Britain today confronts a variety of deep, even existential, uncertainties. The terms of its exit from the European Union, the country’s long-term economic prospects and Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom are all in the balance. In contrast to these unknowns, the outcome of the general election on June 8 already feels concrete: The Conservatives, consistently between 17 percent and 20 percent ahead in the polls, are on course for a landslide victory.
In calling this election (despite promises not to) and in her campaigning for it, Prime Minister Theresa May is exploiting this contrast. The Conservatives are being presented as a new type of “people’s party,” under which everyone can huddle to stay safe from the multiple storms that are brewing. Mrs. May and her party are treating this election as too important to be reduced to political divides. With no explanation of how, she claims that “every single vote for me and Conservative candidates will be a vote that strengthens my hand in the negotiations for Brexit.”
This is where Mrs. May’s strategy and rhetoric become disconcerting. Ever since she took over from David Cameron last summer, she has spoken as if Britain is a nation harmoniously united, aside from the divisive forces of party politics and liberal elites seeking to thwart the “will of the people.” The first part of this is simply untrue: Forty-eight percent of the public voted to remain in the European Union, while the other 52 percent held various ideas of what leaving could or should mean in practice.
Mrs. May’s idea that her opponents are merely playing self-interested political “games” is a classic populist trope, one that suggests that constitutional democracy is really an obstacle standing between people and leader. The prime minister’s rhetoric since calling the general election has implied that the best outcome for “the national interest” would be to eradicate opposition altogether, whether that be in the news media, Parliament or the judiciary. For various reasons (not least the rise of the Scottish National Party) it is virtually impossible to imagine the Labour Party achieving a parliamentary majority ever again, as Mrs. May well knows. To put all this another way, the main purpose of this election is to destroy two-party politics as Britain has known it since 1945.
One way in which Mrs. May has aggressively pursued this outcome is in her unusual framing of the choice before the British electorate. We are used to politicians presenting policy proposals and promises to the public. Of course, in practice this involves spin doctors seeking to cast their party’s policies in the best light, news outlets twisting the message depending on their political biases and many voters turning away in disgust because they don’t believe a word politicians say. That’s the routine.
The Labour Party, despite occasional populist swipes at the news media, has been sticking roughly to this script. There is a certain irony in this, seeing as Labour, under the socialist leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has become viewed by many pundits and voters as an implausible party of government. But Labour has nevertheless been regularly putting out clear and reasonably worked-out policy proposals since the election was announced on April 18.
By contrast, Mrs. May has made scarcely any statements regarding policy. Her speeches and campaign literature are peppered with the slogan “strong and stable leadership,” a phrase she then recites on the few occasions that she takes questions from journalists or members of the public. The very basis on which she is asking to be trusted and to be elected seems different from an ordinary policy platform. From a leader of a party still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher, Mrs. May’s virtual silence on the economy is astonishing. The decision to vote Conservative is not to be based on knowledge of what a Conservative government will do — nobody has much of a clue about anything right now — but because of the desperate need for “strong and stable leadership.”
Symbolically and rhetorically, Mrs. May’s campaign message is simple and overpowering. While opposition parties dirty their hands with policy ideas and news conferences, she is seeking to personify the nation state itself — a job that technically belongs to the queen. In one of her campaign videos, which sees her speaking solemnly in front of a Union Jack in a dimly lit room as if announcing a new war, she uses the term “us” in multiple ways: At times it means the Conservative Party, at others it means the government, and at other times it means Britain itself. The mesmerizing effect on the viewer is to lose track of the differences among the three. Representative democracy is being denigrated as petty and harmful to the national interest by a woman who has just called an unnecessary and unwanted election.
Where does this leave the opposition? The fear is that outside of Scotland, rival political parties will be reduced to the status of glorified think tanks or nongovernmental organizations. If they come up with good ideas, Mrs. May’s government can happily adopt them. Already, the Conservatives have picked up one popular Labour Party policy for controlling the retail price of energy. With the Conservatives branded as more than just a political party, it is hard to see how their electoral stranglehold over England and Wales will be broken.
Politicians and parties can scarcely be blamed for wanting more power. That’s what drives them. What is worrying about Mrs. May is that she seems to be deliberately aggravating Britain’s existential anxiety, precisely so as to benefit from it personally. Her extraordinary Trumpian accusation that European Union leaders are seeking to interfere in the election (since repeated by other Conservative ministers) seems to be aimed at stoking nationalist resentment toward the very people who will end up deciding what type of trade deals and “divorce bill” Britain will be granted. This suggests that she views the destruction of the Labour Party as a more important national priority than Britain’s long-term economic prosperity.
Mrs. May clearly has a good emotional antenna, especially when it comes to sensing the fears and resentments of what she calls “ordinary working people.” But if it turns out that she is a weak negotiator with the European Union, and if she fails to grasp the magnitude of Britain’s economic vulnerability, the politics of resentment will be all she has to fall back on. Britain’s conservative tabloid press will praise every step in this direction with its usual wartime nostalgia, and she will continue to claim the support of “the people.” But the reality will be a fractured nation slipping ungraciously to the status of an angry and irrelevant midsize economy.
Brexit will be fiendishly difficult, but there is no reason it has to be draped in so much nationalistic gravitas and secrecy, nor does it have to mean the hugely risky departure from the European single market. But that’s the path that Mrs. May has chosen. Her gambit is to present herself and the Conservative Party as the one certainty in an otherwise chaotic political situation, with party politics a symptom of weakness and chaos. This is likely to work to devastating effect, but only because she refuses to acknowledge the crucial contribution that she and her party made to this chaos in the first place.
William Davies is a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of The Happiness Industry, among other books.