Joyce McMillan: Tories imposing unity is dangerous mistake

Protesters with anti-Conservative and anti-cuts banners and placards, including one dressed as a Dalek (R) holding a mask showing the face of Prime Minister Theresa May,  demonstrate outside the venue where May and government ministers will launch the Conservative Party general election manifesto in Halifax in northern England on May 18, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will on May 18 promise to crack down on immigration from outside the European Union as she unveils the Conservative Party's manifesto.  / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALLBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters with anti-Conservative and anti-cuts banners and placards, including one dressed as a Dalek (R) holding a mask showing the face of Prime Minister Theresa May, demonstrate outside the venue where May and government ministers will launch the Conservative Party general election manifesto in Halifax in northern England on May 18, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May will on May 18 promise to crack down on immigration from outside the European Union as she unveils the Conservative Party's manifesto. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALLBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

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Millions of voters will be making no common cause with Theresa Mayor or the Conservative Party says Joyce McMillan

If there is one thing to be said for the period in British politics through which we are currently living, it’s that the combination of the EU referendum shock, with its massive Leave majorities in many parts of England outside London, and the arrival of a large contingent of SNP MPs at Westminster two years ago, seems finally to have reminded the current British political establishment that they preside over a complex Union state, and not a kind of Westminster village writ large.

It is an overdue recognition. Even 18 years on from the coming of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it is striking how few Westminster politicians ever give any serious thought to the ways in which British democracy has changed over this period of reform. Now, though, a sleeping aspect of Westminster government has reawakened, and dissent in the nations and regions is being registered as a real threat; although not, alas, with any great subtlety of response.

Sp now, we have before us the Conservative Party manifesto for the general election of 2017, a document in which the words “unity” and “united” appear almost as often as Theresa May’s ubiquitous slogan, the one about “strong and stable” government. She wisely avoids using the old far-right slogan “unity is strength”. The idea, though, is everywhere in the 84-page document, which is titled “Forward Together”; and to me it seems to mark a critical moment of transition in British politics, when any form of substantial dissent from the “strength and stability” supposedly represented by the Theresa May government is framed as something that will weaken the nation, in this crucial time of warfare-by-negotiation engineered for it by those who advocated Brexit and won the referendum. Mrs. May says that we will need “a sense of common purpose across our great Union” in order to achieve the best possible Brexit deal; and in so doing she enters that strange and often dangerous world inhabited by leaders who have ceased to listen, and who believe things to be as they wish them to be.

For here is what should be obvious, to Mrs May and those helping to shape her campaign: that there is no unity in the UK at present, either over Brexit, or over any other aspect of Tory policy; and that to seek to impose it is to show a profound and dangerous disrespect for those in disagreement. Faced with such a narrow Leave victory on such a vital matter as EU membership, with two of the Union’s four nations voting to remain, any Prime Minister who was seriously interested in national unity would have begun, the morning after her arrival in Downing Street, to seek the kind of compromise solutions that might have left us in the single market or in EFTA membership, and might have allowed Scotland to negotiate the sort of special arrangement that will probably, in the end, be made for Northern Ireland, in order to avoid the potentially disastrous return of a hard border across the island.

Instead, though, Mrs May seems to have fallen victim to some kind of Downing Street coup by hard-line Tory Brexiteers, gleefully convinced that that 52/48 per cent vote in June last year means that the British have turned into a nation of diehard xenophobes who would never tolerate any arrangement that allowed freedom of movement. This belief is probably nonsense in itself, and certainly an insult to the 48 per cent who voted to remain; yet on the strength of it, we are now plunged into a hard negotiation for a hard Brexit, which over the coming years will inflict untold bureaucracy, difficulty and expense on every British person wanting to live and work in the nations that were once our European partners, and every company wanting to do business with them.

And yet the Prime Minister who has made this profound and divisive error of judgment now tells us that we must fall in behind her and make “common purpose” with her. In fact, her party’s record in government suggests that we cannot trust them an inch when it comes to retaining hard-won European protections in areas such as care for the environment and workers’ rights; Mrs May has herself actually threatened withdrawal from the entire European Convention on Human Rights. Nor do the legal positions her government has taken since last year offer much reassurance that Britain’s current devolution settlement will really be respected, as powers return from an EU thoroughly constrained by treaty arrangements and agreed procedures, to a sovereign Westminster parliament untrammelled by any written constitution at all.

So my word to Theresa May, as she proceeds to her electoral coronation on 8 June, is that I and millions of others in Britain will be making no common cause with her, or her party. Nor do we recognise the Britain with which she invites us to unite, a mean-minded Tory place obsessed with “strong leadership” and with keeping foreigners out, that has nothing to do with the diverse, beautiful, argumentative, dynamic and culturally rich Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales that we know and love.

So on the 8 June, we will be voting in our millions for other parties, including the SNP here in Scotland, that still have the guts to stand up for social democracy and cultural pluralism at home, for a welcoming attitude to those in need whatever their origin, for the ideal of the European Union, and for a strong, friendly internationalism in our external relations, on this island, and beyond. And although Mrs May will doubtless ignore our voices, and claim her massive victory as a mandate to speak for all of Britain, we will not be going away. For there are millions of us who are no longer impressed with the kind of brittle “strength” that comes from trampling on the views of half the people, and demanding their acquiescence in what they cannot support; millions who want to live together in mutual respect rather than in a spirit of braying majority triumphalism, and to make common cause on the human values that matter, rather than on some myth of true-blue Tory Britishness that finally excludes and divides, far more than it unites.

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