What is the British dream Theresa May talks of?

Written by Tom Freeman on 15 February 2018 in Inside Politics

Brexit has necessitated attempts to remind the world of what Britain is for, but there has been little sign of British values in the debate

Theresa May in front of Union Jack - Image credit: PA

Given the fierce criticism of Theresa May for having a lack of vision, it should be no surprise that she used the platform awarded by a trip to China to remind us all that she does have a vision.

“If you look at what we’ve been doing over the recent weeks and months, I think that there are many people in the United Kingdom who want to ensure that their families can achieve the British dream of ensuring that each generation has a better future than the last,” she said.

Indeed, it’s not the first time May has talked about the ‘British dream’.

It was unveiled during her keynote speech to Tory conference, only no one listened because it was disrupted by a prankster, then she lost her voice in a coughing fit.

Then the letters began to fall off the slogan ‘Building a country that works for everyone’ behind her. Nightmare.

Brexit has necessitated attempts to remind the world of what Britain is for, what role the nation will play, free from the shackles of any association with the European project.

But if the ‘British dream’ is merely a desire for every family to experience basic economic growth, it is one no one has ever heard of before.

It certainly seems more modest than the American dream it apes, an ideology of social mobility synonymous with breaking free of the British class system and making it big.

May’s predecessor David Cameron did articulate a set of ‘British values’, which he instructed Ofsted to embed in schools in England.

These include a belief in democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance of others.

“To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips,” Cameron said at the time.

But as May attempted to woo Chinese investment, these values were kept off the agenda.

Instead, the conversation centred on a more familiar British obsession: tea.

Madame Peng offered the Mays lapsang souchong, to which the Prime Minister and her husband exclaimed in unison: “We drink that.”

There has been little evidence of the values Cameron wished to pin to the UK’s national identity in the months since he mandated them in schools.

With newspapers calling MPs ‘mutineers’ and judges ‘enemies of the people’, perhaps a real typical British value is a lack of self-awareness.

It is certainly true of Darren Osborne, who has been jailed for murder and attempted murder after driving a van into a crowd outside a mosque in Finsbury Park last June.

In a note scribbled before he carried out the attack, Osborne wrote: “Why are their terrorists on our streets today?”

Then he carried out a terrorist attack.

Osborne has become the second high-profile white supremacist to be jailed for murder since Cameron published his British values of tolerance of other faiths and beliefs, the other being the killer of Jo Cox MP.

If there is a radicalisation of British nationalists – empowered by Brexit – then it appears to be one based on race, xenophobia and anti-intellectualism.

While there have been attempts by politicians of all colours to portray Scotland as a more tolerant, welcoming nation, these are not comfortable times for Scotland’s Muslim politicians.

Scottish Labour’s health spokesman, Anas Sarwar, has spoken of the “everyday Islamophobia” and “insidious racism” he has experienced, even within his own party, while SNP transport minister Humza Yousaf revealed he no longer conducts his surgeries alone for fears about his safety.

Yousaf told the Sunday Herald he now carries a personal alarm after advice from the police.

“During Brexit and post-Brexit, it’s got worse, without a shadow of doubt,” he said.

“Frankly, part of it is not helped by the polarised debate around faith, whether that’s in Europe or across the pond in the United States. It has exacerbated things.

“Brexit is a horrible example of that, with the rhetoric and anti-immigration tone.”

And as Brexit continues to stall amid mixed signals from leaders, tempers are flaring.

Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, a favourite with the party membership to replace Theresa May, was accosted by left-wing activists during his speaking tour of universities.

“They’re British, they weren’t going to do me any harm,” he reflected afterwards.

“They disagree with me, they disapprove of everything I stand for, but they are good, honest British citizens. They weren’t going to hit me.”

The Brexiteer, who has invited UKIP members to join the Conservative Party, was accused of undermining the bedrock of British democracy, the neutral civil service.

Rees-Mogg said mandarins had been “fiddling the figures” in forecasts in a deliberate political act to frustrate the Brexit process.

But Andrew Turnbull, who led the civil service under Tony Blair, likened the remarks to propaganda from Nazi Germany.

“They are losing the argument in the sense that they are unable to make their extravagant promises stack up, and so they turn and say: ‘Things would be OK if the civil service weren’t obstructing us’,” he said.

“When you don’t succeed, you find someone to blame for your failure.”

Meanwhile former business minister Anna Soubry said she will leave the Conservative Party if Rees-Mogg or Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson becomes leader.

“My front bench... is in hock to 35 hard ideological Brexiteers who are not Tories,” the Broxtowe MP told the BBC.

“They are not the Tory party I joined 40 years ago and it is about time Theresa stood up to them and slung ‘em out.

“They have taken down Major, they took down Cameron, two great leaders neither of whom stood up to them.”

These dissenting voices are filling a void left by a lack of government strength at the top.

Theresa May’s British dream may have proved elusive, but her personal position on Brexit remains even more recondite.

Decisions and positions have been fudged, postponed or kept vague for 19 months, much to the open frustration of colleagues. It has been exactly the same with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

There was an attempt to inject some clarity with a statement from Number 10 that the UK will leave the customs union with the EU.

“It is not our policy to be in the customs union. It is not our policy to be in a customs union,” it said. 

But with every step forward to clarify the Brexit process, several steps are taken back.

For example, some form of customs union is needed to prevent a hard border being erected in Ireland, which could have a significant knock-on effect on the Irish peace process.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, expressed her exasperation with the position.

“It’s a real frustration there hasn’t been more discussion and engagement, not just with the Scottish Government but all of the devolved administrations,” she said.

“It is overwhelmingly in my view in the interests of the country, our economy, to remain within the customs union and the single market.”

May, meanwhile, used a speech to mark 100 years since the first women were given suffrage to voice her own frustrations with the nature of modern political patois.

“While there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process.”

It was another attempt to define national values.

“In the face of what is a threat to our democracy, I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralist public debate for the future.”

She added: “At its best, British public life is characterised by the values which we have traditionally been most proud of as a nation.

“Fierce rivalry, yes, but also common decency. A rejection of extremism and absolutism.”

But when Brexit still only means Brexit and with the Prime Minister apparently unable to control her own government, is a pluralist debate just a British pipedream?

It’s surely only a matter of time before someone throws themselves under a horse.

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