Theresa May and the Return of One Nation Conservatism
The new UK prime minister has a powerful center-right message.
1. The Conservative Ideal of “One Nation”
Theresa May, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, has been in office for just three months, and yet already she has emerged as a consequential figure—and not just in Britain. Americans might take careful note of the way that she articulates a powerful center-right message.
Inevitably, as only the second female PM in British history, such side issues as her fashion style—including the inevitable comparison to Kate, Duchess of Cambridge—have attracted much attention. Following her footwear seems to be an almost fetishistic obsession with the Brit media.
Yet what really matters are May’s ideas, and those are sure to echo into the U.S., because she is seeking to create the sort of national majority that American Republicans have been striving, unsuccessfully, to create for the past quarter-century.
Of course, the hottest issue in the UK is Brexit, which Britons approved on June 23. And while that issue is specific to the UK, the larger implications of the vote have reverberated into every country that is confronting unaccountable multinational organizations—that is, all countries. . .
Moreover, in establishing a new tone for the Conservatives, May has gone beyond Brexit; she has put forth a vision of Britain at home as “One Nation.”
That’s a venerable conservative concept, neglected of late, that reaches back to the 19th century, to the era of one of her greatest Tory predecessors, Benjamin Disraeli.
Today, “One Nation” is just as important, even if—more precisely, because—the venerable verities of nationalism and patriotism are colliding with two new and horrendously bad ideas from the left:
- First, that nations should be submerged in multinational superstates such as the EU and the UN;
- Second, that nations should be divided into constituent identity groups, based, mostly, on ethnicity or gender affiliation.
In other words, the left, on both sides of the Atlantic, is pursuing a simultaneous agenda of supra- and sub-nationalism. That is, nations ought to be subordinated in some new kind of EU-like bureaucratic empire, and, simultaneously, the peoples within a nation ought to abandon patriotism and solidarity in favor of a new vision of multicultural groupthink.
In the meantime, many on the political right have quietly imbibed this same post-nationalist thinking: if the left is openly disdainful of patriotism, many “conservatives” have been quietly dismissive, preferring to subsume national identity in an idealized global “free market.” Yet either way, the result is the same: we get not only sovereignty-submerging trade deals, as well as open-borders arrangements, but also—whether conservatives want them or not—economically catastrophic “climate change” agreements.
For her part, May has staked out a position in opposition to both the globalist left and the globalist right. The clearest expression of her views came on October 5, when she spoke to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, England, saying Britons should “reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and … embrace a new center ground.” And she added tartly, “If you think you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
Continuing, she promised “a country that works for everyone.” And May then spelled it out; it would mean fairness for all, regardless of wealth or status: “Everyone plays by the same rules and … every single person—regardless of their background, or that of their parents—is given the chance to be all they want to be.”
Okay, that might sound like an all-purpose, all-party political platitude. Yet to clinch her argument, May immediately got down to brass tacks, addressing the watershed issue of 2016, Brexit. When Britons voted for Brexit, she declared, they voted for change: “And a change is going to come … as we leave the European Union and take control of our own destiny.”
Moreover, she said, Brexit was a harbinger of a “quiet revolution.” And here an American might add an aside: “quiet revolution” sounds a bit like “silent majority.” That latter phrase, of course, was Richard Nixon’s 1969 formulation describing the American middle class. We might further remember that the “silent majority,” and all the understated bourgeois virtues that it evoked, was a key to Nixon’s thumping 49-state landslide reelection in 1972.
Meanwhile, in the Britain of 2016, May proclaimed that Brexit was not just a vote to change Britain’s relationship with the EU; it was also a vote “to change … the way our country works—and the people for whom it works—forever.”
If Brexit goes according to plan and is finalized in 2019, the UK will indeed have been massively changed for the better. For example, there will be no more European Court of Justice issuing sovereignty-busting dictates. (That court, incidentally, is not to be confused with the separate, and equally imperious, European Court of Human Rights.)
Perhaps most importantly, once Brexit is achieved, Britain will face no more risk from the “free movement of peoples”—that being the epochal self-inflicted wound within the EU, most disastrously in Germany. The open-borders ideology, we might add, seems to be the sine qua non not only of the EU, but also of the American left. . . .
Indeed, if one had to pick a single issue that unites the whole trans-Atlantic elite, from Washington, DC, to Paris, to Berlin, it would be just that: an unshakable belief in open borders.
Yet for her part, in London, May has grasped that real people—that is, the governed, as opposed to the governors—don’t share that anti-nationalist, pro-migrationist ideology. And so in her speech, May addressed directly this top-down mismatch, this ineffable arrogance of the ruling class: “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public. They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.”
May’s willingness to confront the ruling class—make that the sneering ruling class—was the most powerful point in a powerful address. In getting inside the heads of the snobby condescenders, May expressed the justifiable anger that tens of millions of Britons have been feeling. And then she went even further, directly addressing the public:
If you’re one of those people who lost their job, who stayed in work but on reduced hours, took a pay cut as household bills rocketed, or—and I know a lot of people don’t like to admit this—someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair. . . .
Speaking to her fellow Conservatives, May offered a different vision—a positive vision of unity: “We are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship.” And so we might stop and savor that last word, “citizenship.” Here May is making a point that globalists can no longer bring themselves to make: citizens of a country ought to have greater rights and privileges than non-citizens.
Yet at the same time, of course, citizens also have duties. Invoking populism as well as nationalism, May cited the importance, no fewer than four times, of rich people, and of big corporations, paying their fair share of taxes. And she also declared that every citizen has an obligation to cooperate with the authorities to “fight terrorism.” Thus we can see: in May’s view, it’s impossible to have a solid country if certain groups get to play by a different set of rules than everyone else. As Rudy Giuliani said when he was mayor of New York City, there should be “one standard.”
May is attempting to follow through: the new home secretary, Amber Rudd, citing the threat to the middle class of “cheap foreign labor,” has pledged administrative measures to stop foreigners from “tak[ing] the jobs that British people should do.” Yet Rudd’s proposal generated a sharp reaction, and so its status is now unclear; the emerging compromise policy seems to be restrictions on the immigration of unskilled workers only. That will be disappointing to some, but it still rates as progress. . . .
2. The Crisis of the Multiculturalist and Globalist Left—and May’s Opportunity
Needless to say, all this talk of standing up for British citizens has raised plenty of hackles on the left. In September, a prominent Labour Party member of Parliament, Diane Abbott, told a cheering leftist crowd that Brexit “added another turn of the screw to rising racism.”
And on October 6, Jeremy Corbyn, the harder-than-hard-left leader of the Labour Party, tweeted out, “Conservative Party leaders have sunk to a new low this week as they fan the flames of xenophobia and hatred.” Thus we see the left’s label for everything the right wishes to do on behalf of citizens: racism.
Indeed, much of the worldwide media is on board, too, with this left-wing line of attack. Reporting on the May-Rudd effort to crimp the hiring of non-citizens, Bloomberg News used the words “Nazi Flashback” as a subheadline.
All this precious PC notwithstanding, it should be glaringly obvious that no country can have open borders and still be a country. And yet mostly because of the Republican grip on Congress in the last few years, the Democrats in America, fevered as they are with open-borders enthusiasm, have managed to avoid that rendezvous with geopolitical reality. Still, Democrats might yet get their opportunity to implement their open-borders “dream,” as Hillary Clinton has said.
Meanwhile, in her Birmingham speech, May took the promise of One Nationism even further. After hailing such great Tory prime ministers as Disraeli, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, she also offered praise for a Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, who served from 1945 to 1951. Attlee is best known for establishing the National Health Service (NHS); as May generously said of him, he had “the vision to build a great institution.” . . .
In the meantime, ideology aside, we can pause to admire the political genius of May’s rhetorical stroke: her embrace of Attlee is exactly the sort of big move one makes to win the middle, and even to win over voters from the other side.
Indeed, as the left-leaning New Statesman headlined it, “Theresa May’s Tory interventionism should terrify Labour.” The magazine added, “In her speech, she shrewdly embraced what voters like about Labour while condemning what they don’t.”
Moreover, as The Telegraph, the leading right-of-center newspaper in Britain, observed, “The most appealing parts of Labour’s programme reach back into folk memories of Attlee and the world of unionized factories.” We might quickly observe that for various reasons, including automation, it’s a certainty that neither Britain nor the U.S. will ever see a return to the hulking factories of yore. And yet at the same time, we can readily see the sentimental appeal of the old forms of comradeship and solidarity. And we can see that even today, ordinary people are still clutching for something solid to hold on to, however much it must be refined and updated. So the question is, which party will make that offer of comforting solidity and security to the voters? On behalf of her party, May has an answer: the Tories will.
In the meantime, we might note, Attlee’s party, the Labour Party, is moving way-y-y to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, who is, to be blunt about it, more of a communist than a socialist. Thus it’s even easier for May to occupy the vital center. And yet of course, if Corbyn loses the next general election, now set for 2020 (although it could be sooner), it’s possible that Labour will rebound to the middle. And yet if May’s party has already occupied that middle, Labour will still be frozen out. . . .
3. The Legacy of Nigel Farage, and New Challenges to May
Yet the greatest hero of Brexit isn’t even a Conservative at all. That would be, of course, Nigel Farage, former head of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP. Over the last two decades, Farage held up the torch of British sovereignty and built UKIP into a genuine force; its candidates earned almost four million votes in the 2015 national elections.
Moreover, UKIP still has a vital role to play. For starters, it can keep up the pressure on May for Brexit—no backsliding! If one visits the UKIP website, one sees the key message, “Help us ensure that ‘leave’ means leave.”
Indeed, since the Brexit vote, there’s been a fervent debate, egged on by the UK MSM and big business, over the merits of a “hard Brexit” or a “soft Brexit”—which is to say, the more “enlightened” classes want the soft option, keeping the border open to both trade and migrants and thereby depriving the populist-nationalist meanies of their victory. In particular, The Economist, that uber-globalist London-based magazine with international ambitions—it long ago endorsed Hillary Clinton—will never cease seeking to reverse Brexit completely. Sample headline from October 11: “Brexit is making Britons poorer, and meaner.”
In addition, the basic question of whether or not there’s to be a Brexit at all has flared up: the UK Parliament has insisted on, and will get, the right to scrutinize Brexit, and perhaps even vote on Brexit. As prime minister, May by definition possesses a majority in the House of Commons, and she’s not likely to lose it so soon in her premiership. And yet, as students of history know, anything can happen in the pressure-cooker of a legislative chamber.
So it’s at least possible that Parliament could vote “no” on Brexit, thereby throwing May’s government into crisis and perhaps forcing new elections. May and Brexit would probably prevail in such an extended struggle; it’s hard to believe that the case for staying in the EU has grown stronger in recent months, as the myriad political miscalculations of that leviathan have come home to roost: Britons, too, can see that some parts of Paris have turned into third-world-style tent cities under the onslaught of the immigration that the EU favors, and in October, Otmar Issing, the first chief economist of the European Central Bank and a major player in the creation of the Euro currency which is at the heart of the EU, said bluntly, “One day, the house of cards will collapse.”
So the EU seems even less enticing than it did on June 23, when Britons voted for Brexit. Still, May’s leadership is facing a severe challenge, as opponents seek, at minimum, to convert a “hard” Brexit into a “soft” Brexit.
So we can see: the work of the UK Independence Party is nowhere near done. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that if everything goes according to May’s plan, the actual moment when the UK is no longer a part of the EU is still some two-and-a-half years away. In the meantime, as another British prime minister, Harold Wilson, famously observed, “A week is a long time in politics.” So even if we concede that May has the best and most sincere intentions concerning Brexit, Brexit-minded Britons are fortunate to have UKIP on the scene as a watchdog.
Interestingly enough, Raheem Kassam—a former top lieutenant to Farage, now editor of Breitbart London—is now running for the leadership of UKIP. As Kassam told the BBC, “I will carry on Farage’s legacy.” Later, in an op-ed, Kassam added these words of warning about May’s government:
Think you can trust the Tories with no one looking over their shoulder but Jeremy Corbyn? Britain has made that mistake too many times before. Theresa May might talk a good game, but she was Home Secretary for six years—the same six years in which we saw record immigration into the UK, legal and illegal, and of course an issue very close to my heart: a rise in Islamic extremism. Britain needs UKIP more than any other Party.
Some will say, of course, that Kassam is being too hard on May, because she has become a convert to the Brexit cause, and maybe always was a quiet Brexiter. . . . Britain confronts other issues too, of course. And here we should bear in mind that May has been in office for only a brief time; we don’t yet know how she will handle a crisis. . . .
Thus we come to the immediate question for Prime Minister May: What will she and her government do about . . . all . . [the] other Islamist inciters who are on the loose? For instance, what to do about whoever has been distributing leaflets at a London mosque urging the Islamic faithful to kill those who insult Mohammed?
To be sure, the British government is taking some bold actions that might be judged as distinctly illiberal by trendy American standards. For example, the government recently ordered the effective closure of a Muslim school that was teaching the beating of wives and the killing of gays.
Yet given the enormous dimensions of the problem—the affront to civilized values, as well as the jeopardy to homeland security—it’s still an open question as to whether May will consistently match deeds with words, taking decisive action against all the hideous Islamist threats Britain faces. So once again, we can see the enduring value of UKIP as a watchdog upholding a sturdy vision of populist nationalism—and public safety. . . .
In addition, in Britain, as in the U.S., there’s the reemerging problem of crime—which is sometimes, although certainly not always, connected to the issue of immigration. Here’s an October 10 headline from The Telegraph: “Killer of renowned scientist should not have been in country after overstaying his student visa, court hears.” The article details the case of an alleged murderer, Femi Nandap, born in Nigeria. Nandap came to the UK on a student visa, and, while overstaying that visa, was charged with possessing a knife and assaulting a police officer—charges that were later dropped. (And yes, this initial miscarriage of justice happened when May was home secretary in the previous government, although there’s no evidence of her personal involvement.)
In the meantime, while still on bail, Nandap returned home to Nigeria, where he was treated for mental illness—an illness apparently exacerbated by heavy marijuana smoking while living in the United States. Then he stopped taking his meds and returned to the UK; soon thereafter, he allegedly killed a 41-year-old scientist who was walking out of his front door to drop cards in the mail celebrating the birth of his first child. As the authorities seek to piece together the chain of mistakes that were made in this tragic case, the grieving widow was moved to say, “If such tragedies keep occurring, why has there not been concerted action to address this?”
Yes, that is the question: where’s the concerted action? For a while to come, May can blame such horrors on the laxity of her predecessors at Number 10. Yet soon enough, the street-crime problem, along with the jihadi-radical problem, will both become her problems. Then we’ll find out if the prime minister’s actions match her promising rhetoric.
But for the time being, May has the stage with her message of Brexit plus One Nation. Americans seeking the same sort of nationalist emancipation should wish her well.
James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel
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