Empty Brexit and dead schools: the ghostly politics of Theresa May

Grey face, empty words, opacity and absence. Theresa May is a bad Thatcher tribute act. She does the voice better than the original, but everything else is just miming to the backing track.

During the EU referendum campaign she was nicknamed “submarine May”, but submarines dive because they have something important to hide. Our newly unelected Prime Minister seems to be hiding precisely because, so far, she has nothing to give us: no answers to the big Brexit questions, no coherent programme for government, just slogans on repeat and expensive brown trousers.

At a time when the UK faces massive political upheaval, she stands in front of an RAF chopper saying she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. An appeal not to principles of economics, democracy or sovereignty, but to the hollow nationalism of flag colours. Vacuity has become virtue.

Now we have the ‘shared society’. Only the Conservative Party could think it original to propose that society is something collective. Next up: edible food, wearable clothes, learning schools and a health service based on medical care.

With so little content on display, what can we say about Prime Minister May? One thing seems clear: she is riding the latest wave of what Simon Reynolds has called retromania, the addiction of culture to its own past. Brexit has become a rallying cry for those who view our country through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. The Leave campaign’s operative word wasn’t ‘take’ or ‘control’ but ‘back’. We want our country back. Way back. In a world stuck on fast forward, people are reaching for the comforts of the rewind.

So Theresa May has decided to re, re, wind, so the crowd won’t say ‘reject her’. Her style mixes the 1950s and the 1980s, like a wedding DJ trying to please everyone. With Corbyn in opposition beatmatching the 60s and 70s, all we need is Tony Blair’s 1990s Britpop revival and parliament will be like one of those clubs with music from different decades on different floors.

When warm nostalgia gets into politics, it curdles into something lumpier and less appetizing. We have seen this before in the UK. Thatcher used a romantic, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a cultural cover for economic policies that eroded the shared society we once had. Her idea of Britishness was inspired by Churchill, who in turn harked back to the British Empire and its sense of moral and cultural superiority. (Adam Curtis’s 1995 film The Attic deals with these themes, and is therefore essential Brexit viewing).

So Theresa May is a covers band of a covers band of a covers band.

Look at how she has dug up the rotting corpse of grammar schools as a flagshit policy. I say shit, because evidence on selective schooling is clear: it increases inequality, and decreases overall levels of attainment, which is the exact opposite of May’s stated aim of making “a country that works for everyone”. Even some of her own MPs oppose the policy.

Why would a politician want to invoke the ghost of such a dead dysfunctional system? Answer: not to improve schools but to  appeal to the aspirations of voters, particularly amongst the working and lower middle classes, in a way that requires little money or action. The PM has sent a message: “We want your children to have the opportunity to do well, like they did in the past” – even though grammar schools probably won’t be built near you, and even if they are your child probably won’t get a place.

So it doesn’t really matter whether the schools ever get built or not. The policy has already done its work, stirring up hopeful little voices inside parents’ heads that whisper, “my child is special, my child is clever, maybe my child could get in.” Theresa May is leveraging parental ambition to build political support, dangling before us a tantalising illusion of meritocracy that obscures the blunt reality of inequality.

Because again the evidence is clear: poor children are less likely to get into grammar schools, even if they are high achievers. There are exceptions of course, but exceptions are irrelevant when you are organising education for an entire population. Poorer children do tend to have slightly higher levels of achievement if they get in, but very few of them ever get in, because those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of selection, such as private prep schools or tutors to coach for the 11-plus. Grammar schools disproportionately benefit the affluent, for whom they provide a free alternative to private school. So the policy appeals to that demographic too.

We must not allow our instincts to be played in this way. Instead, let’s be pro-active and read May’s politics as a crystal ball for Brexit. She keeps saying she won’t show her negotiating hand, that we must trust her to get the UK a unique and favourable deal. Yet her leadership to date shows little to suggest she is capable of pulling something really clever out of the bag. As well as the grammar school proposals, her government has watered down the obesity strategy, passed a snoopers’ charter that violates privacy, kicked the Heathrow 3rd runway vote into the future, and dithered over Hinkley Point. Based on this track record, expecting Theresa May to come up with a brilliant solution for Brexit would be like expecting Michael Buble to drop a deadly grime banger on his next album.

Our new PM has not shown herself to be someone who produces ingenious, bold, innovative solutions to difficult problems. At best, she produces policies that appeal to English conservative voters’ love of authority, hierarchy, and Britain’s mythic past, whilst minimising any impact on the vested interests that support her party.

I therefore guess her Brexit priorities will be:

  • To appear tough on immigration, whilst allowing it to continue in thinly-disguised forms where it serves particular interests and sectors, such as food production and banking.
  • To maintain trading links with the EU, but without remaining part of the single market. This might involve special arrangements for sectors and companies seen as valuable e.g. large companies (like the deal with Nissan), the City of London.
  • To use Brexit as an opportunity to weaken laws on human rights and labour rights. As a friend of mine put it, May is instinctively illiberal – like many of her party and its supporters. She will be looking for ways to advance that agenda wherever possible.

Ghostly politics, but with very real effects. This is the terrain on which she must be fought.

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