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The recent French election once again saw centrist Macron head to head with far right nationalist Le Pen. Macron won the election by a much narrower margin that the 2017 elections. I have an interest in the French elections as my parents live there and are not far away from applying for citizenship. For them, the prospect of a far right president was worrying.
The politics of much of the world has shifted to the right of late, often to the far right. Perhaps this hasn’t been a recent thing. Indeed, before this wave of Trump, Modi, and Le Pen, we had UKIP and for a while the BNP was making a lot of noise. The writing was on the wall with New Labour and their many new immigration offences, Blair’s tough on crime and it’s causes approach, and not forgetting war on Iraq and Afghanistan. This was swiftly followed with then Home Secretary Theresa May’s hostile environment agenda which has been advanced again and again by consecutive Home Secretaries until we passed the point of no return with Priti Patel and her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (it pains me to type ‘Act’ instead of ‘Bill’ – it’s black and white now) from which not the Lords nor God nor the best lawyers in the land seem have yet been able to save us from. What we see now is a Conservative government embedded with far right ideology, and this is not an isolated island in that respect.
This current uprising of the far right, racist, and xenophobic politicians is a global phenomenon. Modi, the far right Hindu nationalist is knee deep in his campaign against Muslims, revoking autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir (ironically – or deliberately – this took place on 31st October 2019, the day Britain was supposed to leave the EU), invoking the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 which disproportionately affects the citizenship of Muslims who now face the possibility of expulsion, and even outright attacks on Muslims.
Then there was Trump and the less said about him, the better. But let us return to France. This is the second consecutive election in which Macron has faced Le Pen and won. In France, elections are held in two stages. All parties and candidates go head to head in stage one and if no candidate holds a majority, a second round between the top two candidates takes place. In 2017, Macron won the second stage with 66.1% of the vote. This time around, the vote was much narrower 58.6%. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has ‘transformed’ since the 2017 election, with the party’s councillor for Gironde arguing that they are not the far right, and instead are localists and nationalists. Are they not one and the same?
In recent years, the rise of the far right in Europe has been fuelled by fears of refugees, terrorism, and open borders within the European Union. In addition to this, concerns over employment and poverty have contributed to this. It is not all about them, it is preservation of us.
In a globalised era, we have seen decades of erosion of the working class jobs of old combined with distorted perceptions of immigration and population changes. People living in poverty, unemployed or in insecure employment look for someone to blame and the someone tends to be them. So, parties who say they stand for the working man and oppose immigration become popular, not because voters are necessarily racist but because they are fearful and suffering. Bearing that in mind, where does that leave us now? The whole of Europe is facing a cost of living crisis, war on our doorstep. Here in the UK, inflation and interest rates are rising but wages are not. We cannot blame this on them, on people fleeing persecution, on people who come to the UK to fill the jobs nobody wants or are not qualified to do. This us and them narrative causes nothing but division and hatred, fuelling hateful politicians who – let’s face it – serve nobody’s interests but their own.
My Monday message: Choose love
On International Women’s Day I wanted to write a blog to celebrate the incredible women who have inspired me, supported me, fought for the rights of women all over the world both past and present. Perhaps that post will come but I felt sadness and anger, rage that made me want to shout and swear from the rooftops that feminism is not done. Gender equality has not been completed. We may have advanced a few levels, but patriarchy is still alive and free right here in England as well as throughout the world. The reality is that gender equality is a myth. Ordinarily I’m more hopeful and positive and maybe the pandemic combined with finishing my PhD is pushing me over the edge. But as well as celebrating International Women’s Day I wanted to identify some of the areas in which there is work to do, both in the UK and worldwide.
On the week of International Women’s Day, the media has been filled with women, but not for the right reasons. Let us start with the interview broadcasted on International Women’s Day with Megan Markle and Prince Harry which highlighted not only her position as a woman but also the intersectionality of being a woman of colour in the royal family and the implications of this. The interview was responded in an appalling manner by Piers Morgan who questioned her experience of feeling suicidal which was then reflected on social media (never read the comments!!!). A woman’s experiences with mental health were questioned and ridiculed. Not long after the tragic death of Caroline Flack, people – including many other women – have forgotten to #bekind. The investigation over the disappearance of Sarah Everard was responded to by the Met police advising women in the local area not to go out at night, perpetuating a culture of victim blaming. A woman’s actions were being questioned. So here we are in 2021 with our internal thoughts and emotions and our external actions being judged by others. When women have spoken out about our right to feel safe walking home at night, about how we walk the long way home and hold a key between our fingers for protection, #notallmen resurfaces on Twitter, in a similar tone to #alllivesmatter last year. When one group renews a call for equality, the patriarchs and supremacists oppress harder. These are just a couple of examples in the media, the public domain, this week but there is also clear inequality in domestic life.
Throughout the pandemic there have been numerous reports suggesting that women have disproportionately undertaken childcare which has had a devastating impact, particularly for single mothers. While data from the Office for National Statistics shows that home schooling is distributed equally in mixed sex couples, women have undertaken substantially more of non-developmental childcare – the bathing, bedtime routine, feeding etc. I recall the days of being a working single parent with a small child. With no after school club and no family available to chip in, I relied on childcare swaps, a childminder (who I couldn’t afford to pay more than a couple of days per week). It was a case of beg, borrow or steal whatever childcare I could get to get to work and would often miss lectures because I didn’t have any childcare (note to students – if you have childcare responsibilities and are struggling please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I have almost a decade of experience juggling kids with studies and I am always happy to share tips or just have a mutual rant about how hard it is!). I cannot imagine how I would have managed with the pandemic if my children were younger. I am lucky enough to work in a team where my colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when my teenager pops her head in asking for food or help with schoolwork but I do have friends telling me how their male counterparts have given them advice on how to juggle virtual meetings with parenting small children. Men (not all men – some men are excellent allies) having no clue how hard women have to fight as women to do it all – the career, the childcare, the housework, all while earning less than our male counterparts (currently 15.5% less). Of course the data on equal pay is complex but the bottom line is we get paid less, it’s harder to advance our careers because as we live in the bodies that produce babies and we have career breaks when we take maternity leave or go part time while the children are young – the only way that can change is if we choose not to have kids and we are criticised for that too!
I have so far established that the UK is hostile in the media and not equal in the home and employment but where do we sit globally? It was placed 21st on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Do you think you could guess which countries are higher than the UK? Go on, spend a minute and write down who you would expect to be in the top 20. Of course, there are the countries one might expect – Iceland is top of the list, Norway, Finland and New Zealand too. But let’s throw a curveball in there. Albania. Having worked with and interviewed many female Albanian asylum seekers and refugees who have usually fled Albania due to at least one but often many forms of gendered violence this comes as quite a surprise to me. Of course, I have a biased experience and have only come into contact with those who have had devastating experiences of patriarchy in the country. Rwanda is up there too within the top 10. Not long after the devastating genocide in Rwanda where women were brutally raped as a weapon of war (see here for a cheeky plug and an analysis of sexual violence in conflict in a different geographical context). Today, women make up half of the politicians in the country. Women have risen up and have taken power. In the UK I look at the female politicians in power today and in recent years and I recoil in horror. Priti Patel is probably (barring the Queen) the most powerful female politician in England. I witness first hand in my work with asylum seekers the harm she causes every day. Intentional harm, following in Theresa May’s footsteps to create a hostile environment for migrants. These women are not the people I want to look up to, or want my children to look up to. In fact, one of the few shared interests my daughter and I have is our disdain for these women.
The women I do look up to are those asylum seekers Patel and her band of merry men at the Home Office are trying to repel. Those who have fled situations that I, as a middle class white woman cannot even begin to comprehend. All the women who I have interviewed in my doctoral research had either fled gendered violence including forced and child marriage, domestic abuse, sex trafficking and honour violence; or their gender had intersected with other forms of persecution making their living situation untenable because they were women. They fled life or death situations to the point of leaving their homes, families and countries because their governments could not, or would not, protect them. They arrive in the UK and are faced with the hostile environment conjured by May and continued by Patel and both the Home Secretaries in between. They face structural violence in the forms of forced poverty, illegal detention, substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation perpetrated under the mandate of women. All the while being vilified by the tabloids and swathes of the public. Some of my participants arrived here as children and were bullied in school because they were asylum seekers, being told that they were taking jobs and money. The bullies could not comprehend that they were prohibited by law from working and were given £5 per day to live on. They then hid their identities, never telling anyone that they were an asylum seeker, lying to their friends about why they couldn’t go on college trips abroad, why they couldn’t have a bank account, why they couldn’t get a job or go to university.
I want to celebrate Amira* who defied the odds. She came here when she was in her early teens, knowing just a few words of English. She worked hard to learn the language and passed her GCSEs and A-levels, gaining a competitive Sanctuary scholarship which funded her university education. I want to celebrate Drita, an Eastern European woman who was physically abused by her father as a child, forced to marry an abusive man who eventually left her destitute with three children. She then left her children with her parents while she sought work, got a boyfriend who sold her into sex slavery, set her room on fire to kill herself but managed to escape, picked up her children and fled a lifetime of gendered violence from every man she had ever met. She spent 2 days in a lorry with her children to get to the UK. Not really the UK, she would have gone anywhere, just out of her country to safety. These women are survivors. These women fought to stay alive. They fought to escape. They didn’t escape. They arrived here to face May’s legacy of a hostile environment. These women are terrified every time they have to report to the Home Office, every letter they get threatens them with detention and deportation and reminds them that they or on bail, literally equating them with a process usually found in the criminal justice system. These women are heroes and should be celebrated for surviving. On International Women’s Day yes, let us celebrate all that all we have achieved so far but it cannot end here. Each year we need a renewed call for action for women.
*All names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants
So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson. Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread. Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.
The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric. Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States. References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics. My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?
It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different. It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders. These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them. It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.
The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs. John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority. The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019). But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need. I could be very popular by giving my students what they want. The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*. This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences. What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has. What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.
What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone. What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering. Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.
*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.
Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB
Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].
Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.
Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]
Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]
New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]
Amongst all the furore over Brexit, the European elections and the disintegration of the main political parties in the United Kingdom, a small but not insignificant news story crept into the news melee.
‘The number of physically disabled people affected by homelessness in England increased by three quarters during an almost 10- year period’ (BBC, 2019a, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019). It is not merely coincidental that the ‘almost 10-year period’ aligns with the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in 2010. Measures, continuously pursued by the Conservative Government until October 2018 when Theresa May, the soon to be former prime minister, declared at a Tory party conference that austerity was over adding, ‘the end is in sight’ and there are ‘better days ahead’ (Independent, 2018a). Give her her dues, with the demise of the Tory party, the latter part was an insightful prediction. Let’s not let the Liberal Democrats off the hook though, reluctant bedfellows they may have been in the coalition government, but bedfellows they were, and they had the power to vote down many of the Tory party dictats. They may have curried favour with the electorate during the European elections, but we should not forget their part in the austerity measures.
Alongside the issues of homelessness, we see the use of foodbanks has increased phenomenally (Independent, 2018b), fuel poverty affects over 10% of English households (Independent, 2018c) and social care is collapsing (BBC, 2019b; Guardian, 2018). To put it as simply as possible, the common denominator is the austerity measures introduced by government that directly impact on the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society. This and previous governments can point to the budget deficit, the ineptitude of the previous government and the economic downturn caused by the banking crisis (The Economist, 2013), but how do they justify the impact of their policies on the disadvantaged and those who can least afford any cuts? Bizarrely, the least vulnerable have seen little or no impact on their standard of living other than perhaps for the middle classes there is the monotonous moan about access to doctors or dentists in a timely manner (the rich don’t even have to worry about this).
In my visits around schools I discuss what we mean by the term crime. Reiner (2007:21) states that ‘[t]he term ‘crime’ is usually tossed about as if it has a clear and unambiguous meaning’, but nothing of course is further from the truth. One of the key ideas I posit is that of harm caused. This of course has its own problems in terms of definition and scope, but it does allow one to focus on what is important. If harm done is a measure of crime, or crime is defined by the harm done then we begin to see the world, actions by government, institutions and individuals in a different light. With this notion in mind, we can start to ask when and how do we bring the greedy and those that abuse their power either intentionally or recklessly to book? Maybe, just as Boris Johnson might well be prosecuted for misconduct in a public office over the alleged lies, he made relating to Brexit (BBC, 2019c), we might see ministers held to account for decisions they make that have catastrophic consequences for thousands of the most vulnerable in society.
BBC (2019a) Homeless and disabled: ‘I’m at my wits’ end’, [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-48433225/homeless-and-disabled-i-m-at-my-wits-end [accessed 29 May 2019].
BBC (2019b) English ‘short-changed on care funding’ [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48438132 [accessed 30 May 2019].
BBC (2019c) Brexit: Boris Johnson ordered to appear in court over £350m claim, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48445430 [accessed 29 May 2019].
Independent (2018a) Theresa May declares ‘austerity is over’ after eight years of cuts and tax increases, (3 Oct. 2018), [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-austerity-end-over-speech-conservative-conference-tory-labour-a8566526.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018b) Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs (24 April 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018) More than one in 10 households living in fuel poverty, figures show (26 June 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-uk-figures-poor-bills-cost-households-a8417426.html, [accessed 30 May 2019].
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) Live tables on homelessness [online] Available at http://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-homelessness , [accessed 30 May 2019].
Reiner, R. (2007) Law and Order: An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Crime Control, Cambridge: Polity.
The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course [online] Available at www.economist.com/schools-brief/2013/09/07/crash-course [accessed 30 May 2019].
The Guardian (2018) The social care system is collapsing. So why the government inaction? (3 Oct. 2019) [online] Available at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/03/social-care-collapsing-government-inaction [accessed 30 May 2019].
This week’s blog was bound to reflect the news this week – Brexit. I almost resisted the temptation to write about this, I feel worn down by it all, but there are just some things which need saying. However you voted, however you feel about what should happen, the whole process has brought to light some alarming issues about our political classes, the process of implementing policy, decisions made about spending of our taxes and the priorities of government. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted against no-deal, for extending Article 50, there are threats from various ministers about resigning and confusion reigns.
To me, Brexit has felt like an exercise in placing ideology before country, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does seem Labour’s proposals do at least protect jobs and the economy, and respect the vote from 2016. I still think on balance we should remain, but I could live with a soft Brexit, and a government which addresses many of the reasons people voted to leave. On the right, however, thanks to the ERG (European Research Group) we have a situation where we are hurtling towards no deal – the vote to take it off the table is apparently not legally binding – or at best, a delay. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted for delaying our exit, and Theresa May is planning one last vote on her deal, seemingly to secure a delay which the EU will accept as legitimate and worthwhile. The Brexiteers on the left and right seem to want no deal and WTO rules, for reasons I cannot understand, aside from serving their own prejudices and financial gains.
The vote itself and the campaigns on the leave side seem mired in corruption and questions over funding and tactics to mislead the public, so I do have to wonder why instead of the outrage at this, there is an acceptance this is the will of the public, and must be acted on. With this and the recent activities of Chris Graying (him again!), costing the tax payer over £500m with failed ferry contracts and privatisation of probation, and now Boris Johnson suggesting investigating historic sexual assaults cases is a waste of money, our political leaders seem to be normalising incompetence. They seem to be able to resist any sense of shame, remorse and criticism of their performance, which is simply staggering. In the face of evidence about this, it amazes me that they don’t reflect on this and the harm being caused. Perhaps I have too high expectations of MPs and I should not tar all of them with the same brush, there are plenty who do a good job, who have the interests of their constituents at heart and value their job as a public servant.
Another example of this normalising of incompetence is when MPs suggested this last minute panic and uncertainty is how all negotiations with the EU go. Well, I can then see why some people are turning against both Parliament and the EU – the anxieties created by this as clear, people have already lost jobs, moved, disrupted family life due to trying to manage the uncertainty. Attention towards domestic issues is diverted by focus on Brexit, blinding many to the well document harms of Universal Credit, increasing homelessness, climate changes and knife crime. I believe many are fed up and would take leaving just to end the discussion and re-focus on domestic needs, but I fear many don’t realise the further problems they may face if we were to leave without a deal. It is then surely the responsibility of MPs and our political leaders to inform the public, make it clear what the best options are and maybe even make an unpopular decisions for the good of their constituents. If I were an MP, I would be concerned about all of this and also the legacy of this – much like Labour having to continually shake of the label of irresponsible spenders, through being blamed solely for creating the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s. Both parties continuing to insist we press ahead with Brexit could be dealing with a similar situation. Younger voters in particular maybe more open to new political parties, less like to be loyal to either Conservative or Labour and may embrace the change that The Independent Group is promising.
To continue with a policy which is creating so many problems, costs, and mental health issues feels like leadership who simply won’t listen to those people they are meant to support and serve. The link to mental health has been make clear in an article in the Guardian reporting that British farmers have reached out to crisis networks due to the implications of Brexit – this is manifest in farmers being on suicide watch, and serious concerns about those not even trying to contact such services (Parveen, 2019). The article reports that farming is just one of many industries which will be hit hard by a no deal Brexit, and in a research study on the extent of this, those who voted remain are reporting heightened mental distress (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness), while those who voted leave reported a ‘bump’ in life satisfaction (Powdthavee et al, 2019). I can only imagine how the further harms caused if more jobs are lost, the economy slumps and the reality of craving sovereignty and blue passports bites.
Yet I don’t really have to imagine this, it seems blatantly obvious that we are not prepared to leave the EU, more time is needed to come up with a cross party consensus and maybe even a further referendum to be clear this is what the people want. When any leadership disregards the concerns raised from so many sectors, their constituents and colleagues, to press ahead with a policy which will cause harm then we can really see just how normalised incompetence and placing ideology before country has become.
Dr Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Parveen, N (2019) Brexit and bad weather puts UK farmers at risk of suicide, say charitie, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/03/brexit-and-bad-weather-puts-uk-farmers-at-risk-of-suicide-say-charities
Powdthavee, N., Plagnol, A.C., Frijters, P. and Clark, A.E. (2019) Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK, Economica, see https://doi.org/10.1111/ecca.12304.
‘It’s not too late to save Brexit’, Boris Johnson proclaimed in his resignation speech on Wednesday 18th July 2018. But what sort of Brexit are we really talking about? Well if you are confused, join the queue. There’s hard Brexit and soft Brexit and one might suggest every type of Brexit imaginable if it scores political points. There are calls for another referendum and a referendum on the final deal and probably a referendum on a referendum. With all the furore around Brexit it’s easy to forget what it was the British people were voting for in the first place.
As I recall, and I stand to be corrected, it was control of immigration foremost, they didn’t want any of those nasty little foreigners coming in here, taking our jobs and scrounging off the state whilst abusing the NHS. Then they didn’t want to be told what to do by Brussels and they didn’t want to be paying Brussels billions that could go into the NHS. We only had to look at increased waiting times for doctors’ appointments or the fact that we couldn’t find an NHS dentist to prove beyond doubt that immigration was out of control. Scattered in amongst this was the opportunity to be great again, masters of our own destiny and to shatter the manacles that have held us back for so long.
The rhetoric smacked of xenophobia but above all else, it aligned with historical parallels where the others are to blame for the state of a nation. The instant response of people facing difficulties is to find a scapegoat. Net migration has been a political hot potato for decades, duly made so by politicians and the media. The papers report it as if every person that comes into the country is of little value and yet people fail to look around. Who’s going to pick the crop this summer, who’s going to look after old people in nursing homes, who’s going to clean the hotel room, who’s going to do your dentistry or save your life in the operating theatre? Don’t make the mistake in thinking its British people because there aren’t enough of them that are prepared to be paid peanuts for doing menial work and not enough of them highly skilled enough to enter into medical practice.
The problem is that the ideas that so many people had about Brexit have been nurtured by politicians and newspapers alike. I rarely agree with Alister Campbell, but his comment about Paul Dacre the outgoing editor of the Daily Mail as a ‘truth-twisting, hypocritical, malign force on our culture and politics’ certainly has ring of truth to it. But its not just the papers, it wasn’t that long ago that Theresa May as Home Secretary was lambasting Europe about Human Rights legislation and the fact that she couldn’t deport Abu Hamza, a hate preacher. Anyone with a bit of savvy might have worked out that you can’t pick and choose human rights according to political whim and votes. There’s a suggestion that we could have a British Bill of Rights, a bit like Human Rights but maybe with a proviso that the government and its agencies don’t have to abide by it if they don’t fancy. A bit like Pick ‘n’ Mix, only not as sweet or tasty. Theresa May as Home Secretary promised to bring immigration down but as so much of the media hastily reported, failed to do so. Then there’s that Brexit bus proclaiming we would save billions that could go back into the NHS. What a wonderful idea except that nobody mentioned there were debts to be paid first and as every good householder and economists know, the books have to be balanced. Fanciful notions filled people’s heads, Boris and Nigel Farage are very persuasive, and president Trump thinks Boris will make a good leader. A real vote of confidence. So, what we ended up with was not so much a narrative about the benefits of staying in Europe and there are many, but a narrative about how Europe was to blame for the state of the country. Government did their job well helped along by right wing lobbyists and pseudo politicians.
And I wonder, just a little bit, whether the country would have voted as it did armed with all the facts and cognisant of all the ramifications. Boris is right, its not too late, its not too late for the government to ask the nation what it really wants, its not too late to put their hands up and say we were wrong.
Not long after starting my new post at the University of Northampton, I one day remarked ‘you know, I do feel a bit sorry for Theresa May’, or words to that effect. Well, my colleagues were shocked and stunned, clearly I had touched a nerve. But you know what, they were absolutely right to feel this way. Let me first explain myself. I was reflecting on the challenges she has faced as Prime Minister overseeing our exit from the European Union and the seemingly constant questions over her legitimacy and capability as a leader. She had faced a humiliating election result on top of everything else and was criticised for holding Donald Trump’s hand as a symbol of her courting favour with someone many find…..distasteful. So, I thought, she must be feeling attacked from all sides. Also, I did definitely say I was feeling ‘a bit’ sorry for her. However, my colleagues’ reaction did make me think about this view. They pointed out her decisions had led to this and, as it turns out, they also reveal a pattern of behaviour which reinforce their views, not mine. When you examine this from her time as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, there are numerous examples which show her limitations as a leader.
Let us start with Theresa May, Home Secretary. In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition promised to tackle the budget deficit and through the ‘Big Society’ initiative, reclaim communities for the ‘law abiding majority’. Theresa’s speech to the Police Federation struck a triumphant tone, and presented a plea to accept her deal to cut spending, to allow the police more autonomy, less bureaucracy and less focus on targets. She celebrated the police as heroes, the front line in the fight to fix the ‘broken society’ and deal with the criminals we were all living in fear of. The slogan of the Conservative Party campaign was reiterated, to tell the police that ‘we’re all in this together’. She promised to always back the police, always fight for them and support them.
Her 2015 speech was less conciliatory and did not celebrate the work of the police. In her announcement to the Police Federation in May 2015, she accused the police service and management of scaremongering as they presented evidence on the impact of cuts, especially on neighbourhood policing functions. Perhaps bolstered by the recent Conservative party election win, she went in all guns blazing. Neighbourhood policing was described as an ‘endangered species’ by serving officers, and they also took this opportunity to plead with her to listen and not resort to her usual position of dismissing their concerns (BBC News, 20 May 2015). For the police service, preserving neighbourhood policing was clearly important. It offers safety, reassurance, a visible police presence and a conduit between the police and public to uphold their legitimacy and consent (Johnston, 2001; Rowe, 2008). Reduced budgets are bound to impact these services not deemed a priority, even though they can help to prevent crime and enable productive partnerships between the police and the citizens they serve (Thurman et al, 2001). For Theresa however, the falling crime rate was proof positive to justify cuts to spending, and that ‘angry and demoralised’ officers with their claims of putting the public in danger were ‘crying wolf’ (BBC News, 20 May, 2015).
It is not surprising then that at the end of Theresa May’s speech, polite applause was all that could be offered. The process of reflection and consideration of the premise that one can be wrong that I undertook, is something Theresa May seems unable to grasp. Her performance at Police Federation conference has further demoralised the police and embedded a sense of hopelessness that anything would change under her leadership. The need for the police to plead with her to listen to them is also a real concern – good leaders should not need to be flattered or cajoled into listening to those who deliver front line services such as policing.
So, as we now seem to be hurtling towards an exit from the EU which means we leave the Custom’s Union, despite the concerns about the impact this will have on the economy and Northern Ireland, Theresa remains resolute, and firmly aligned with the belief that hard Brexit is the way to go. This is presented as appeasing the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party, who are ready to pounce should she not deliver what they want. However, her speech at Lancaster House presented Brexit as the promise of a new ‘global’ Britain, taking advantage of the opportunities outside the EU, while also offering the hand of friendship with platitudes about our European partners, that we will remain ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends.’ Also, she voted remain. She campaigned to keep Britain in the EU in the interests of business and jobs, to maintain security and protections against terrorism and crime, for trade access – and I quote ‘it is in the national interest to remain a member of the European Union.’ I am an ardent remainer, so on this, the Theresa May campaigning in 2016 and I agree. But now we are poles apart.
This is where I have seen the error of my ways to feel sorry for her. Her stance in 2010, celebrating the work of the police when she was new in post, was clearly to cement her status as Home Secretary, so she asked nicely for them to accept the reductions in spending. In 2015, she made a clear shift, to tell the police to stop whining, that there is no more money and she made no reference to the heroic efforts of the police at all. In fact, to her, they were making things worse. The same pattern of shifting loyalties to preserve her position seems to occur on a weekly basis, as we lurch back and forth from soft Brexit to hard Brexit (remember, at one point it was a red, white and blue Brexit?).
So, my problem is not just that we disagree, it is that she does not make decisions based on evidence and what is best for the country. She certainly does not offer leadership in which we can feel reassured about our future. She seems to bend to the will of mysterious others, editors of right wing press, hard Brexiteers and then, occasionally, softens her stance after meetings in Brussels. Or, what I like to call, a reality check. But I no longer think she is struggling to deal with tensions between her belief in a Hard Brexit and the evidence presented to her from her negotiations with the EU. She is also seemingly ignoring concerns raised by MPs, business sectors, universities, and the many who voice their concerns about the legitimacy and consequences of this goal of a hard Brexit. Her leadership style is reflected in the frustration of the press and public when she repeats meaningless platitudes. Remember, ‘strong and stable’, the classic ‘Brexit means Brexit’, prefixing everything with ‘let me be clear’, and then being anything but this. Good leadership is meant to empower others, and in policy making is defined as an approach to generate collective responsibility as found in Belbin’s (1993) ‘team leader’ approach. This is a form of leadership is distinct from role of managers, as they must act to seek new opportunities, transform activities of a group, to be a visionary, to be clear on their goals. The divisions in the Conservative party do not reflect this. It seems that the Maybot’s leadership programming setting has defaulted to her true self and her goal of self-preservation. Therefore, it is not merely a misjudgment to feel even a ‘bit’ of sympathy for her, it is an act of delusion.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
University of Northampton
BELBIN, R.M. (1993). Team Roles at Work. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
BBC NEWS (2010) Police Federation crying wolf over cuts, says Theresa May, (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32806520)
JOHNSTON, L. (2001) ‘Crime, fear and civil policing’, Urban Studies, 38(5/6), 959–77.
PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE (2017) The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech (see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech)
ROWE, M. (2008) Introduction to Policing. London: Sage.
THURMAN, Q., ZHAO, J. and GIACOMAZZI, A. (2001) Community Policing in a Community Era: An Introduction and Exploration California: Roxbury Publishing Company