Theresa May is the United Kingdom’s latest Prime Minister. As only the second female PM, she is a historical figure. She is noted for, and proud of, her footwear which have become her trademark. She has good taste in shoes and offers a colourful alternative to the bland, stolid, if secure shoes worn by previous male PMs. Her footwear reminds me of another historical figure—Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jeffferson or Theresa May? Individual rights are sacrificed
Jefferson, in contrast to May, was passionate about individual rights, personal and religious liberty. Jefferson, in contrast to May, would not have created the illiberal PREVENT strategy with its message that public opinion must be managed. For Jefferson, in contrast to May, it was vital to a healthy democracy that the public be trusted to exercise their reason and be free to express their opinions. What separates them, though, is footwear. May has chosen to invoke the footwear of the UK’s imperial past which it has never shed. With Brexit the UK returns to the romanticism of an Old England secure its imperial ethos where the strong rule and the weak are ruled. Jefferson described this footwear as those, like May’s supporters who are “booted and spurred” to ride those who are “born with saddles on backs”. Jefferson thought the world would escape this view. May is here to remind him that it exists even if it is done with fashionable footwear.
“That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
We enter an era where individual rights such as freedom of expression, religion, and public reason are under sustained threat. We have a PM who is eager to stamp her authority on the body politic and deliver Brexit. She will ensure the country can be rid of the foreign people, customs, and ideas that have polluted it since the UK joined the EU in 1972. She is only too eager to shake the dust of Europe from her shoes. For her supporters she will reassert an ersatz English Imperial ethos that remains animates Conservative Party’s intellectual heritage like a spectre haunting an asylum.
A neo-imperial ethos for a post-modern age: fashionable shoes with jackboot echoes
The UK awakens to a post-imperial imperialism for which the Old England pines. The Old England romanticism fuels the fear, hatred, and violence that animates the extremists. For those who demanded the UK “take back” control, Brexit and May ensure their dark dreams will be fulfilled. Public opinion will, to paraphrase Jefferson, again find the chains that tabloid ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves. We are not doomed to repeat the past so much as to experience it as a variation on theme. Today’s variation is authoritarianism masked by vague nostrums of sovereignty, freedom, and independence. Instead of jackboots, we will be treated to fashionable footwear but the footsteps ring with the same echoes.