Theresa May: An Interim Report

Theresa May: An Interim Report
by Sean Gabb
(2nd October 2016)

Though she was the only candidate not manifestly unfit to keep watch on a public toilet, I groaned when Theresa May became Prime Minister. She had been a dreadful Home Secretary. In the Referendum, she had formally supported the Remain side. There was reason to suspect, given its abbreviated manner, that her appointment was some kind of Plan B by the Conservative Party establishment to ignore the will of the people.

I have just watched her speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As these things go, its wording was unusually transparent, and its delivery neither patronising nor robotic. It supports an hypothesis I formed shortly after her appointment, and that I have so far seen little evidence to overturn. This is that those parts of the British ruling class represented by the Conservative Party have decided to risk an almost complete break with the European Union. This may not have been something they wanted before the Referendum, but is something that they have now decided is most congruent with their interest. I will explain.

First, leaving the European Union unites the Conservative Party. This has been split since at least 1970, and the split was largely between the Party leadership and its membership and normal electorate. It became apparent when Edward Heath forced through the European Communities Act 1972. It contributed to the Conservative defeat in 1974. Without ever closing, it became less of a wound during the high days of Margaret Thatcher, but worsened again once she began her decline after 1987. It may have ruined the Major Government. It certainly contributed to the internal chaos that allowed the rise of Tony Blair to go uncontested. It did much to keep the Conservatives out of government before 2010.

Looked at overall, the June Referendum gave no decisive answer. But, looking past the Celts and the ethnic minorities, the English voted to leave by two thirds to one, and there was almost no class difference in the voting. We remain the largest group in the United Kingdom, and we are the people who are most inclined to vote Conservative, even if only occasionally. The Party and electoral arithmetic were obvious. The Labour Party was already damaged by losing the 2015 election and by its choice of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The Liberal Democrats were pretty well destroyed. The Celtic nationalists could be ignored or faced down. Let a Conservative Government take us out of the European Union, and an almost accidental and perhaps a brief advantage given in 2015 might become as total and continuous as the Whig ascendency after 1714. Set beside this opportunity, the desire of certain business and administrative interests to remain in the European Union was of little weight.

Second, the May Government’s refusal immediately to invoke the Article 50 leaving process is not an effort in delay. Once the Article is invoked, the European Union itself becomes a party to any negotiations. This would be an unnecessary complication. Better for the Government to speak directly to the Germans and French, and reach an agreement that can be imposed on the smaller members – and only then invoke Article 50 to give formal ratification. I do not believe there are great difficulties in reaching an agreement that gives us privileged access to the European market while remaining outside the European institutions. The main heads of agreement could be settled in a couple of afternoons. The less those essentially powerless, but still obstructive, officials in Brussels are involved, the better for us all.

Third, my fear that leaving the European Union would make us at once into a total satellite of the United States may be obsolete. I have no time for the Heath Government, but accept that part of its agenda was to counterbalance the influence of America. Since then, many of the most articulate Eurosceptics have been less interested in British independence than in strengthening what they call “The Anglosphere.” This explains much of my own disenchantment with Euroscepticism after the Iraq War. But the magnetic pull of Washington had its climax between the second term of Bill Clinton and the first of George W. Bush. Since then, that pull and American influence in general have been in decline. I have no idea who will win next month’s election in America. But I doubt if America will be quite the overpowering master in future that it has been.

For this reason, we can expect Britain outside the European Union to act at least some of the time in British external interests. This will not involve the almost total isolationism that I would like. There will be a continued strutting about at the United Nations, and British servicemen will continue making trouble in already troubled parts of the world. But I no longer fear that we shall become an American satrapy.

Fourth, I have written much about my fears of what the British government might do internally once clear of the European Union. I will not repeat my argument in detail. It is enough to say that almost no element of the British police state has been required by European law, and that membership of the European Union has often slowed the growth of our police state.

I remain alarmed by what our own Government may do to us. Theresa May was a bad Home Secretary who continued the drift to despotism that began under Margaret Thatcher. On the other hand, if specifically libertarian arguments retain as little appeal as they have ever had in my lifetime, the sudden prominence of the Alternative Right is cause for hope. Its own agenda, if not libertarian, is less despotic than that of the present Establishment. Even otherwise, the few decades that separate the decline of one order of things from the entrenchment of another tend to be an age of relative freedom. The Alternative Right is an entirely American fashion as yet. It has barely any counterpart in this country. But, in almost every sense, we wear American clothes, and I am no longer so ready to believe that Britain outside the European Union will become a nightmarish Airstrip One, with state barcodes in every wallet and revolving but equally lunatic hate campaigns.

For these reasons, the speech Mrs May gave earlier today is reassuring. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister back in 1979, I wrote that income tax would be abolished within a decade, and that Britain would be second only to America in wealth and power. I was a boy then, and I am not inclined now to believe very well of any politician. But I do see some grounds for optimism. If I have been a pessimist since the 1980s, it is not because that reflects the balance of my mind. I have been more often right than wrong. If I am now turning optimistic, it may be that, as with everything else, the order of things that came into existence under Margaret Thatcher is beginning to pass away.


  1. May is the first Prime Minister in living memory who actually seems competent, though I suspect the shine will wear off after a while. I differ from you in one respect: I think the mandate for Brexit is very precarious indeed. This is why I would have preferred it had we left immediately – which I think could technically have been done, but would have required extensive preparation before the referendum. We are where we are of course.

    The Establishment have an easy Plan B: which is some hybrid of the relationship between the EU and Norway and Switzerland respectively or, failing that, some kind of default EEA membership – a ‘soft Brexit’, in other words, will be the outcome. Regardless of what she claims in her speech, we will not be a fully independent country.

  2. Interesting article with a unique perspective.

    As an American, watching the decline of Washington’s international influence from the inside, I have the expectation that as that power continues to wane, America will shift into a lower gear and look toward leading the “Anglosphere”. If Trump wins in November, I imagine that this process will begin sooner rather than later. His foreign policy will probably look a bit like that of the Roman emperor Hadrian. A scaling back will begin, abandoning indefensible outposts, throwing away notions of expansion, and attempting, with renewed energy, to consolidate all that, which we have more or less already incorporated into the empire – the core territories. In this case, the Anglosphere. So I wouldn’t write off that possibility just yet.
    On the other hand, if Hillary wins, get ready for a modern rendition of Justinian’s renovatio imperii. The effects of which are likely to be every bit as disastrous as those of the original.

    • The biggest failing of the Palmerston Government was to avoid working with the French, via Mexico, to do to America what was later done to the Soviet Union. Replace the United States with two or more mutually hostile republics, and it would would have undone 1776, and avoided 1914.

      All we can do now is hope.

    • I don’t personally regard the United States as part of the Anglosphere proper. It’s too ‘foreign’. For a long time now, perhaps going back to the immigration reforms of the 1880s – when America shifted demographically from being an Anglo-Saxon country to becoming a white melting pot – the United States has not been a ‘British’ society, retaining only vestigial connections with us in the form of language, a shared understanding of law and an elite that includes many Americans who are ethnically British. These factors, I think, have fooled many people into believing there is a deeper connection that in reality isn’t there.

      When I hear or read the word Anglosphere, I think of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – especially the latter – but not the United States.

      • It also doesn’t help that since its inception, the US has been founded by a multitude of European ethnic groups, over and above any Anglo groups; especially German.

      • Yes, but regardless of whether or not you think of America as part of your civilization, she thinks of you as a part of hers. That’s what you’ve got to worry about.

  3. Has anybody actually read Lisbon Article 50? First we have to notify the European Council of our intentions (the heads of state or of government of the member states, plus the Commission President (Juncker) and the Council president (Donald Tusk)). The “agreement shall be negotiated [and] concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council”. Now read this – paragraph 4; – “[….] the member of the European Council […] representing the withdrawing state shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council […] in decisions concerning it”. So the only person not present at the negotiations will be the UK representative. The other 27 plus Juncker & Tusk will have two years to rape and pillage our country & spit out what is left. They will do the negotiating and then tell us on what terms we will be allowed to depart. By the time they have finished with us, we will be begging to be let back in. The whole thing is a scam.

    As is the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ I read about yesterday. Billed in the Mail yesterday as “May pledges to repeal EU laws”, the Bill does precisely the opposite; it enshrines all existing EU Regulations into UK law. Then, when we are released from the Treaties, we can repeal them of course, but we could do that anyway without this bill, as it only comes into force after we have left the EU. It repudiates the Treaties, but only kicks in when they no longer apply anyway, so it achieves precisely nothing.

    I believe Mrs May has the best of intentions, but then so did Margaret Thatcher when it came to Europe, and look where it got her. She may be Party leader, but that is just a front for the people – those ‘men in suits’ – who actually run the show, and they will never allow us to leave the EU. They got rid of Maggie and they will get rid of May in the same fashion.

    Whether you agree with me or not, an objective look at the big picture must tell you that if we leave the EU, and make a success on the outside, there will be a stampede for the exit, and the Eurocrats’ dream of seventy and more years will disappear in a puff of smoke. They are not going to sit back and allow that to happen.

    One final small point – Sean, I don’t think it is fair to refer to our troops as ‘causing trouble’ or whatever it was you said. That barb should be aimed at the people who sent them there!

  4. May is the worst sort of remainer, a cowardly one as she showed by her amazingly muted support for remaining during the referendum.

    I have no doubts about May’s duplicitous nature, but she might go along with a fully fledged Brexit if it looks to be in her personal political interests. Nonetheless, if she has trimmed once toward Brexit she can trim again to remaining if circumstances seem propitious. To a large extent it depends on how Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson behave. She could not afford to lose them while the Brexit process is happening. They must keep her nose to the grindstone of Brexit.

    The biggest potential test of her sincere commitment to Brexit will be the overwhelmingly Europhile Parliament. However, that can be seen as a more ferocious animal than it almost certainly will be when put to the test of blocking legislation such as the repealing on the European Communities Act. Although it is true that there is a large majority in the Commons who voted to remain these people would have in their minds the likely response of constituents and local party associations to a refusal to vote for the Bill. Moreover, Labour MPs would be as vulnerable as the Tories because many of their constituencies were amongst the most enthusiastic for leaving. Deselection would be the wages of anti-democratic sin in many instances and defeat at the next general election for others.

    There is also the question of whether any MP would wish to create what would be a profound political crisis if they voted against the Bill. I think most would quail before the as yet unspoken equation which is deny the democratic will and there is only violence left to decide political matters.

    On top of all that large numbers of MPs including senior MPs across all major parties have been saying they respect the Brexit vote. It is also difficult for them to vote against a Bill which does no more than pave the way for all laws to be subject to Parliament.

    As for the Lords, they could only delay matters for around a year. May could also if she chose to simply force the creation of sufficient numbers of peers guaranteed to vote for the Bill to be created. However, if the Lords forced the use of the Parliament Act that would in all probability signal the beginning of the end for the Lords. The referendum was a manifesto commitment so comes within the Salisbury Rules.

    But even if Parliament did refuse to pass the Repeal Bill what real effect it would have if one assumes that article 50 can be triggered, as seems likely, without Parliament’s approval using the Royal Prerogative. That would mean that at the end of two years, assuming the government did not seek to extend the time allowed for negotiation, the UK would have left the EU unambiguously. At that point blocking a Repeal Bill would be at best pointless and at worst arguably an act of treason.

    • Unfortunately, as I said earlier, in Theresa May we are dealing with somebody who is competent – which is quite rare among the Establishment. That’s what makes her dangerous. We’re dealing with a pro here. Every step taken by May is calculated and carefully planned.

      May will not intentionally renege on Brexit. She doesn’t need to, as there’s an easy Plan B (the finer details of which, admittedly complicated, need to be worked out) of either EFTA membership or default EEA membership.

      When May makes ‘hard Brexit’ noises, she is just posturing. She doesn’t mean it.

      Davis, Fox and Johnson have been put in place because she wants to set them up to fail. In the case of Davis and Fox, the antagonism is political or ideological. In the case of Johnson, it is a career rivalry (Johnson is not a genuine Brexiter). The failure of these three will open the way politically for a Brexit settlement on terms that satisfy orthodox people like May.

      Brexit will happen – but it will be a ‘Remainer’s Brexit’.

    • We’ve always taken it for granted that any Conservative politician who said he wanted out of the EU was lying. Why assume remainers to be any less dishonest? These people will say whatever they think will get them ahead, and do what they must.

  5. “The biggest failing of the Palmerston Government was to avoid working with the French, via Mexico, to do to America what was later done to the Soviet Union. Replace the United States with two or more mutually hostile republics, and it would would have undone 1776, and avoided 1914.”
    Sounds like an althist novel to me, and I’d love to read it.

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