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.