The winning hypocrisy of Theresa May
The British prime minister's double-talk on Brexit is gobsmackingly transparent. It also might just work.
Does anyone envy Theresa May? Her task as U.K. prime minister is to extricate Britain from the EU without too much economic pain, without an exodus of European talent from London, and without accidentally restarting the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And at the same time, she has to keep Scotland from leaving the clutches of her own much older political union.
You see the dilemma. After the head of the Scottish Nationalist Party declared her intention to ask for another referendum on independence, May's job description could be reduced to a single task: Talk out of both sides of your mouth and make everyone agree to what you're saying.
On the one hand — her Brexit one — sovereignty is the precious good that gives democratic government legitimacy. To be routinely outvoted or overturned by a political body whose own interests diverge from your own is rank effrontery. Even a little economic pain, political turmoil, and uncertainty is worth enduring to preserve a unique identity and a nation's genius from the smothering embrace of a political union that distorts its self-government. The conveniences of the union are not worth the national self-abasement that the EU requires. The precious good of peace will survive Europe's political re-division.
On the other hand — the Unionist one — sovereignty on the Isles has always been a matter of degrees and self-effacement, governed by prudence. And the political upset caused by these questions of national identity enflame our worst passions, don't they? Maybe better to delay them until tempers have cooled from the last time. And you may have seen the forecasts for oil prices over the next few years, which makes you wonder how Scotland could afford all the services it loves. Recall that David Cameron called this the "best political union ever," one that effectively ended war on an island that had known little but since the Middle Ages.
But, surprisingly enough, May has a chance of pulling this off. The Brexit negotiations really are coming at a moment of low morale for the Eurocrats. In Poland and Hungary, Brussels has to deal with member regimes it claims to hate. Within critical member states like France and Italy, it has to fight the political forces representing EU dissolution. Turkey is also turning up the pressure, threatening to cause turmoil in the hopes of boosting dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Rather than high-tailing it to Dublin and Frankfurt, the financial industry seems to be effectively lobbying for mercy for the U.K. Peripheral states in the EU, like Sweden and Ireland, benefit immensely from liberal trade policies with the United Kingdom. Do the French and German hardliners really believe that after EU-defender Emmanuel Macron raised such huge sums of money for his presidential campaign in London that his patrons will be pleased to be bidden home under punitive Brexit terms?
And Scotland may be sore about Brexit, but its prospects for independence really are materially worse than previously thought. Everyone now knows that the SNP used ludicrous projects based on oil wealth in the last IndyRef. And with the forces of nationalism stalking Europe, there are big EU member states like France and Italy that would rather discourage secessionist movements in their own countries. They'd be very hesitant to grant expedited membership to Scotland. That means Scotland would have to create its own currency and have some kind of defense policy on top of recreating the National Health Service without nearly as much money to fund it.
In other words, May's double-talk has a good chance of succeeding in its political goals. If she sounds silly for a few months so be it. Great political victories occasionally demand a certain amount of hypocrisy and foolishness.