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May’s Exit Points to a Crisis of Thought and Identity

May’s Exit Points to a Crisis of Thought and Identity

Monday, 3 June, 2019 - 13:45

The British, as well as others, may best remember the image of Prime Minister Theresa May holding back her tears as she was announcing her resignation. This image is her most enduring throughout her three years in office.

Mrs May, who took over as prime minister on July 13th, 2016, becoming the second woman to occupy the post after Margaret Thatcher, has neither had a comfortable nor an impressive tenure.

Some may say that she could not have done other than what she managed to do, because the challenges that defeated her were structural political challenges connected with identity. Thus, they would have defeated any leader as strong and popular as he or she could be. Indeed, those following British politics may also argue those challenges were the ones that defeated and ended the rule of Thatcher, who was the longest serving Conservative Prime Minister since 1902.

Well, let us begin with internal party politics, especially, that was what accelerated the fall of the last Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron and Theresa May, is the fact that they were both chosen to lead their party, and then the government, because they were ‘compromise politicians’ not great leaders. As a matter of fact, any party that suffers ideological or personal schisms, like the Conservative Party, would try to avoid choosing a strong leader with decisive and forthright positions, because such a leader would have as many enemies as ambitions. This is something that undermines any chance to unite the various wings of the party.

Indeed, if we go back through history we see that, after the retirement of Winston Churchill, during the mid-1950s, the Conservative Party was rich in strong and ambitious figures. It also had varying policies, whether on internal issues such as the economy and the Irish problem, and foreign such as the Cold war, the relations with the colonies and former colonies, the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, etc.

Among those ambitious figures was (Lord) Richard “Rab” Butler (1902-1982), who occupied almost all top government post except becoming Prime Minister as the Party overlooked him on more than one occasion; he is still nicknamed by the party faithful as ‘The best Prime Minister we never had”.

As for policies and ideological currents, there were always several currents within the party, including extreme right wingers from which emerged figures such as the former MP and cabinet minister Enoch Powell (1912-1998) – who later quit the party. Later on, another group of extreme right wingers rose to prominence like Margaret Thatcher, her ‘mentor’ Sir Keith Joseph, and her ‘disciples’ Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

On the other hand, there were the liberal and moderate currents which believed in social unity – or ‘One-nation Toryism’ – led by figures like former MPs and cabinet Ministers Sir Ian McLeod (1913-1970) and Reginald Maudling, and former Prime Minister Edward Heath; and recently, among the most prominent ‘rebels’ against the party’s drift further to the Right are former Prime Minister John Major and former deputy Prime Minister (Lord) Michael Heseltine.

Europe has been a long-disputed issue among Conservatives, as was how to deal with the Irish problem, the independence of colonies and the relations with the Commonwealth.

Edward Heath was an advocate of closer ties with Europe, as are the moderate wing within the party. Opposed to him was Thatcher, his bitter enemy, who took pride in opposing any European strong ties, let alone integration. Her younger extreme rightist ‘disciples’ have gone one step further, by expressing their support of quitting the European Union altogether; and thus, strongly voted ‘Leave’ in the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum.

Here one might argue that a sizeable percentage of the moderate wing’s support for stronger ties with Europe stems from pragmatic and realistic thinking. The UK, is no more capable of moving around freely within the traditional ‘three circles’ it used to benefit from, namely: the Commonwealth, the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, and Europe.

The Commonwealth has now been radically transformed and its interest-based links have all but disappeared. As for the relationship with the USA, it is no more exclusive or even preferential, as other major countries like Germany and Japan today enjoys solid ties with Washington; and are expected to grow even stronger in the face of the growing challenge from Russia and China. Thus, Europe remains the closest neighbor geographically, historically, and perhaps economically too.

Directly opposed to this thinking is the ideological extremism – if not condescending isolationism – that is driving the ‘Leavers’ to exit Europe. In fact, from the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party came the leaders of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose rising popularity pushed a panicky David Cameron to promise a referendum that ended his political career without ensuring the unity of his party. Soon afterwards, from the same extremist Conservative wing came the leaders of the new more successful Brexit Party, which dwarfed the Conservatives in the European Elections.

The 2016 historic referendum, which was won by ‘Leavers’, surprised Cameron – a ‘Remainer’ – and ended his political career. Subsequently, in an attempt to maintain the fragile unity of the party, Theresa May, another ‘Remainer’ was picked to succeed him. To satisfy the ‘Leavers’ she committed her government to abide by the referendum result; however, her attempts to secure a smooth exit were doomed to failure as they were opposed by her party’s extremists and the EU negotiators. Finally, this lengthy losing battle forced her to resign.

Today there is a political war raging within the Conservative Party between the extremist ‘Leavers’; while the moderates are trying to bend the wind of populism and violent isolationism, currently blowing all over the world.

The extremists are still stubbornly claiming that the UK would be better off outside Europe, where it would be unburdened by the ‘EU’s restrictions’ as it seeks alternative trading partners. However, they seem to be oblivious to the dangers leaving the EU could bring, as Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of which voted ‘Remain’ – may start looking for excuses to go their own way.

Given such a situation, strident populism seems to be weakening the moderates, many of whom are losing hope of maintaining the unity in a party whose ideological division has become deeper and wider than the abilities of any leader.

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