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Theresa May’s Le Pen Moment

Prime Minister Theresa May’s turn to the populist right is a watershed moment in British politics.

British prime minister Theresa May speaks at the Conservative Party's annual conference last week. Chorley Conservatives / Flickr

Is Theresa May a fascist? Obviously not. She may talk the talk these days, but has never walked the walk.

This is the leading Tory who spent years in opposition decrying the party’s reputation as the “nasty party” and urging it to drop its attachment to the insurgent phase of Thatcherism. She was a modernizer, a liberal. This is not to claim that she lacked the authoritarian malice to also make her a convincing Tory. In a number of cases, she demonstrated that she would cheerfully crush a life in the interests of maintaining a right-wing base, and flip off those whom she has now contemptuously scorned as “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers.”

But her recent speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference made use of some distinctly Poujadist rhetoric, contrasting “international elites” with the “people down the road.”

The populist notes, scathing about employers who treat “tax laws as an optional extra” after the Panama Papers, promising to use the “power of government” to “stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong” and be “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people,” are not entirely new. David Cameron’s leadership has for years sought to define the Conservative Party as the new party of the workers, drawing a classically Thatcherite division between the productive and non-productive layers of society — “the strivers” and “the skivers.”

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, however, May has seen fit to anchor this language even further to the Right, denouncing the elites who find “your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.” In cadences that would not be out of place at a UKIP rally, she made mincemeat of the cluelessness of metropolitan liberals, trying to reverse a democratic verdict. “If you’re well-off and comfortable,” she said, “Britain is a different country and these concerns are not your concerns.”

The plausibility of this sort of reactionary spiel derives from the fact that it touches both on elements of lived experience and of a common sense established through years of political struggle.

May’s evolution only makes sense as a symptom of Britain’s post–credit crunch malaise, in which initial panic segued into bitterness. John Lanchester summed this up well:

The dominant note out there in the country since the credit crunch and Great Recession has been one of bafflement, of bewilderment and disorientation. How did this happen? How did we get here? Why does nobody listen to us, why does nobody care about us? It’s the thing you keep hearing when you engage with an audience on this subject. Although people talk about anger, it’s revealing that they often do so by asking why people aren’t more angry. If I had to pick one sentence I’ve heard more than any other in the last six years of conversation about economics, it would be ‘Why aren’t people more angry?’ The Brexit vote showed that plenty of them are. But perhaps it expressed that other feeling, the one of bewilderment, just as much. ‘Take back control’ is a cynical but extremely astute pitch to an electorate in that state of mind.

The idea of a society that seems to have spun out of control, that has somehow been taken over by anti-social, anti-British elements — from migrants and criminals to international bankers — didn’t just emerge ex nihilo. It has been cultivated through overlapping strategies and vectors of political struggle, which really converged into an explosive mixture during the 2011 riots.

Those riots saw the shoots of an authentic, violent Poujadism, planted and cultivated long before, grow in English soil. When the riots broke out, British politics had been in a panicked stalemate since the credit crunch struck. Far from radicalizing, most people reached for the familiar and secure. They voted for the center, for safety. But the coordinates of the familiar were being scattered.

The recession and globally concertinaed state interventions threw decades of orthodoxy to the wind for many who had trusted it. The possibility of a “fair” and “inclusive” austerity looked increasingly forlorn, provoking student and trade union protests. The institutions of government, police, and the newspapers were embroiled in a crisis known as “Hackgate.” The corrupt practices of a Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, had implicated top police, politicians, and journalists in a shady network of power-dealing.

Just as this was unravelling, Metropolitan Police officers operating under the aegis of Operation Trident — a police program that targets “black-on-black crime” — shot twenty-nine-year-old Mark Duggan to death. Almost to demonstrate the channels of ideological and political power connecting the police and the media, cops ensured that the news was quickly saturated with claims that Duggan was in possession of a gun and that there had been a shootout. These claims were false, and they didn’t prevent a community-wide response in Tottenham, north London, where the murder took place.

The mutation of these protests into a riot which police struggled to contain, represented a chink in the armor of the law, and soon riots spread throughout London and to major cities across England. The near-universal response was to demand a reassertion of order, for the coordinates of the familiar and safe to be put back in place.

The ratcheting up of authoritarianism reached several mini-crescendos on social media, with calls for the army and live bullets to be deployed. It was predictable for this call for violent retribution to be echoed in official political discourse, but is important to recall that it was not just reactionaries who joined in. Certainly, Colonel Patrick Mercer MP lived up to the Tory stereotype in demanding the use of water cannons, but so did London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone.

Diane Abbott, now serving in the shadow cabinet, called for a curfew. One of those resisting the more extravagant demands was then–Home Secretary Theresa May, who firmly asserted that “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.”

In this, she held her own against the Association of Chief Police Officers, who launched a campaign to introduce the water cannon because “ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest” that could “turn to serious violent disorder.” It was all the more telling that she did so against pressure from the other future leadership contender, then–London mayor Boris Johnson.

What changed? In brief, UKIP.

After a dismal performance in the 2010 general election under the leadership of an old racist toff named Lord Pearson, Nigel Farage resumed the leadership of the party at just the right moment. As Labour abandoned its anti-austerian pretensions, the political terrain was skewed to the right through a series of moral panics about Islam, immigration, halal food, and of course the child sex abuse scandals, which in the case of those involving Pakistani men in the north of England, were convenient to every racist in the country.

Farage began a populist feint, ostensibly aimed at Labour-supporting working-class voters in the North, who he claimed were being sold down the river by a Labour establishment that cared more about multiculturalism than the innocence of “our children.” The idea of white innocence being corrupted by brown-skinned men has an obvious connotative power in racist ideology, but so does the idea of “them” secretly smuggling “their” dietary habits into our digestive systems, or “them” taking “our jobs.”

UKIP didn’t actually win Labour voters, by and large. Its biggest gains in the north of England were among conservative working-class voters. But the widespread uptake of the claim that they were taking Labour’s voters was an important propaganda coup, indicating their broad populist basis. The rewards of this strategy were clear: by 2015, they had won four million votes, and successfully defined the election around the issue of immigration, with little resistance from either of the main parties, bar the ineffectual Liberal appeal to technocratic reason.

But the ultimate culmination of UKIP’s strategy was to ensure that Cameron would call a referendum on European Union membership, hoping to kill the issue for a generation and thus stop UKIP stone dead. The victory for Brexit demonstrated that late in the campaign, millions of Conservative voters lost faith in the virtues of “Remain” and thus the Cameron leadership. The entire center-seeking, liberalizing strategy that Cameron had been elected leader in order to implement, and which Theresa May had always quietly supported, was discredited.

May emerged as the preferred candidate of the Tory establishment. Her job, it seems, is to organize the transition to a new form of Conservative politics with less emphasis on austerity and economic competence and more on racist populism. Amid a record period of declining living standards and economic stagnation, the currency of politics today is resentment; it is never just “the economy, stupid.”

Scotland is the main center of opposition to this kind of belligerent British restorationism, for obvious reasons. Notably, of all the major parties, only voters for the Scottish National Party do not approve of May’s new policies, such as forcing companies to publish statistics on how many “foreign” workers they employ. This is not because Scottish voters are more enlightened than others in the United Kingdom. It is because Scottish nationalism has deliberately harnessed itself to a progressive, center-left prospectus for post-British prosperity.

In a sense, SNP leaders Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have convinced a lot of Scottish voters that Britain, with its decaying imperial legacy, is holding Scotland back in a cultural and political quagmire. In another sense, May is likely to prove them right.

May’s agenda is to shoot the UKIP fox. She aims to emulate the far right better to rebuild the governing center, with the Tories restored as its traditional overseer. She has made it clear in her internal maneuvering that she has no interest in a “hard Brexit.” But in her rhetoric, even in her initial refusal to guarantee the rights of current EU migrants, she is determined to outflank UKIP.

If she can rebuild the Tory machine while Labour breaks down, half of her job will be done. But — just as Cameron did with his promises of immigration cuts — May is likely to regret her rhetorical commitments. If her stated support for putting immigration restrictions ahead of single market membership bears fruit, if the United Kingdom sacrifices its economic position for the sake of managing political realignments, Scotland will bolt for it, and May’s job will become one of managed decline. And that will be ugly.

May is creating the ground on which she will either have to become the monster she is imitating, or be consumed by it.