The dangers of the presidential-style government Theresa May and her ‘team’ are seeking for the UK
One of the advantageous of being an immigrant is that you can observe your new country in ways the native-born can’t. Or won’t. You can see things differently. If you choose to.
And what I can see is the creeping presidentialisation of our national politics. This is driven largely for its own purposes by the Conservative Party, seemingly without regard for the fact that presidentialisation could be a clear and present danger to parliamentary democracy itself.
In 2005, a friend begged me to go to with him to the Tory conference to meet David Cameron, who was standing for the party leadership. ‘He’s a great guy!’ my friend insisted.
Now I don’t think I’ll ever go to a Conservative Party conference, even for those anthropological reasons that we writers have to go to places with which we have no connection. But I was tempted.
Instead I watched Cameron’s leadership speech on TV, a veritable tour de force; done without notes and loaded with youthful passion. He strode the stage like some cornpone Kansas City Motivator; full of his own conviction. It was a good show.
His opponent for the leadership, David Davis, by contrast, looked like a guy showing an apartment in a not so nice neighbourhood. He read from notes; he squinted and smiled awkwardly. He gave the impression that he wanted to be elsewhere.
How happy Davis must be, finally to be leaning over the Despatch Box in the House of Commons as Secretary Of State For Exiting The European Union! That’s the title of his Department and its intent.
And lo, it came to pass that the young David slew Goliath (ie the Tory bigwigs). Like that Biblical David, Cameron set out with good intentions. But he may end up going down in history as one of the worst PMs. Along with the 18th century Lord North, PM during the American Revolution, Cameron could come to be known as somebody: Who Lost The UK Something Big.
Yet at the beginning of it all, everything was promising: Cameron set about with brio to reshape, rebuild what Theresa May had branded the Nasty Party. He changed the logo to a smudged green shape meant to represent a green tree. He was photographed smiling with people of colour and women.
David Cameron reached out. He was the sunny boy next door – if next door happened to be somewhere like Chipping Norton where he was a star on the ‘country suppers’ circuit.
The London borough next to where I lived in Cameron’s early days had been rumoured to have Conservatives out campaigning as an entity called ‘David Cameron’s Tories’.
I never saw this myself, but urban legend or not, here were the Cons detoxified, coming to a neighbourhood near you. You could read back then on various blogs, and still read even now, the complaints of backbench Tory MPs and rank-and-file members. Their main beef then and now: no connection to ‘the team’. There is no opportunity now to bend the ear of the Prime Minister.
Things had to stay focussed, no time for party leakage; pushback, no time for democracy. Cameron’s mission was to make the electorate actually forget that he was a Tory, that he kinda was and kinda wasn’t, while at the same time being better than ‘the other guy’ – the term he used to refer to Ed Miliband.
We were meant to forget that ‘hug-a-hoodie’ was now leader of the Conservative Party. And, all being well, we would see that somehow he was sui generis, a thing of and unto himself. By magic, therefore, we would manage to choose ‘Conservative’ on the ballot and to enter the sunny uplands.
His appeal was to a kind of English nationalism – not the UKIP, BNP, English Defence League kind, nor any of the other sorts of movements that might scare away the shires. His nationalism was what lies not far beneath the surface of UK political, cultural and commercial life. He blew that dog whistle and in doing so put the ‘con’ even deeper into ‘Conservative’.
David Cameron, in his drive to keep the Tories more or less permanently in power, made way for where we are now. Having been born and brought up in a presidential democracy where it is possible to have both genius and demagoguery occupy the Oval Office, in the same person, I can sense the possible danger to come: a President May.
This poses problems both real and existential.
A presidential thrust causes more power to accrue as a matter of course to the executive. The executive: the Prime Minister and her ministers are the repository of the ancient and still relevant Royal prerogative. Gina Miler’s brave and audacious battle in the courts was centred on the constitutional norm that parliament – the assembly of our directly-elected representatives – is supreme and above the Executive in many matters. To many Brits, when that point of law was argued at the High Court and later the Supreme Court, this fact seemed to come as a surprise.
From this immigrant’s point of view, this lack of knowledge of how the country is governed looks deliberate. There’s an American saying linked with the concerted and systemic effort to keep women down. It goes: ‘Keep them barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.’
In many ways, we, the electorate, are constantly being kept out of the loop like that. Played.
Then our liberties and freedoms, hard-won and costly, are whittled away, reduced to anecdote or nothing.
This is largely achieved through the state education system, but also through the media, and above all, by a highly partisan and largely right-leaning press. This press has chosen to focus on England, leaving out Wales and Scotland – unless it’s a threat to England. Leaving out Northern Ireland.
That Northern Ireland is not prominently visible as part of the concerns of President May is another reason to come to the conclusion that this election is all about her and her authority. She needs the authority to keep her virulent right wing at bay: the people John Major once called ‘the bastards’. She needs the authority by virtue of a slam-dunk General Election result to be able to throw that right wing base some red meat from time to time. To be able to walk into the EU negotiations as the female equivalent of Don Corleone and say the equivalent of: ‘I got an offer you can’t refuse.’
The EU is the ageing Klitschko to her Anthony Joshua, fired up with the best corner and the wind at her back. The threat to ‘walk away with no deal’ never has to have the accompanying response: ‘But to where?’ answered. Because President May will have The Power.
The various phases in that eternal war over Europe within the Tory Party spill out from time to time and becomes a proxy war: like the EU referendum was, like this snap General Election is. In a sense we are all Tories now, participating in their angst, caught up in their shenanigans as if their party conflicts actually mattered to the rest of the world.
But there is an important matter, one that President May has not brought to the fore in her bid to be, alongside President, a modern day Elizabeth I, permanently at Tilbury equipped with her ‘heart and stomach of a man and a King of England, too’.
The matter is Northern Ireland and its fate.
The EU27 have put the Republic and Northern Ireland on the table. It’s ‘No Deal’ unless there is a Deal for them. President Macron, the new boy on the block, so staunch a defender of the EU that he had Ode To Joy open his first speech as President rather than La Marseillaise, has no concern with the never-ending angst of the Conservative Party over Europe, and certainly not the fate of the Conservative and Unionist Party itself.
The Four Freedoms will not be compromised to suit the Tories and so, for him, a Hard Brexit is not only logical but necessary for the wellbeing of the EU itself. Strict insistence on the trading bloc’s core values means that as far as the EU27 are concerned, it’s my way or the highway for the UK. The walk out threatened by President May and her team means a walk to the World Trade Organisation and the possibility of British lorries backed up from London to Dover as the EU enforces strict controls on the new ‘third country’. Anyone who is paying attention can see that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are where the literal border of this Brexit debacle lie. It could be the battleground between May and the EU.
Yet so far, in the matter of Brexit, President May and her Brexit Party treat the Province and the Republic as surplus to requirements. It does not seem to be a priority, even though most of Northern Ireland voted Remain and American merchant banks are discussing whether to relocate to Dublin or Frankfurt or both. This possible migration could be a major blow to Britain’s GDP. The balance of payments, the attraction to foreign investors, and a lot more could be severely threatened. Food prices are already rising and a higher cost of living will not be something that people will welcome.
For the Province and the Republic, the EU has already stated that in the event of a ‘unity referendum’, Northern Ireland would automatically be welcomed back into the European Union. Yet this present government, in its drive to consolidate its Henry VIII-like powers, renders the Republic invisible and the Province mute.
You would need a microscope to see ‘Conservative Party’ on many of the posters at Theresa May’s séances with The Chosen Few. She is tiptoeing around the country, meeting groups of selected voters, running a yawn-inducing campaign so that hard questions, real questions, aren’t asked. Like about Northern Ireland, the Republic.
Yet May is urging us all not to vote for her party, but to vote ‘for me and my team’.
Her ‘team’ in the matter of Brexit, is the House of Commons.
Her ‘team’ is ‘We The People’ through our elected representatives seated at Westminster.
We are the ‘team’ that really matters.