Too Little Empathy, Way Too Late

Not much on the blog recently. I disappoint myself. When I started this site nearly fifteen years ago, the narcissist in me expected it would become a chronicle of my times, and any given historical event would have a corresponding blog post in the archives. In reality it’s far more hodge-podge, and I find I’ve written very little about the most turbulent political era of British politics that I can remember.

There were EU elections yesterday, yet I posted not a word about the campaigns or who I would be voting for. I suppose that’s a symptom of the political mess that we are in: that so many people are baffled and dismayed by the state of politics that they become demotivated. I could have been out there campaigning for someone, but instead these past weeks have been a retreat into exercise and Game of Thrones.
I suppose I should make a few notes on the resignation of Theresa May. It just happened, and I have a few thoughts I might as well publish.
I thought her first ever speech as Prime Minister was her best. These words stick in my mind, nearly three years later:

That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

If Mrs May had made these problems a priority, and introduced policies to fix them, then this lefty would have considered voting for her!
As it happened, at the time I was suspicious about the sincerity of her claims to care about inequality. It seemed off-brand for the party that she had come to lead, and personally out of character for a former Home Secretary who had spearheaded the disgraceful ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy, and supported socially conservative positions in parliament.
Despite that, I still thought it was a good speech, because it at least signalled her recognition of a need to reach beyond her political base and towards other political sensibilities. This is exactly what someone who seeks to lead a diverse country should have tried to do, and was a doubly important gesture at a time of deep political division. As someone who has voted to remain in the EU and would never consider voting Tory, the fact that the new Prime Minister appeared to be seeking ‘losers consent’ was the best that someone like me could hope for.
I also thought it was politically savvy. Her incoming speech suggested that she would attempt to capture some of the issues ‘owned’ by the Labour Party, which at the time was mired in its own civil war. I thought that tactic was something to admire, and showed a pragmatism that could ultimately benefit the entire country.
Of course, she did not govern like that at all. By the autumn, she had insulted those who consider themselves cosmopolitan by labelling them ‘citizens of nowhere.’ That speech, at the Conservative party conference, also contained a sketch of the ‘red lines’ she would draw in her negotiations with the EU, which implied ‘hard Brexit’ and the current impasse.
So for Mrs May, in her resignation speech, to revert to the themes established in her first speech, and then ignored for the past three years, is infuriating.
In the immediate aftermath of the speech, many people noted the fact that the Prime Minister appeared to be on the verge of tears at the end. On social media, some people said they felt sorry for her, and said that it showed her ‘human side’ than has sometimes seemed absent at other moments in her premiership. Others compared her to Margaret Thatcher, who showed some tears as she left Downing Street in 1990.

But it’s worth remembering that Theresa May, like Mrs Thatcher, only broke down when discussing her own failure. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Mrs May had choked up a little when confronted with bad things that had happened to other people? EU citizens plunged into uncertainty; Windrush Generation treated like aliens in their own country; Grenfell victims dehumanised by a Tory Council.
If only if she had shown empathy at those moments. If only the concern for other people that she paid lip service to in that first speech, had been backed up by substantial action. Then perhaps her premiership might have taken a different trajectory.

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