Theresa May: Last Woman Standing

[published in CounterPunch, 15 July, 2016]

For all the talk from both Brexit and Lexit about the undemocratic nature of the European Union, one would hardly recognise the taciturn silence from both groups as Theresa May stepped up on Wednesday to take over as Great Britain’s next Prime Minister.

Having spent six years as Home Secretary, a job known to end most careers, has had the opposite effect for May where she has gained a reputation for her competence for the job. This does not, however, bode well for those in favour of transparency between the Home Office and the public.  Nor has it won her any allies from those who put a value on immigration to the United Kingdom or those who have spoken out about the £35,000 salary threshold for non-EU workers living in the country for under ten years.  Indeed, May’s stance on immigration is troubling in an era when the refugee crisis is completely mishandled by both Labour and the Tories and when xenophobia is not specific to any one party.  But there is a lot of nuance in May’s premiership as she is not a political figure who can simply be dismissed along the old bipartisan lines of “bad Tory” and “good Labour.” Indeed the mess within the Labour Party has caused many of us on the left to look twice at how the Conservative Party is handling its changeover and most especially Theresa May.

May has spoken out against the European Convention on Human Rights and when she was Minister for Women and Equalities, she scrapped the legal requirement on public bodies to reduce class inequalities.  And if she was instrumental in legalising same-sex marriage in the country, it is hard to square certain notions of ostensible political progressivism with other components of fiscal and nationalist conservatism. Reading May’s professional profile reveals a Conservative Party member whose views are much further to the left than many of her fellow Tories.  Yet, there is room for cynicism regarding some of her motives, given that same-sex couples can be a source of revenue—so what’s not to like about legalising these unions? The same old concern for fiscal interlopers, even if the xenophobia is couched along the lines of core British values or economic protectionism, stains the Tory Party’s mandate in an era where almost every one of the Tory Leave campaigners has surreptitiously disappeared from the scene.

Most troubling of her political actions is the Investigatory Powers Bill(also called the “Snoopers’ Charter”) which as the Home Secretary, Theresa May had been overseeing and for which this past Spring she proposed 86 changes to the current spying laws. For instance, May announced that under the proposed bill companies would be obliged to remove electronic protection on information when a warrant is issued among other measures which are mocked by civil rights and privacy campaigners.  What is clear is that anyone hosting their blogging platforms on private or public sites as well as anyone in possession of a smart phone will be affected by these laws to the detriment of the privacy of emails, texts, online chats, and browsing history.

Despite this, May has a record that sets her strongly to the left of many of her peers in her party.  Of her many acts in politics, May has inaugurated measures against domestic violencecoercive behaviour, and female genital mutilation.  And while Shadow Minister for Women she increased funding for rape crisis centres across the country  Her voting record early on shows a considerable amount of change since she had years earlier voted against the repeal of section 28, a law which banned “promoting homosexuality” to include education on homosexuality, the reduction of the age of consent for gay sex, and gay adoption.  More recently May has changed position and has come out in favour of gay adoption and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Likewise where May was consistently against tuition fees, voting against them in 2004 and then again in the raising of the tuition fees from £1,225 per year to £3,000.  But then did an about face and voted for the more controversial policy in 2010 to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000.

But May does not bow to her party’s centre and is her own woman.  She scrapped Labour’s plans for identity cards,  reformed police stop-and-search powers, and campaigned for more women to enter Parliament. She also refused to extradite the ailing computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the US. May also launched an assault on the police, condemning endemic corruption, incompetence and cover-ups she regularly encountered.  I encourage everyone to read her speech to the Police Federation in 2014. May also went against her colleagues, the Tory Eurosceptics, insisting that Britain remained within most of the EU’s justice and police framework, including the European arrest warrant. May has critiqued the fact that energy bills are too high (an echo of the former Labour leader’s most popular policy to freeze bills) and that bankers’ bonuses too extravagant all the while real wages had stagnated. She has critiqued monetary policy since the economic crisis which has relied on low interest rates and quantitative easing to help those who own their home while at the expense of renters.

It is undeniable that May departs from many of the recent Conservative Prime Ministers and she is extending an olive branch, it seems to me, towards the declining Labour Party membership, the divisions in British society between the old and the young, and the need to represent the more socially libertarian ethos.  May’s speech earlier this week in Birmingham, demonstrate signs of a shift leftward that we have seen in the past and a hint that more of this version of herself might be in store for us in the future:

There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation…Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

May has also been a champion of women in the party, co-founding the mentoring group Women2Win in 2005. If you recall her “nasty party” speech of 2002, that was a rebuke to an activist base which was socially conservative to the point of indulging racism and homophobia. She has also backed gay marriage and tackled “stop and search” by police, which predominantly targets black men. May has even fought the third runway at Heathrow to the dismay of her peers. All in all, even if one does not embrace all that May represents, she does speak out consistently on women’s rights and racism, subjects conspicuously absent from the Labour Party.

Now resident at 10 Downing Street, there is nothing particularly revolutionary in her presence even though May is the second female in this historic role.  As Great Britain’s latest Prime Minister, Theresa May represents a step backwards for online privacy and personal security where law enforcement will be allowed to overstep individual rights in the name of intelligence while bringing into force expansive surveillance powers.  Equally as ominous are the negative effects that May brings to the office of Prime Minister in a post-Brexit age when immigrants fear for their safety and must worry about their legal permanency in the country.  Refreshing for many of us on the left, however, is that her ability to shore up a government left in tatters is impressive given that the state of the Labour Party is currently and lamentably in ruins.

Inasmuch as I have written many critiques of May’s policies during her tenure as Secretary of the Home Office, I must confess there is something about her cabinet appointments that tells me that she is both extremely pragmatic and has a wicked sense of humour.  Having boldly appointed to two notable Brexit supporters, Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary and the Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, May is cleverly setting up a political theatre within her own party where the political fallout of Brexit can safely land at the feet of those individuals who boasted an exit platform from the EU without so much as an inkling as to how to execute a Brexit strategy.  It will be interesting to see how Leadsom handles the many farmers who will lose  the £4bn CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) funding as well as to observe how Johnson will be forced to explain the “advantages” of Brexit as he remains “neutralised” and safely out of the country where he will be unable to gather any political following back home.  As one FaceBook friend wrote me today, “Because Brexit done badly, well, or even Breversed, it’ll become clear he never wanted it.”