Theresa May’s Brexit speech: a dangerous descent
When delivering a training session on speechwriting to civil servants I once raised a few eyebrows by citing a Theresa May speech as a good example of great writing. It was her brutal, and brave speech to the Police Federation in 2014 – where, as then Home Secretary, she arrived to polite applause and left to stunned silence. You don’t have to agree with what she was saying, though in truth a lot of it did need to be said, to admire the purposeful prose, the intent and the policy thinking that backed it up.
There couldn’t have been a more striking contrast with what was needed in last night’s Brexit address, and what was delivered. I searched in vain for at least something stylistically to approve of, but there was scant evidence of a Prime Minister being brave, or bold. The speech was less than four minutes long and brevity is something I often applaud in any public address. The Gettysburg address famously weighs in at just 271 words – and there was just the hint of a homage here.
Compare the openings.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty… (Abraham Lincoln, 1863)
Theresa May, like Lincoln, wanted to remind people of the journey the people have been on together and the idea of a bigger, more important democratic project.
Nearly three years have passed since the public voted to leave the European Union. It was the biggest democratic exercise in our country’s history… (Theresa May, March 21st 2019)
But, really that’s where the comparisons end. Lincoln was trying to unite a people riven apart by the Civil War. May on the other hand spoke to just half the country – and if recent polls are to be believed, considerably less than half the country.
She made a terrible mistake for which a rookie councillor would be lambasted – by telling people what they think.
And of this I am absolutely sure: You, the public, have had enough.
You’re tired of the infighting, you’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime.
You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree.
I am on your side.
It is now time for MPs to decide.
In all honesty, apart from the opening, this is the best bit of the speech in writing terms. It uses the rule of three – tired of infighting, tired of games and tired of rows – and ends in a neat and memorable rhyming couplet. But, all this is ruined by the shoddy message at its heart – a politician talking down to people telling them what they think. And even though the rule of three is successfully employed here – do you really want to tell a whole country it is tired? Doesn’t exactly put the Great into Great Britain does it?
And then it got worse. Not just worse, but downright dangerous as the Prime Minister turned her attention to MPs.
Do they want to leave without a deal, or do they not want to leave at all causing potentially irreparable damage to public trust not just in this generation of politicians but to our entire democratic process?
It is high time we made a decision.
So far, Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice.
By directly pointing the finger of blame at Parliamentarians, and accusing them of betraying the public, the Prime Minister demeaned her office.
She shirked the basic responsibility of any democratic leader – to bring a country together at a time of crisis (that includes bringing MPs together by the way). But she also legitimised the notion of treachery – directly into camera from the highest office in the land. This will embolden a lot of scary people at a time of heightened tension.
Given that scores of MPs, and their staff, are genuinely fearful for their safety, I cannot remember a more irresponsible utterance from a British Prime Minister in the last 20 years.
Today’s front pages tell the story in glorious technicolor – a desperately worried right-wing press embarrassingly clinging on to anything they can, with everyone else rightly shocked and appalled.
Finally, consider what is missing from the speech. I mentioned my admiration for brevity in public addresses, but there must be exceptions. What the Prime Minister did not do, at any point in her address, was try to convince anyone of anything. There was no appeal to Remain voters. No appeal to the devolved administrations (the PMs failure to capitalise on Wales’s leave vote never fails to surprise me). The DUP got a name check, but Labour, Plaid, and the SNP got nothing.
Having made the questionable decision to make the address yesterday, the PM absolutely had to set out her case in a new way – try something different to reach out to waverers and opponents alike. All she succeeded in doing was paint targets on the backs of people who are her colleagues and our representatives.
Up until yesterday I wasn’t fully in favour of a second referendum, mainly because I was so fearful of what that campaign would do to our country. But after hearing this dangerous rhetoric delivered from the highest office in the land, I think the country now needs a fresh start. Give us an election. A referendum. Anything to deliver us from this dangerous descent into the gutter.