Theresa May’s ‘Diplomacy’; A Creeping Authoritarianism?

As Theresa May has announced plans for a general election June 8th, there is no better time than now to look at her diplomatic and democratic record. As an un-elected party leader, this election will be the first chance for her to truly gain a democratic mandate for her plans for Britain’s currently very unstable future. Although judging by her previous forays into the field of diplomacy, to give her this mandate this may not be the most prudent move. Her tone with European leaders has been icy, and she has been secretive with her government and public around what Brexit will mean. Her treatment of the snap general elections, mere days after it has been announced, seems to show she will be no different here. With issues that have arisen with Scotland, Ireland, and Gibraltar, she has shown little diplomatic finesse, and her treatment of human rights abusing governments is to enable them. To cement her positions, an obedient and often fanatical right-wing press paints her opposition, a key part of a free and fair democracy, as enemies and saboteurs.

One major thing to note is that the snap general election will be the first chance any voters get a say on May. Due to the way Conservative party leaders are chosen, MPs get a vote until only two contenders are left at which point party members get a vote, but in the case of Theresa May, any opposition to her dropped out before that had happened. This means that her budgets, which turned against the manifesto put forward by the previous, publicly elected leader David Cameron, have not been put to any sort of vote. Nor has her pushing for a hard Brexit, a decision 48% of the UK population disagreed with in the referendum. To understand how severe a hard Brexit is under these circumstances, imagine if the vote had gone the opposite way, and, with 52% of the country supporting remaining in the EU, Britain joined the Euro, entered the Schengen Area, and put up bilingual road signs. This election means May and her cabinet should finally have to publicly defend and explain themselves to to the general public.

May’s aggressive campaigning for a hard Brexit is not only an issue on a democratic level, but is more and more becoming an issue in a diplomatic sense. Her treatment of European leaders, MEPs, and diplomats has apparently not been dissimilar to her treatment of the public on the issue of what she wants out of the deal. This is in complete juxtaposition with how she has been with Donald Trump, a racist, misogynistic, war-monger. Not only was she pictured holding hands with him as they toured the White House grounds, she also invited him for a full state visit mere days into his presidency while the likes of Bush and Obama had to wait considerably longer. This attitude has not won May many friends in Brussels as can be seen in how MEPs are tackling Brexit talks. Hard stances are being taken around trade deals. Taking such a hard, non-transparent line with no public backing around such an important and destabilising event is hardly the sign of a great diplomat but more that of a dictator.

Theresa May’s lack of diplomatic finesse was also evident not too long after the triggering of Article 50 with issues arising in Gibraltar and Scotland. Gibraltar, a remnant of the British Empire that voted heavily to remain in the EU (likely due to the fact it is connected to Spain), became an issue due to close economic relationship between Gibraltar and the EU. In a continuation of May’s weak diplomacy and strong authoritarian strain, suggestions were made that the UK would go to war with Spain to keep Gibraltar, a small rock on Spain’s south coast, as part of the UK. An issue that could have easily been settled with an agreement over the border or perhaps a referendum giving citizens in Gibraltar a chance to exercise their right to self-determination led to a huge scandal due to Theresa May’s mishandling of the situation.

It would seem as though referendum and democracy are not held highly in May’s opinion, though, as can be seen in her treatment of another nation that voted to remain in the EU, Scotland. With her position obviously to avoid a hard Brexit her country rejects, Nicola Sturgeon seized the opportunity to announce a second independence referendum toward the end of 2018 to allow Scots to vote on if they wish to accept the terms of Brexit, at which point should have become clear, or to leave the UK with a view to joining the EU in an independent capacity. Theresa May’s handling of this was worrying in a number of ways. First, it seemed as if she would outright reject the request for a referendum meaning Scotland would have to accept a deal the nation voted against anyway. She then told Sturgeon that a referendum could take place but after March 2018, post-Brexit. May claimed that an independence referendum before this date would be unfair to the people of Scotland as they would not know what they were voting against. The treatment of a people who disagreed with May shows a lot about her authoritarian way of running the UK, one that should follow her blindly into an uncertain future.

Her response to Scotland’s call for a referendum makes her announcement of a snap general election even more worrying. Theresa May is effectively asking for a mandate to carry out a hard Brexit that she has been quiet and un-forthcoming about from the moment she took charge. This attempt to remove opposition to something 48% of the nation she leads voted against is a terrifying sign of what may be to come under her leadership. But this is not her only worrying action around this election, in fact even announcing the election flies in the face of a law supposed to stop parties calling elections due to a lead in the polls, the Fixed Term Parliaments act. May claims this election is needed to guarantee stability over the next 5 years, but there is no evidence of any instability, the vote to enact Article 50 passed 498 to 114. What does exist is opposition to Brexit and especially to the kind of Brexit May is pushing toward. This election is not one to ensure stability but to ensure that any opposition to her is removed and any anti-hard Brexit opinions can be negated by claims that this is what the public voted for. This is not what democracy looks like.

May’s opposition to opposition can also be seen in the way she is campaigning for the election. A key component of democracy is that the government are open to scrutiny, and are held accountable by an elected opposition and by the public. Theresa May, in an election she has said is about leadership, is refusing to take part in televised debates and has appeared at only a small number of closed or private events, at one of which the media and factory workers were banned from talking to each other. She also confirmed, when pushed by Dennis Skinner in parliament, that all Tory MPs currently under investigation for electoral fraud would be running in the election. This complete disregard for scrutiny, accountability, and the law is hardly the sign of a democratic leader.

This avoidance of scrutiny shouldn’t come as a shock to us though, this is the same Prime Minister who attempted to shut down leaks and further criminalise holding, receiving, or passing forward state secrets. An obvious attack on journalists and on the spreading of information governments would rather repress. The importance of leaks cannot be understated, proved by the fact that we only learnt of the leaks crackdown because of a leak. Leaks have uncovered scandals in governments that would not have arisen any other way. They have exposed corruption and illegal activity at the highest levels of government and the financial industry. The attempts to shut down any form of transparent government should not be tolerated by anyone in any democracy. This continued shutting down of any attempt to show what is happening within her government is yet another sign of Theresa May’s authoritarian way of governing.

To allow Theresa May even a slight majority will see a continuation of this anti-democratic, undiplomatic style of government will only harden and worsen, driving the UK into an isolationist one-party state, with a cut-off, anti-scrutiny leader.

 

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