The Prime Minister’s obscene invoking of the Dunkirk spirit during a crisis that was entirely her own party’s making is the last straw for Joyce McMillan
On Wednesday - with a slightly reduced level of pomp and circumstance, for reasons which remain obscure - the Queen played her usual role in the opening of Parliament, after the UK’s unnecessary snap election. The main point of discussion on the day was whether the Queen actually meant to signal dissent from her government’s central policy, by appearing dressed in the colours of the EU flag; but in truth, the Queen’s outfit was not the only strange thing about this very strange moment in British politics. The Queen’s Speech itself was a historical oddity, a brief but seismic document promising not only the Great Repeal Bill detaching the UK from the EU, but a raft of other bills setting out new provisions in a range of EU-related areas, from agriculture and fisheries to immigration.
And even more curious, in every way, was the Prime Minister’s statement to the Commons on the Queen’s Speech, much of which was full of unimpeachable sentiments about making post-Brexit Britain into a kinder, fairer and more prosperous society; like many “nice Tories”, in other words, Theresa May seems incapable of grasping that for the last forty years, the neoliberal ideology embraced by her party has been driving our society in precisely the opposite direction. And if her lack of basic insight on that point is not reassuring, then it is even harder to know what to make of the final paragraph of her speech, in which, in sub-Churchillian tones, she invoked the idea of the British as a uniquely great and resilient people, capable of surviving the shocks and challenges we currently face, as we have survived great crises in the past.
And it was at this point - with the Prime Minister’s voice reaching a maximum intensity of prayerful piety - that the word “obscene” came fully-formed and unbidden into my mind. Here was the UK’s Prime Minister - representative of a party which, entirely for its own purposes, has plunged Britain not only into the current Brexit crisis, and into the profound austerity crisis that is now inflicting unnecessary misery and danger on vulnerable people across the country, but also into the increased uncertainty caused by her own ill-judged general election gamble - actually daring to invoke the courage and stoicism shown in the face of past natural disasters and unavoidable wars, as an appropriate response to this entirely government-made moment of fear and confusion. The bad taste is shocking; and so is the lack of any grasp on current political reality.
Mrs May’s advisors will of course argue that she was talking mainly about the series of terror incidents that has taken place in Britain in recent weeks, as well as about the Grenfell Tower fire, and commending the public’s response to them. That, though, is an excuse for her words that will not wash. A series of four terror incidents, killing a total of 41 people over three months, is not enough to send a nation of 60 million into panic or depression, as the public response to those incidents more than demonstrates. The Grenfell Tower disaster was the result not of an external threat, but - so it seems - of poor building standards and excessive deregulation, applied to housing designed for the less well off; the appropriate response to this disaster is not stoicism and “resilience” - if that means keeping calm and carrying on as before - but anger, activism, and a determination to achieve real political change.
And as for the permanent state of crisis created for many British citizens and residents by the threat of Brexit, by a lost decade of austerity and declining incomes, and now by a general election that has left the future stability of UK government dependent on the DUP, and the Irish Peace Process under severe threat - well, one can only hope that Theresa May will live to regret the day when she dared to suggest that we respond to that unfolding set of Tory-made disasters with our usual obliging stoicism, instead of with the profound political contempt they so richly deserve.
She is not the only one to deploy this wholly inappropriate wartime language in relation to the Brexit process, of course. For the last half-decade and more, Westminster has borne witness to the antics of a group of dysfunctional middle-aged politicians, mainly male, who seem to feel a need to re-enact the Battle of Britain stories of their childhood on the bloodless field of constant, irrational EU-bashing; and it’s this peculiar retro-nationalist neurosis that now has large parts of the parliamentary Tory Party in its grip, while key elements of Britain’s public realm rot into disrepair, millions struggle with inadequate incomes, and climate change roars on largely unchallenged. The strength of the argument for Scottish independence in 2014 was that it was possible, in that moment, to connect the idea of an independent Scotland with the idea of a prosperous, just and sustainable future, based on the renewable energy sources in which Scotland is so rich; if a Tory UK could not deliver that future, many thought, then an independent Scotland just might.
The tragedy of Brexit, though, is that it seems to offer the exact reverse; a chance to stop the world, get off, scrap all those tiresome new-fangled ideas about sustainability and regulation, and pretend that it is still 1940. Heaven knows what demographic of UK citizens will be impressed or influenced by Theresa May’s pious words on Wednesday; perhaps mainly the Brexit-voting over-70s, who yearn for the return of the Dunkirk spirit on however flawed a pretext.
To many of us, though, her words sound like pure political cant, framed to shift blame from her own party’s recent record of calamitous misjudgments by abusing the memory of Britain’s genuine finest hours. Millions of British people currently need reserves of courage, stoicism and resilience, no question. But the cause lies, for the vast majority of them, in the cruelty and folly of our own government, over many years; and insofar as Theresa May recognises that distress, now would be an excellent moment for her to step up, take full responsibility for her party’s recent record, and resign.