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British newspapers on 1/16/2019 © Lenscap Photography / Shutterstock

Is Theresa May about to Cry “Mayday”?

Theresa May has tried one more time after trying again and again, and to her surprise, she has failed yet again.

British Prime Minister Theresa May appears mystified. But at least, after so many attempts, she is now in a position to tell us why everyone else is wrong and how pitiful the outcome will be. “Look around the world,” she commands us, “and consider the health of liberal democratic politics, and look across the United Kingdom and consider the impact of failing to deliver on the clear instruction of the British people in a lawful [Brexit] referendum.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Instruction:

1) The transmission of knowledge acquired through study and experience from those who know for the benefit of those who need to learn

2) In UK politics: A one-word command issued by a group of people who, before expressing the command, had no means of studying or understanding the issue or its consequences

Contextual note

May’s sentence, in itself, is a “clear instruction” or command. She tells her listeners to “look” at things, first “around the world” and then “across the United Kingdom.” Her eyes have long been open, theirs closed. At this point — nearly two months since the official but unrespected cutoff date for leaving the European Union on March 29 — her critics might counter: It is indeed time to take a good look around, but why did no one have the time to do that three years ago?

The traditional proverb instructs people to “look before you leap,” but May’s colleague and predecessor, David Cameron, foolishly asked the nation to leap before it looked. As the Brits approach the cliff, Prime Minister May keeps reminding them that they are legally committed to leaping.

In the nearly three years since the referendum on leaving the EU, people have been looking, and more particularly observing, what May herself has done… or not done. Those who have looked will have noticed by now that the fateful Brexit vote was indeed a game-changer, though in ways no one expected. It may have been “a lawful referendum” insofar as it didn’t violate any law, yet in terms of defining a course of action, it was anything but a “clear instruction.”

By looking around, May correctly perceives symptoms of the failing health of “liberal democratic politics,” but the pathology took root long before the 2016 referendum, not because of it. Nor is it the result of the hopelessly confused attempt, by the prime minister and the entire political class, to manage its consequences.

She also correctly identifies it as a global rather than just a British problem. Though no two people at random are likely to agree on the definition of “liberal democracy,” and many might even wonder if it is worth defending, most observers realize that wherever you look today, especially in the traditional bastions of Western democracy, something seems to be going wrong — though not necessarily quite on the same scale as in the UK, where “going awry” might be a more appropriate choice of vocabulary.

Historical note

May’s political conscience — her Freudian superego — appears to be telling her she and the nation have failed “to deliver.” As if her government was Amazon and had just registered an online order from a consumer for immediate shipping. The package appears to have been lost in the post. That tells us more about her own definition of “liberal democracy” than her protests about respecting a lawful referendum. May perhaps envisions her own historic role as little more than a glorified delivery service.

The prime minister regrets having to propose a second referendum on Brexit because she believes “we should be implementing the result of the first referendum.” She attributes the necessity to allow for a second referendum as part of her new offer to the “strength of feeling across” the House of Commons.

This implies that she sees herself as the rational, pragmatic leader (Freud’s ego) trying to manage the impulses or feelings of the devils in Parliament (Britain’s id): the unrepentant remainers who voted to stay in the EU. After all, May herself is a reformed remainer, who for over two years has desperately wanted to show her willingness to magnanimously sacrifice her own initial inclinations to please “the people.”

But May has discovered devils in her own party, ready to turn up the heat of their hellfire as soon as she even hints at making any concession to the remainers. One of the current devils is Harlow MP Robert Halfon, a fellow Tory who, manifestly upset at her suggestion that a second referendum may be necessary, sees his prime minister and party leader as a traitor to the sacred cause she herself continues to defend verbally: “This is a betrayal of the 2016 referendum and a betrayal of everything she has been saying since she became prime minister.”

And so it goes in the hyperreal drama called Brexit. The BBC calls May’s latest offer “a last roll of the dice.” Trying to please all the unhappy groups that had previously opposed her deal, in the “strange complex process” she has cobbled together, Theresa May hopes, in the words of the BBC, “to dangle a bauble to each of Parliament’s different Brexit tribes.” Their various reactions show that all they saw were the baubles offered to their own opponents as well as the obvious contradictions among the baubles.

Few, however, complained when she reminded them that she had “offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.” If she really does love her job, the Freudians might take it for the confession of a masochist. The Times comments: “[I]n truth the job gave up on her long ago.” Apparently, she hadn’t noticed. She must have been looking “around the world” or “across the United Kingdom” instead of focusing on what was happening in front of her very eyes in Westminster.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.