Britain is locked in the most serious peacetime crisis in its modern history, the increasingly desperate attempt to secure the nation’s orderly departure from the European Union.
Brexit has shown the world a British parliament and a political class that resembles a ship of fools without a captain. One veteran of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet said that voters are looking at parliament “with something rather near to contempt.”
We speak of the oldest parliamentary democracy in the Western world. Since 1721 it has seen 74 prime ministers of highly varied competence and backgrounds but few if any as incapable of steering the country through perilous times as the current incumbent, Theresa May, who could end up being compared to George III because of the consequences of her ineptitude.
The ultimate test of a prime minister in a crisis is always the same—how well do they measure up to the moment?
The answer to that depends on a combination of skills. Quite often they are skills that politicians do not find in themselves until they are called upon by destiny to prove them. Different times need different abilities. Sometimes a prime minister who at the time seems mediocre is later reassessed and seen to have been more consequential than anyone realized because he was overshadowed by a predecessor.
In British history there is a classic instance of this: In 1945 Winston Churchill was rudely and unexpectedly removed from office in a general election and replaced by the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee.
Churchill, the country’s greatest ever war leader, was contemptuous of his successor whom he described as “a modest little man with a lot to be modest about.”
It turned out that Attlee (who was deputy prime minister during the war) was precisely what the nation needed, not only to get through years of austerity imposed by the near-bankruptcy created by the war effort, but as the parliamentary leader with the skills to re-engineer British society and provide its people with a comprehensive safety net including, notably, free universal health care for life.
So here were two men equally indispensable in their abilities, one to lead and the other to heal. In each case their mastery reflected their character, Churchill who was able to project himself as the living embodiment of a great national narrative of obdurate resistance and victory and Attlee as the quiet but systematic architect of change.
And today Britain has Theresa May.
It is too generous to say that May has had trouble measuring up the to moment. She has trouble explaining what the moment actually is—the utterance that will forever be her epitaph in the history of political discourse will be “Brexit means Brexit.”
Imagine Churchill saying “war means war.” OK, let’s be reasonable. When it comes to oratory nobody can hold a candle to Churchill. Every prime minister since Churchill has carefully avoided getting into that kind of contest.
But when the qualities of leadership are under scrutiny it’s important to understand that Churchill was as courageously decisive in private as he was in public.
There is a passage in Andrew Roberts’ sweeping new biography, Churchill, Walking With Destiny, describing a moment where the prime minister speaks ad lib and without leaving his own record of what was, literally, one of the statements that saved Britain. He was speaking to men not as resolved as himself who needed to believe in him as an army needs to believe in its generals.
It came in the early summer of 1940 when Churchill, who had taken over only a week before, was resisting attempts to negotiate with Hitler. He told his new cabinet: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our fleet—that would be called ‘disarmament’—our naval bases and much else. We should become a slave state… If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
No official minute was taken of that statement—Roberts quotes it as recorded later in the diary of a cabinet member.
What is new now is that Theresa May brings to the office a background like no other before her. She is the first person to hold that office who is by both experience and instincts a bureaucrat.
Her rise to the Tory party leadership owed much to her success as a bureaucrat. She ran a government department that was so large and so challenging to master that some prime ministers were known to have deliberately given it to rivals in order to destroy their careers: the Home Office, a Whitehall edifice that could perhaps be compared to a nightmare package embracing the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Homeland Security.
She was put there by David Cameron, a prime minister who was himself notoriously bored by administrative details and, as his decision to hold a national referendum on Brexit demonstrated, not too smart at judging outcomes.
May survived with a mixed record at the Home Office. She acquired something of the reputation of a control freak, devoted to organizational charts and preferring to run the department through a small and tight-knit clique of loyal aides and Tory Party law-and-order zealots.
Churchill, famous for asking for opinions “on one half sheet of notepaper,” said that a camel is what you end up with if you ask a committee to design a horse. May was fond of setting up committees and official inquiries to avoid taking action and produced many camels. One of her former cabinet ministers despaired that “it’s a fantastic skill, her ability to do nothing.”
Later she managed to swat away responsibility for an ugly debacle during her watch. West Indians who immigrated to Britain in the 1950s were threatened with mass deportation because they had no record of legally arriving—then it turned out that the Home Office itself had discarded the documentation.
On the face of it her bureaucratic cast of mind should have been an asset when facing the complexities involved in negotiating Britain out of all the political, legal and commercial attachments to the European Union. After all, the country was not facing a lethal existential threat. This was a self-initiated unraveling of laws and treaties.
But the EU is the world’s largest assembly of bureaucrats, a characteristic often damned by the pro-Brexit campaign, as well as by more reasoned critics.
A negotiation of this complexity had never been attempted by anyone before. It needed a team that combined a complete command of administrative detail, a shrewd sense of the national interest, an equally shrewd assessment of the opposing interests, and an ability to understand the difference between bottom-line economic interests and the EU’s loftier moral values as an alliance committed to protecting constitutional democracy in a continent with an unhappy history of autocracies.
This was a tough deal for anyone to successfully achieve. But any leader who was able not only to pull it off but to sell it to their people—in the case of the UK to a people divided by a referendum margin as close as 52 to 48 percent—needed to have something else. They had to be able to bring eloquence and vision to their argument.
Alas, because May is a bureaucrat she has the bureaucrat’s particular gift of killing language. The English language, so rich in its ability to move people, dies in her mouth.
The closest she has ever come to articulating the case for the Brexit deal she negotiated that set up a 21-month transition period for achieving a new free trade agreement with the EU (the deal that she is again stuck with trying to amend and resuscitate despite that fact that the EU has warned it will not renegotiate) was to say, repetitively, “It is in the national interest for everyone to get behind it.”
Basically when the narrow majority of Brits voted for Brexit they voted for something that didn’t actually exist. There was not even the vaguest outline of the real impact that Brexit would have on British life. Its proponents, even if they had any sense of the outcome (which is doubtful) weren’t interested in pesky details. They were appealing to raw emotions, largely anti-immigrant xenophobia, not advancing a rational argument.
The Brexit deal that May presented to parliament went down in the biggest defeat any prime minister has suffered, 432 votes to 202.
All along she had been trying to reconcile elements that are not reconcilable: keeping the support of her party’s lunatic fringe that is undismayed by the prospect of a “no deal” exit that would bring extreme self-harm while also holding the loyalty of the center of the party—and doing this while satisfying the terms the EU is prepared to allow. (“Allow” is the realistic term because Britain has always been a supplicant.) At the same time she survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote that leaves her in power while seriously wounded and without a new deal that is likely to fly.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, is similarly ineffectual and unready to meet the leadership tests of his time. His party includes a rump of Brexiters and his cabinet is in thrall to fossilized Marxist ideas. His rhetorical skills are, if anything, less evident than May’s.
Given two clueless party leaders it often seems that all the politicians are overcome by the kind of helpless rapture that sent Thelma and Louise driving blissfully over the cliff.
In 1940 Churchill’s freedom of action was greatly helped by the fact that he did not have to bow to any party’s dictates. He was appointed prime minister without being leader of the Tory party—the leader remained his predecessor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. Uniquely, Churchill led a coalition of the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties at a time when none of those parties would probably have accepted him as their party leader.
As a result of this freedom he was able to isolate and negate the influence of the appeasers who did not like the prospect of choking in their own blood. He could and did appeal directly to the spirit of a parliament and a people who set aside partisan interests in favor of a higher purpose, victory that was by no means assured.
The irony now is that Brexiters represent only 15 percent of the 650 members of the House of Commons. A large majority is opposed to Britain crashing out of Europe without a deal. A prime minister not constrained by party loyalties could easily get support for a “soft” Brexit—meaning a measured transition from full membership to one that keeps the country in a permanent customs union without disruption.
Instead, by trying vainly to satisfy everyone May is satisfying nobody except people like the loony Little Englanders who say that such a deal would leave Britain as a “slave state.”
If they get their way May could well go down in history as the prime minister who lost the kingdom—the United Kingdom. Scotland wants nothing to do with Brexit and if it is imposed on them the Scottish parliament will probably vote to end the Acts of Union of 1707 that created the United Kingdom in order to leave them free to join the EU.
The implications are wider than that. Leaders in the European Union—including Germany’s Angela Merkel—are now fretting that the EU without Britain will be less able to clamp down on the kind of populist taste for autocrats that is afflicting Poland and Hungary.
George III went down in history as the king who lost America. Nobody in particular was held culpable for losing the empire—that was an inevitability of history that imposed its own logic and timing. If the United Kingdom becomes Little England (albeit including Wales and Northern Ireland) it will have reverted to the boundaries of the land it was in 40 A.D. when the Romans made a coherent colony out of a rabble of warring tribes. And this fiasco will be owned by a parliament that allowed a deranged minority to win and a prime minister who was never remotely equal to the greatest challenge of her time.