s sovereignty over EU legislation. It expresses frustration with the failure of the UK system to get a grip on EU legislation that is regarded as an intrusion.
When England’s voters defied the pragmatic argument about the economic benefits of EU membership and Cameron resigned, they gave May a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become prime minister. Her heart leapt at the chance. She has embraced what she is doing. She is not being hypocritical or lying. Her heartbeat is synchronised with each edition of the Daily Mail.
It provided the no-nonsense, Brexit-means-Brexit headline approach she embraced. It set cutting back on immigrants – which is different from being in control of how many come – as a top objective, along with removing the UK from the orbit of the European Court of Justice (which adjudicates the EU’s single market). Both these now count for more than economic growth. This means the real Brexit.
At first, no one in the UK’s business circles and across Europe was sure what would happen. There were many options, many ways to Brexit. It dawned on them that what May stated when she announced her candidacy, and then in her October 2016 speech to the Tory conference, she meant. More than that, she was relishing the challenge. She is enjoying her role, as the woman who will deliver Brexit. She wants to put immigration control and removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, before the economy. For her, it is about self-government and taking back control. Her control. Not the people’s: they have spoken, and that is enough.
May’s problem, and more important, her country’s, is that such an approach is not going to work. To embark on any considerable public enterprise you need three things. First, you need the ambition to really want the objective. It might change its final shape as other forces impinge, but you must fully will the end in its broad dimensions. Second, you must will the means: the effort, the daily discipline, the demands on others, the focus, determination and, when necessary, patience. With respect to Brexit, Theresa May has these two aspects in full degree. She really wants Brexit as she conceives it. She is really determined to achieve it by every means at her disposal.
But there is a third aspect as well, that is out of your control. There need to be the resources to carry you through. These are not just money, time and skills. They include, above all else, other people ready to join you, who want to make your aims their own, who release energy and invention and solve problems and think like you while thinking for themselves. The greater the aim, the more you need others acting independently to achieve the goal. If it is transformative, as Brexit is, it needs to become a movement. If it cannot create popularity, the effort will fail.
Theresa May does not have the capacity to appeal to a movement across all Britain that can make a success of Brexit in this way. She needs people and the country to come together, but her approach is sundering the nations and fragmenting the English. Yet she can steer no other course. Without the ability to orchestrate, which involves trusting others to play well, she cannot mobilise the unified support she needs and already claims as fact. On 17 January, the prime minister set out her Plan for Britain not to the House of Commons but to the ambassadors from the EU, assembled in Lancaster House. ‘After all the division and discord,’ she told them, ‘the country is coming together.’ Clearly, it is not. The words felt more like an instruction.
The rigidity to her approach stems from the trap she finds herself in, of Britishness and Brexit. As we have seen, it fell to her to fuse together the Cameron Remain campaign vision of a World Britain and the Leave campaign’s Global Britain into her own Big Britishness. She has borrowed the Leave campaign’s slogan. But for her it necessitates a domestic programme of social intervention and equalisation not a bonfire of regulations. To deliver her Brexit means mobilising the public to ‘come together’. This needs a big, open democratic process, and something else too. For as May warned before the referendum, there will be serious costs and losses for the British economy. She needs to level with the people, raise their morale with inspiring defiance, to prepare the country for a five- to ten-year turnaround if all goes well. But how can she do this when the promise of Brexit was a treasure chest of free trade? She herself did not make this claim and has been careful not to repeat it. Her colleagues did. But she failed to repudiate their optimism at the start. By implication, the public is looking for hundreds of millions for the NHS, oodles of business from global expansion and a great spurt of growth as the country is ‘liberated’ from Euro-restrictions.
Managing this expectation will be hard enough. She carries an even larger constraint around her neck. Retaining ‘our precious Union’ is her stated priority. What she regards as the glittering necklace of Britishness is becoming her noose. It prevents any frank and democratic process that would, for example, be a space where the Scots and Northern Irish could work for their own relationship with the EU. For her, a child of Churchillism, their leaving and thereby ending Britain is unimaginable.
There is only one route to May’s Brexit, therefore. It has to be imposed: ‘There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to re-join it through the back door, and no second referendum.’ The word ‘must’ is stamped on the whole thing from the start, in her election address, before she even was prime minister. It defines her approach in the language of the Mail. ‘The country’ will not be allowed to change its mind so far as she is concerned.
This is hardly the best way to bring people together. At the beginning of her Plan for Britain, the prime minister said Brexit ‘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’. But she was not asking that all-important question, she was answering it – and cutting off any further debate. Her conclusion: ‘I want us to be a truly Global Britain.’ She mentioned ‘Global Britain’ eleven times and the phrase is capitalised in the official text of the speech on the Downing Street website; the harmonics with Great Britain, the lure of the time we shaped the world, is inescapable.
Imperial greatness was a joint project and to have a chance of working ‘going global’ must be too. At one point May asserts: ‘A stronger Britain demands that we do something else – strengthen the precious union between the four nations of the United Kingdom’, but later, ‘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’. Is it four nations or is it one nation? To the Europeans she explained that Brexit is an attempt ‘to restore, as we see it … national self-determination …’ But if the Scots ask for national self-determination, they are sharply condemned as divisive. The prime minister is not being muddled: she is having it both ways. The English have done this for far too long. As I showed earlier, to the world the English see themselves as one nation: Britain. Amongst ourselves, we can talk of our four different nations. As she put it to the Scots, speaking in Glasgow, the government is determined that there will be no new barriers ‘within our own union’. The words ‘our own’ reveal what is taking place. What is projected by her as a British voice is heard in Scotland as the cold command of England claiming possession.
The prime minister has succumbed to a most human, and in a leader the most dangerous, of pressures. She is projecting her desire as reality. ‘After all the division and discord, the country is coming together’ when it isn’t. ‘The referendum was divisive at times. And those divisions have taken time to heal’ – as if they have healed. What we are witnessing in Theresa May is an English voice, in charge of its ‘precious union’, determined to bend Britain, and therefore in the first place Scotland, to its will. Already, her insistence is tying her in knots. Writing in the magazine of the Holyrood parliament, she told Scots to behave, saying:
“When we take decisions on a UK-basis, whether in a referendum or a general election, every individual has an equal voice. So, in June last year, when the UK as a whole was asked if we should leave or remain in the European Union, every voter had an equal say and the collective answer was final.”
The logic seems impeccable until you examine it. If every individual had an equal voice in general elections, we would have proportional representation and coalition government. More important, who asked ‘the UK as a whole’? The prime minister identifies herself with this question. It presumes the ‘collective answer’ that she claims was demonstrated by its answer. Any doubts about the centrality and force of May’s determination with respect to Scotland were blown away by her extraordinary speech in Glasgow to the Scottish Conservatives, which included:
“I wanted to make clear that strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority for me … the fundamental unity of the British people which underwrites our whole existence as a United Kingdom … We need to build a new ‘collective responsibility’ across the United Kingdom, which unites all layers of government … I am determined to ensure that as we leave the EU, we do so as one United Kingdom … a unique responsibility to preserve the integrity and future viability of the United Kingdom, which we will not shirk … at the heart of the United Kingdom is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. This transcends politics and institutions, the constitution and the economy … We are four nations, but at heart we are one people. That solidarity is the essence of our United Kingdom …”
A unity that ‘transcends’ even the constitution. In the age of Brexit and Trump, when rebellion against traditional authority is the spirit of the time, I’d think twice about laying down the law in such terms, that insist on her personal priority as a matter of fate.
She claims she has answered the question ‘What kind of country are we?’ It is Global Britain with our Parliamentary Sovereignty. When she explained this to Europe’s ambassadors, she added:
“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. The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.”
As I argued above, there is an incompatibility between absolutist Britain and the EU. But you can see here how the residues of Churchillist defiance and Thatcherite conviction have fused into a toxic stubbornness. May assumes that her holy trinity of the Union, the unwritten constitution and Parliamentary Sovereignty are in fine fettle. She has to. But they are not. They are fundamentally weakened and incoherent. The EU ambassadors to the Court of St James have their advisers and consult widely. They are aware of the ailing nature of the UK constitution. They will not be taken in, even if they are impressed by the inflexibility of May’s personal determination.
May is a grammar-school traditionalist. Her chosen method for delivery is a return to Whitehall Knows Best – which at its frequent worst is secretive, even despotic. In this way, she has set her face against the energy and originality of the vote to Leave. By describing the arrival of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments as merely a peculiar ‘devolved governance’, she hints at a famous (for those in the know) dismissive phrase of Enoch Powell: ‘Power devolved is power retained’. As for coalition, we will have no more of such ‘little histories’!
She is taking the UK out of the EU to preserve the Westminster system, with national parliaments reduced to local government, human rights removed from being constitutional claims, less freedom of information, the Lords put back in their place – this is Britain in 1972 when Theresa May was sixteen, and the British were good subjects who still admired our leaders.
May’s close advisers describe their approach as a ‘new model conservatism’, with overtones of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. But he led a civil war that oversaw a regicide – not just the summary firing of a chancellor of the exchequer out of the back door of Downing Street. If Brexit was an uprising against the governing ‘political elite’ and their international friends, it was also a challenge to the way policies are imposed. ‘Take back control’ has thrilling, democratic implications if it means that people themselves start to take control. Brexit was not just about unfair policies, it was also directed at who made decisions and how policy is decided. Freedom from the European Union should have delivered the country on a more democratic course, replacing the hyper-centralisation of Whitehall and winner-takes-all elected dictatorship as well. Instead, re-imposing them will crush the vitality and democracy out of Brexit.
The positive energy of the Leave campaign was rooted in a spirit of rebellion that goes back to the seventeenth century. For the most part deeply comatose, it was always latent – and has been awakened. This time a modern Cromwell, even in the guise of Theresa Britannia, is unlikely to triumph.
For three reasons. First, Brexit is just beginning. After the Welsh assembly was endorsed by its sliver of a majority, Ron Davies, the then Welsh Labour leader, said ‘devolution is a process not an event’. What was true for Wales is far more so for Brexit. There is nothing ‘final’ about it, nor should there be. Brexit demands, as May herself says, people ‘coming together’ and the ‘country uniting’. This won’t happen when people are told they must unite and are given ultimatums about what is final. For Brexit to work as a process, it needs to grow and gather support, not be dictated. The example of Thatcher’s firmness and success fills the air thanks to the tabloids. Thatcher’s belligerent leadership worked only when she also released individual capacities, opened markets whether for houses or on the trading floors, and empowered individualism. When she sought to insist on an unfair poll tax designed to drive voters from the electoral register, and began to regiment the population, she was broken.
Second, Brexit is an old people’s home. What does trading as ‘Global Britain’ mean to a young person who wants to live in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid or Lisbon? The YouGov survey of 5,500 voters on the day of the referendum shows the 18–24 age group backing Remain by 71 per cent. It was pensioners over sixty-five who supported Leave by 64 per cent, and won the day. Among the under-25s, young women voted by an overwhelming 80 per cent to 20 per cent for Europe. The future is becoming more feminine, more open and cooperative with other peoples and cultures, less obsessed with absolute sovereignty. The ineluctable demography of the new networked nationalism will undo Brexit absolutism.
Third, the force of Brexit is nativist and the natives who voted for it are the English, in rebellion against being treated as natives in the only way they can rebel – so far. The UK referendum on membership of the EU was not about the economics, as the Remain side ruefully acknowledged after the vote. It was about what kind of country we want to be. Does England therefore have the right to decide what kind of countries Scotland and Ireland want to be?
The prime minister is caught up in a profound, unstoppable, reimagining of what the United Kingdom means, even as she insists that she will not accept such reimagining. Her idea of a Global Britain more interested in trade with Uruguay than with Umbria is a spectral hope in the swirling fortunes of a world on fire, while young women across all of Britain’s nations look the other way.
In the first part of this book, I showed how Brexit and Trump were driven by a desire to make a jailbreak out of the prison of meaningless language, elite gobbledegook and an imposed powerlessness and inequity while those in charge do marvellously well. The breakout was overdue. The tragedy of the mass escapes of 2016 is that they were led by political mafiosi and scoundrels cashing in on the discontent.
Apply this rough-and-ready description of the positive spirit of Brexit Britain today, as May pipes the UK out of the EU. Unlike Trump, who is an experienced godfather and campaigned single-mindedly, the Brexit Cosa Nostra are all over the place. Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Nigel Farage, Daniel Hannan, Michael Gove – this is a hopeless bunch of ne’er-do-wells who can barely shoot straight even when they aim at each other. Thanks to their incitement, the English breached the walls of elite language, unaccountable Euro-sovereignty and the unctuous hypocrisy of globalist regulation – only to find themselves without a reliable guide to sustain their liberation.
Then, striding purposefully from the home office of the prison itself, came sub-commander May. She told them: I understand you. You are right. The conditions were atrocious. The people in charge claimed to belong to the whole world and belonged nowhere. I applaud your resolve to be rid of them. Also, there has been discrimination. Relations with other prisons have been conducted only to the benefit of the owner (for the prison is privatised). From now on I am your commander. I will speak in plain language. We will take back control, with myself in charge. Close the gates and get back to your cells, or we will lose our precious union. No one can escape to declare their national cell-block independent. We are one prison again.
The United Kingdom as a prison of nations? I think not.