A Very British Coup: The rise of Theresa May could see the end of the UK
Sunday Mail, July 17th 2006
Theresa May became the UK Prime Minister this week – elected on a mandate of 199 Tory MPs in what amounted to a very British coup.
She is only Britain’s second ever woman Prime Minister, following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher. But in other respects she follows Gordon Brown as the twelfth PM in the last 100 years who has entered Downing Street without a popular mandate.
Jeremy Corbyn is clinging on as Labour leader – aided by his party’s decision to let him on the leadership ballot – irrespective of how few parliamentary colleagues support him. For all the rhetoric of a Blairite coup against him, it is Tories historically who have known how to get rid of failed leaders.
Meanwhile Scotland quietly gets on with a different, more serious politics. It is one nearly entirely bereft of the theatrical politics of Westminster we have seen these last few weeks. Yet, with May coming north to meet Sturgeon, the chasm between the Scottish and UK Governments on EU membership and nationals – as well as Trident – couldn’t be bigger.
This is a politics of nuance and who reveals too much of their hand too early – like a three-dimensional game of chess – involving the Scottish and UK Governments, alongside the EU Commission. May has indicated that triggering Article 50 to begin EU negotiations won’t begin until ’ we have a UK approach and objectives’ – words which acknowledge the strength of opinion in Scotland.
Sturgeon knows she has a strong hand, based on Scotland’s 62% EU remain vote, but doesn’t have a veto – no matter how many times right-wing London commentators say that she thinks she does. The Scottish Government faces numerous challenges and work – on how to keep Scotland in the EU, win over new European friends, and make the case for a second indyref and offer: one more convincing and coherent than first time round.
Meanwhile, at Westminster, the Tories for all their diminished status in members and votes do have a sense of purpose about keeping the show on the road. Tories think they own ‘the national interest’ and patriotism – qualities which Labour has often ran from. Corbyn’s supporters have promised instead a new kind of politics, one less Westminster focused and more about long-term change.
The popular base of the Corbyn leadership sits in a group called Momentum. However, looking at its website there is little detail on what it actually stands for beyond defending the Corbyn leadership.
Momentum say that they are a social movement, inspired by examples of anti-austerity politics in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. If this is true then they have to move on from just holding meetings of the converted telling each other how marvelous they all are – and that their opponents in their own party are ‘fucking useless’ plotters.
The dramas of this week belie huge changes underway. The old models of political parties, based on tribes of left and right, and rigid class distinctions, no longer carry much relevance.
This raises questions of what exactly are political parties for, and who do they represent? Even when parties become popular – the SNP with 120,000 members, Corbyn’s Labour with 500,000 plus – there is an ambivalence about the role of members, and a fuzziness about where power lies, lest members realise they have little real influence.
All of this is against the backdrop of a politics less tolerant and increasingly filled with examples of abuse, misogyny and racism. These range from the intimidation evident in Labour from some pro-Corbyn opinion towards those who disagree with them, to the rise in hate crime, post-referendum.
Underlying the age of rage is economic and social anxiety that shaped a large part of the EU referendum – and feeds concerns on immigration. For 30 years while most of the political class have been wary of discussing immigration, there has been widespread collusion on whether it is possible to envisage a different kind of economy.
Now with Theresa May in office the Tories are back in one of their favourite grooves – celebrating the successes of their supposed ‘great British economic miracle’ with a triumphalist flourish. That’s the one that goes ‘jobs up, growth up, the deficit down’ – everything is getting rosier.
In response Corbyn and the left claim that everything is going wrong – poverty, inequality, foodbanks, stagnating living standards. They do so with a gloomy prospectus which suggests that everything that has happened since Thatcher was elected in 1979 was wrong, and if only we could turn back the clock.
Politicians should be addressing issues like whether – after thirty years of believing in the British magic money tree, funded by the City – it is possible to make the economy work for the vast majority, rather than the privileged few?
Such real concerns will barely get a look in over the next few years. Instead, May with her new Brexit mandate and government will soon start several years of acrimonious discussions with the EU, with no one clear what the ultimate destination looks like – beyond the UK leaving.
This threatens the 300 year union between Scotland and England. Sturgeon is playing a careful game that could not only win independence, but could deal a fatal blow to May and the Conservatives. The loss of a second union would be a devasting blow to the unionist party leaving them bereft and diminished. Let alone meaning the end of the UK.