For 45 years, the party that calls itself Conservative and Unionist has steadily weakened the Union, culminating in Theresa May’s delusional idea that, on Brexit, she understands the ‘mind’ of the British people, writes Joyce McMillan.
On Wednesday evening, Theresa May stood at a podium in 10 Downing Street and delivered a brief address on the state of the Brexit crisis; and in terms of what she said about the process itself, the speech was broadly accurate.
In terms of what Mrs May said about the country she nominally leads, though, every word she uttered was self-deluding nonsense. She sought to present herself as the friend of the people, the leader who is “on their side” in “getting Brexit over and done with”, while MPs – in her view – fail to deliver what voters demanded in 2016. She talked, consistently, as if the British people were of one mind; when the whole reason for the difficulty of the Brexit process is that the people were and remain profoundly divided on the issue.
She also talked as if she had some special insight into that one mind, and understood better than parliamentarians how people “feel” about the protracted Brexit process. Yet at not a single moment in the last two years has she uttered a word that seemed to empathise with any Remain voter, far less with any voter who abhors her petty and xenophobic immigration policies, and increasingly feels that he or she would rather be a citizen of a modern united Ireland, or an independent Scotland free to determine its own future as a European nation.
And in that sense, this UK premier represents the culmination of the process by which, over the last 45 years, the party that calls itself Conservative and Unionist has become the wrecking-ball that steadily weakens the Union it claims to love; and has now brought it to the brink of implosion. The first sign of that historic shift came, of course, with Margaret Thatcher’s election as leader in 1975, and the party’s wholesale adoption, of a form of neoliberal economics that large parts of the UK rejected from the outset. Thanks to blizzards of inadequate or downright mendacious news coverage over the years, millions of Britons may now have forgotten that it was not the EU but their own Government that chose to close down the mines, decimate Britain’s heavy industries, and devastate communities across Scotland, Wales and the north. They may not know that the fierce austerity of the last decade was not a necessity, but a brutal ideological choice.
Yet it’s absolutely clear that just as it was those actions of the British Government that created the wave of popular anger in some working-class areas that helped to push the Leave campaign to victory, so it is those actions of successive Conservative-led British Governments that have weakened the bonds of loyalty to the idea of a modern, compassionate and progressive Britain so powerfully fostered, during the years of the postwar welfare state.
Then secondly, the Conservatives have failed to achieve any collective understanding of how the world, and the idea of national sovereignty, has changed in the last half-century. To hear any right-wing Conservative politician talk about nationhood is still to hear the language of the 19th century, untainted by any inkling that the world is not as it was in 1900; and tragically for Britain, the current leader of the Opposition, from his very different political perspective, shares exactly the same backward-looking constitutional myopia.
And the flip side of this ignorance and indifference about the EU, of course, is an absolute failure to understand any aspect of the UK devolution settlement introduced in the first heady days of the Blair government, in 1997-99. In the case of Scotland, these attitudes are deeply insulting to a nation that worked hard for decades, using entirely peaceful and constitutional means, to achieve a measure of self-government that would fit with the emerging pattern of strong regional government across the EU.
In the case of Northern Ireland, though, those same attitudes are potentially tragic in their consequences. Heaven knows what the Government thought the EU would say when they announced Brexit red lines that would have meant the destruction of the open relationship on the island of Ireland on which the hard-won Good Friday Agreement depends; but the suspicion must be that as on most matters not of direct personal concern to London’s political, financial and media elites, they barely thought about it at all.
And then, in a final swing of the wrecking ball, there came their handling of Brexit itself; not only the strange decision to interpret the vote on lines designed to please the Tories’ anti-EU hardliners, rather than to unify the four nations and serve the wider national interest, but the coup-de-grace that came when, having squandered her Commons majority in an unnecessary general election, Theresa May then decided to put the entire fate of the process in the hands of the Northern Irish DUP, a bunch of notorious right-wing reactionaries not remotely representative of opinion in the province, whose presence close to British Government represented a final crass insult to forward-looking opinion in every part of Ireland.
If ever a party deserved to preside over the disintegration of the country they claim to love, in other words, it is the current parliamentary Tory Party, and its third-rate leadership. The truth is that for all their waving of the Union flag, they understand nothing of this Union; its history, its subtleties, and the checks and balances necessary to maintain it, in this post-imperial phase of its history. And if the Union survives the current crisis at all, it will not be because of the contemporary Tory Party, and its trunpeting of a patriotism it barely comprehends. It will be because of the solid, patient work of earlier and better British Governments, in replacing the long age of empire with a welfare state that was once a source of pride, rather than an arena of ideological warfare; and creating a national community capable of nurturing and supporting those personal and commercial ties that still hold the Union together, so far as a narrow majority of Scots are concerned – but which, given the disastrous quality of Government now on display at Westminster, may not be able to sustain it for very much longer.