Joyce McMillan imagines Theresa May is joined on her lightning tour of the home nations by the embodiment of Britain, Britannia herself.
It was a bright, cold morning in late March when Queen Theresa departed Downing Street on her one-year-to-Brexit progress around her realm. She wasn’t really the Queen, of course; Elizabeth was still firmly on the throne. She was, though – for her sins – the head of government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and like all British heads of government, she took with her a silent and unseen companion, the image of Britannia, the one who once ruled the waves and presumed to govern half the world.
Britannia, of course, has seen thing or two, since Britain first emerged as a fledgling state around 400 years ago; and she noted, as they set off, that Theresa’s planned progress – Ayr, Newcastle, County Down and Barry, South Wales, before a swift evening flight back to London – was a poor sort of thing compared with the leisurely and magnificent Elizabethan progresses of her childhood, in which the gloriously dressed monarch proceeded along the roads of England, dazzling the common folk and throwing out the odd purse of gold coins; nor could it match Queen Victoria’s stately journeys to Balmoral by royal train. It had distance in its favour, though, and some sort of political purpose; and although Britannia noted that the zig-zag route around the four destinations had clearly been devised by some Westminster bubble-dweller with only a hazy idea of the geography of Britain beyond the M20, it did, after a fashion, cover the ground.
So at an ungodly hour of the morning, Theresa’s party arrived in Ayr, a neglected part of Scotland which currently, for reasons inscrutable, has a Conservative MP at Westminster. Here, Theresa spoke much of Scotland’s contribution to the Union, and lent her gracious support to a plan to boost Ayrshire’s economy; but as Theresa spoke of a nation united in the great Brexit project, Britannia wondered whether, in her busy life, the Prime Minister had had time actually to read the poll numbers of recent years, which show that in 2014 45 per cent of Scottish voters chose – despite dire warnings – to leave Theresa’s glorious Union altogether, and that two-thirds of Scots currently believe that leaving the European Union is a bad idea. To talk of unity at such a time struck Britannia as both fatuous and arrogant. And meanwhile, on the beach, a local man interrupted a suave television reporter covering the Prime Minister’s visit by wandering into shot, and asking, “Is this fur Theresa May comin’ doon?”; meaning, “Is it to the Prime Minister’s visit that we owe all this unaccustomed – not to say unprecedented – media attention?”
With that, the Prime Minister headed on to Newcastle, confident at least that most people in the north-east did vote for Brexit. She visited a factory, while on the TV news Leave voters asked about post-Brexit economic damage declared that “there were no jobs round here anyway, so we don’t care”. Britannia felt their pain, but she sensed that its causes ran very deep, and that if they thought Brexit was going to fix it, then they probably had yet more pain and disappointment to come.
Near Belfast, a few hours later, the Prime Minister had lunch with farmers in County Down. For this part of the visit, Britannia boldly adjusted the deep blue riband with yellow stars she has worn around her helmet in recent years, in the same colours chosen by the Queen for the last opening of Parliament; for oddly, despite the warlike and imperialist conduct of many of her monarchs and ministers, Britannia is a woman of peace, who likes peoples to live together in harmony, and notes how much easier the European Union has made it to resolve matters like the long-running conflict in Ireland. The talk in County Down was mainly about the value of farming to the British economy. It was clear, though, that no-one here wanted a serious EU border running across the roads that carry the massive traffic of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the south; and that Theresa May still had nothing much to say about a solution to that problem.
And finally, in Wales, the Prime Minister spoke more warm words of unity, and suggested that in the end, Brexit might indeed mean more money to spend on education and the NHS; although not, of course, if its economic impact is as grave as most economists predict. The Welsh looked surly despite their pro-Brexit vote; and their Labour government seemed even more annoyed than the Scots at the prospect of being removed from the European Single Market. Britannia reflected that without Wales, there would simply be no Britain, as a political entity, just the four nations living side by side on these islands, in some kind of more equal association. She felt old; and wondered if that outcome would be all bad, so long as they committed themselves to remain at peace.
Back in Downing Street, Theresa returned to her Prime Ministerial boxes; Britannia looked kindly on her for a moment, a hard-working, dutiful woman without vision, governing by her chosen method of trying, each day, to contain the vicious divisions and power-plays within her own party. Then Britannia kicked off her chain-mail shoes, poured herself a glass of Burgundy, and looked out across the country, and across the Channel.
She saw a European Union weakened by Brexit, and by the spirit of backward-looking nationalism that drove Brexit and feared for the future, after 70 blessed years of peace in these parts. She saw a Britain shaken to its core by the Brexit shock, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland unsure whether to follow the pro-Brexit majority back to the future, or to rebel, and strike out for a new world of diversity and independence. She saw the silver sea full of plastic, and the mounting threats, both environmental and political, to the prosperity that eases all conflicts, and makes peace flow. She put up a brief prayer for the people, and for their chance of finding wise ways through dark times; then, for a while at least, she laid down her shield, and slept.