When I was in the United Kingdom for a few weeks earlier this year, and got chatting about politics with friends, family-members and acquaintances, I’d hear a common sentiment: “Well, I don’t like Theresa May. But I do feel sorry for her.”
The reasoning behind this sentiment was that Theresa May, who yesterday announced her impending resignation as British Prime Minister, deserved sympathy for her doggedness in carrying on despite overwhelmingly adverse circumstances. Indeed, having lost her House of Commons majority after an epically misjudged general election campaign in 2017, and having had her attempts to pass a Brexit Bill in the Commons thwarted again and again, she’d become the political equivalent of Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). By that point, you may remember, Pacino’s Tony Montana character was massively bloodied and bullet-ridden, his body apparently having absorbed more ammunition than was fired in the whole of World War II. Yet he kept stumbling on and kept blasting away at his enemies with an auto-converted AR-15-cum-M203 grenade launcher, which he referred to with the memorable line, “Say hello to my little friend!”
The difference being that May, although similarly (metaphorically) bloodied and bullet-ridden while she stumbled on, didn’t have any friends. Not even little ones, to say hello to.
Well, count me out of that sentiment. I do not feel sorry for Theresa May. When she delivered her resignation speech outside Number 10 Downing Street yesterday and teared up at the end of it, I felt not one shred of pity. In fact, you could examine my soul at a sub-atomic level and you still wouldn’t find anything approaching sympathy for the person who spent six years as Britain’s Home Secretary followed by another three, monumentally hapless ones as its Prime Minister.
Let’s look at May’s record. She ascended to the role of Home Secretary with the advent of David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 and presided over the notorious ‘hostile environment’ policy, which was meant to make living in the UK as difficult as possible for people deemed to be undesirable foreigners and so bolster David Cameron’s image among right-wingers. May herself announced that the intention was to “create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The reality was that she helped engineer such horrors as the Windrush scandal, where West Indian immigrants who’d spent their entire lives in Britain were deported in their old age for not having the right documentation – documentation that during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s they’d been told they didn’t need.
Also on the charge sheet against Home Secretary May are the rapes that were allegedly committed at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire – seemingly, the allegations were hushed up to avoid damaging the business interests of Serco, the company that took over the centre’s running in 2014, under May’s watch. Plus the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back to repressive regimes where they were likely to be persecuted for their sexual orientation. You can read Stonewall’s report on this nasty affair here.
May’s tenure at the Home Office was summed up by the Orwellian ‘go home’ vans that in 2013 her department sent out to patrol the streets of London, emblazoned with the threat: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.” Even right-wing rabble-rouser Nigel Farage said he found the things ‘unpleasant’.
2016 saw the referendum about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union and the surprise – if narrow – vote to leave it. David Cameron promptly resigned and May became Prime Minister because her competitors for the position, like Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, were so rubbish that they made her look like the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’. With hindsight, you appreciate how utterly rubbish those competitors must have been. May had campaigned, quietly, for a remain vote during the referendum campaign but once installed as PM she threw her principles, and the 48% of the electorate who’d voted to remain, under the bus and became a full-blooded Brexiteer. For a little while, she was the darling of Britain’s gung-ho right-wing press and the xenophobic nutters in her party who believed that Brexit would somehow turn Britain back into the imperial superpower it’d been in the 19th century.
In January 2017, when she announced that Britain would quit the single market, renegotiate the customs union and leave the European court of justice, the Daily Mail bore the front-page headline ‘STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY’ while crowing above it, “We will walk away from a bad deal and make EU pay.” How long ago that seems now. And on March 29th, 2017, she activated Article 50, giving the EU notice that Britain would be leaving in two years’ time. Again, the Brexiteers roared with approval, but the idea that Britain could conclude negotiations with the EU and leave the organisation in so short a time with a deal that didn’t entail economic disaster was jaw-droppingly stupid.
© Daily Mail
The peak of the nauseating, Little Englander parochialism that accompanied the honeymoon part of Prime Minister May’s reign came during 2016’s Conservative Party conference. This was when she declared, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” To which I – someone who’s spent a good part of his life living overseas and working in a variety of Asian, African and European cultures, and is proud of the fact – responded by thinking, “F**k right off.”
Meanwhile, with Brexit consuming her energies and her not-substantial intellect, it was business as usual on the domestic front. The austerity programme inaugurated by David Cameron and his little helpers in the Liberal Democrats continued, with brutal measures imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions taking a hideous toll on the weak, disadvantaged, vulnerable and disabled. It’s no surprise that the United Nations has just published a damning and shameful report about the millions of folk currently living in poverty in Britain.
June 2017 saw May holding a general election on the assumption that she’d win a massive majority in the House of Commons and so would be able to implement her version of Brexit with ease. “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS!” thundered the Daily Mail on cue. But she fought the election campaign with such astonishing ineptness that her party ended up losing the slim majority it already had. To maintain control, she had to do a deal with the sectarian, homophobic, science-denying and generally medieval Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland – a deal the DUP sewed up by insisting May threw a billion-pound bung at them. All of a sudden, everybody, including the Daily Mail, had stopped calling her the ‘new Iron Lady’.
After that, with her authority in tatters, and with realisation sinking in that leaving the EU without a deal would wreak terrible damage on the British economy, May shuttled back and forth between London and an increasingly bemused and contemptuous Brussels whilst trying to get some sort of compromise deal passed by the House of Commons. Predictably, her efforts were shot down again and again by the remain-favouring politicians whom she’d pissed off with her original uncompromising pro-Brexit stance and by the leave-favouring politicians who’d been stoked up by her original rhetoric but now saw her as a sell-out. Anyone with an ounce of intuition would have avoided getting themselves into this predicament in the first place.
Theresa May is the author of her own downfall, but should she be considered a bad person? Her lack of imagination and empathy with her fellow human beings is legendary – see her visit to the aftermath of the Grenfell fire disaster in 2017, where she determinedly avoided meeting survivors who’d lost their loved ones, homes and possessions. It puts me in mind of a quote from the 2007 novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale by the late, great Iain Banks. At one point, the novel’s narrator muses on the connection between being right wing and not having an imagination: “We got talking about how some people were selfish and some weren’t, and the difference between right-wing people and left-wing people. You said it all came down to imagination. Conservative people don’t usually have very much, so they find it hard to imagine what life is like for people who aren’t just like them. They can only empathise with people just like they are: the same sex, the same age, the same class, the same golf club or nation or race or whatever. Liberals can pretty much empathise with anybody else, no matter how different they are. It’s all to do with imagination, empathy and imagination are almost the same thing, and it’s why artists, creative people, are almost all liberals, left-leaning.”
So yes, I think May’s disdain for immigrants, asylum seekers, struggling DWP claimants, remain voters and people like me who consider themselves ‘citizens of the world’ is due to her chronic lack of imagination and, consequentially, her lack of empathy. But there’s also a famous saying attributed to Socrates: “to do is to be”. She did a lot of bad things as Home Secretary and Prime Minister that define her as a person and, as a result, I regard her as being bad. So no, I didn’t sympathise when she lost her composure during her resignation announcement yesterday.
Still, though May was a shit Prime Minister, there is the unhappy likelihood that her successor as Prime Minister will be even more shit.
I was tempted to finish here by featuring a picture of Boris Johnson doing something stupid. But that joke isn’t funny anymore. So here’s a picture of Tony Montana from Scarface instead. Even he’d be better as Prime Minister than the idiotic and conniving Johnson.
© Universal Pictures