Theresa May's undead government
Poor Theresa May. There is probably no head of government in the world who works harder than the British prime minister does, all in the hope of advancing the parliamentary fortunes of a series of bills that no one supports, in service of an agenda that she probably does not believe in. It is sobering to imagine Donald Trump chit-chatting with football players over a Wendy's 10-piece and a Diet Coke or tweeting about "Angel Moms" and "significant Walls" while this excellent woman burns the candle at both ends, poring over what are almost certainly the most mind-numbingly tedious documents ever composed in ours or any other English. Heaven help her.
Two months ago I wrote in this space following the announcement of a deal for Britain's departure from the European Union that May's political career was, roughly speaking, over. I was wrong. She has remained in office for two reasons, both of which I and other prophets of doom failed to appreciate. The first is that she is tougher, much, much tougher than anyone realized — certainly much tougher than any of her enemies at home. The second is that, however much recalcitrant members of her own Conservative Party dislike her, they loathe Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn even more. Perhaps there is some consolation in that, though somehow I doubt she much cares what they or anyone else thinks of her.
The interesting question is why.
Why in the world does May bother pretending to solicit opinions from an opposition party that is as divided as her own except on the question of her downfall, which they gleefully await? Why does she insist on memorizing details of a complicated deal that business types will reject out of hand no matter what, seizing upon this or that sub-clause to a little-noticed section of some article about fishing rights? Does she think that her own rabid backbenchers will read a word of it? Their idea of Brexit is a mystical fantasy. No actual deal addressing serious issues in grown-up language will ever please them. Meanwhile, the Scottish Nationalist Party is ready to hold another referendum on the question of independence from the rest of the U.K.; its leadership has deluded itself into thinking that Scotland has a future as a Brussels-subsidized tourist kingdom whose subjects continue to enjoy public benefits superior to those available in England. I suspect that Frau Merkel and her eventual successors will have other plans for them.
It is hard to think of any reason why the Conservative Party should remain in government, with or without May at the head of it. It is, indeed, increasingly difficult to see why any party should rule in Westminster. The Brexit question is not a simple one, but when the British people were asked about it, they gave a simple answer. They said they wanted to leave. What that might mean in practice is something about which no one will ever agree, especially when half the country refuses to accept the result in the first place.
Nor should they, I think. Brexit is not a prudential question about which reasonable persons can happily disagree. Being on one side of it or the other means subscribing to a radically different conception of what one's country is, what its organizing principles are, and what is constitutionally possible, much less wise. It is an existential riddle with no answer.
In any century before this one, a people as divided as the British over Europe would have started murdering each other long ago. We don't do much of that in the NATO member states anymore, largely because we have all quietly agreed that being able to buy things on Amazon and use Google to look up "NFL rushing leader 1983" in about five seconds are more important than our bespoke existential commitments. Whether this is an especially noble reason for not engaging in civil war is an open question, but the fact remains that in the end what binds nations together is not some windy romantic nonsense about "culture" or "heritage" or "the soil" but commerce. Many paternalist conservatives, including those of the "One Nation" tendency with which May identifies, have made a point of disagreeing with Lady Thatcher's famous dictum that there is no such thing as society. But it increasingly looks as if she was right. We don't have society anymore but rather an economy.
Which is why I think the best option for May might be to propose neither a "hard" nor a "soft" but rather an "optional" Brexit, based on the soundest consumer principles. Those who wish to "remain" in Europe may tell themselves that they are "Europeans" and volunteer to have their vegetables inspected by some officious German in charge of a process with a name that is more than 50 letters long. Those wanting to "leave" should eat kippers for breakfast and spend a long afternoon listening to Elgar, darning socks, and burning effigies of the pope, who "hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England," to celebrate their independence. In the meantime Mrs. May could enjoy a well-deserved holiday.