At the time of writing it is impossible to know what will come of the Brexit Crisis and even if any form of Brexit will take place on March 29. There may be a delay, Britain could conceivably “crash out” of the European Union, as the BBC likes to put it, without either an agreement or minimally adequate preparations, and the May government could fall, prompting a general election that might well be won by the Trotskyist Jeremy Corbyn.
The agreement that May tried to sell to Parliament essentially locks the UK into the EU for an indefinite period, allows for Brussels’ regulatory annexation of Northern Ireland, and does not even provide for Britain’s exit but merely its entry into trade deal negotiations having surrendered all its leverage and promised to pay a fee of £39 billion. It has long been the only deal on offer from an EU leadership which has an existential incentive to make Brexit as painful as possible, and which has not been presented with any ultimatums sufficient to inspire even minimal concessions.
The one thing that is clear about the crisis is that, whatever one thinks of the underlying question of British membership of the European Union, Theresa May’s handling of the negotiations with the EU, and indeed the entire political process that has followed the June 2016 referendum, could hardly have been worse.
Every single decision she has made since the day she triggered Article 50 might almost have been designed to simultaneously put Britain in a weak negotiating position, cause chaos within the Tory Party, create uncertainty for business, and further divide both the political class and the public. May careers from destructive stubborness (she takes foolish pride in inflexibility, mistaking it for character) to indecisiveness, cynicism and panic. Again and again, pundits here in the UK express surprise and disappointment at her peculiar tone-deaf ineptitude. They don’t understand that Theresa May is the anti-Churchill.
Just as Winston Churchill, for all his faults, had precisely the right combination of political and personal qualities needed in the crisis 1940, she possesses an equally remarkable combination of all the wrong qualities needed at this moment in the nation’s history. Theresa May’s extraordinary unsuitability for the job at this time should not be nearly as surprising as seems to many pundits here, and it gives me (almost) no pleasure to be able to say “I told you so.” Almost three years ago, when Mrs May was a leading candidate for the leadership of the Tory party, I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph saying that she had been a terrible Home Secretary yet had managed to foster a wholly misleading image of competence and conviction. Her vaunted toughness was really just bluster. Mrs May’s staff managed to get the article pulled from the Telegraph website (her officials always seemed to put more effort into image-management than managing the Home Office) an action that itself caused a mini-scandal and ensured it was published elsewhere and widely seen.
One of the things about May’s career that had gone oddly unnoticed, along with her lack of any apparent political philosophy, her limited intellect, and many incidents of cynical vindictiveness (panicked by a TV report about a student visa scam, her Home Office swiftly deported thousands of students who were legitimately in the country) was a bizarre lack of emotional intelligence. It was typical of her almost autistic inability to understand the emotional needs of others that it did not occur to her to go to the scene of the great Grenfell Tower fire. That same flaw has been at the root of many of her Brexit failures.
For Mrs May the fury in her own party and elsewhere at a deal which would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom seems to have been baffling. She was aware that the Northern Ireland troubles had happened; but she could not understand why people there or on the mainland cared so much about issues that were merely symbolic. This profound inability to appreciate the importance of symbols or the emotional resonance of historical events has rendered her peculiarly unable to understand either the Brexit vote or the resistance to it both in the UK and in the EU.
A Remainer herself to the degree that she has any solid political beliefs, May seems to think the only reason why more than 17 million voted to Leave was xenophobia. It is to cater to this presumed bigotry that she has repeatedly threatened the status of EU citizens current resident in the UK. It is why every time she feels the need to bolster support in the country, she announces policies that spitefully target immigrants and foreigners – in every case to the dismay of the pro-Brexit lobbies. The worst manifestation of this characteristically clueless but malign tendency was 2018’s bizarre Windrush scandal in which the May’s Home Office expelled Commonwealth immigrants who had been legally in the country since the late 1940s if they could not now provide documentation to prove it.
Just as May cannot understand the importance of sovereignty, independence and national identity to Brexiteers, she, like many British Remainers, also does not understand how the passionate commitment to the European project of EU Commission officials (and many of her own civil servants) means that they, like their opponents, would willingly sacrifice the economic wellbeing of all parties on behalf of their cause.
That this particular Prime Minister, of all of Britain’s politicians, should be at Britain’s helm in the Spring of 2019, is so unfortunate that it feels as if we have been abandoned by the same Providence that so many times in the past gave us the right person at the right time. When or if we get through this as a “strong and stable” United Kingdom, we will need to rethink a system that no longer seems to bring to the fore political leaders whose abilities are commensurate with the country’s needs.
Shamima Begum is one of four young women of Bangladeshi origin who were 15-year-old students at the Bethnal Green Academy in the East End of London when they left the country to join the ISIS caliphate in 2015. She is one of 800 Britons who went to Iraq and Syria to support the ISIS cause. Liberal commentators in the UK have indulgently and inaccurately likened them to the British and American progressives who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War. In fact they have rather more in common with the fascists who went to fight alongside the Nationalist rebels against the Republic that was Spain’s legitimate government.
Begum now lives in a Syrian displaced persons camp controlled by ISIS enforcers. She was discovered there in February with much fanfare by a British journalist. Begum’s latest husband, a Dutch jihadist who converted to Islam, is being held in a Kurdish detention centre elsewhere in the country. Begum told her interviewer that she wants to “come home”. This was not because she has given up on the cause but because “the caliphate is over” and also because she wanted good healthcare for the child she was then carrying, having previously lost two babies in addition to her first jihadi husband. Begum’s interview revealed her to be unrepentant in every regard. Her only regret seems to be that the ISIS state has been defeated. She boasted in her interview that she had been unfazed by the sight of decapitated infidel heads in barrels, apparently a common sight in Raqqah during ISIS rule.
Begum’s “discovery” brought to the fore the difficult question as to whether the hundreds of British ISIS devotees who went to the Middle East to be a part of the Islamic empire established by the fundamentalist cult should be brought back to the UK now that the surviving ones are mostly in detention centres and refugee camps.
Unfortunately, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, one of the candidates to succeed Mrs May as leader of the Tory party, decided to burnish his security and patriotic credentials by stripping Begum of her British citizenship. This was on the incorrect assumption that she also has Bangladeshi nationality. The fact that hundreds of male ISIS members with British passports, including fighters and owner-abusers of Yazidi sex slaves, have not just retained their citizenship but been allowed to return home makes Javid’s foolish action seem all the more cynical.
Rendering the “Isis Bride” a stateless person is not only legally problematic, it has, inevitably, played into the already common narratives that portray Begum as merely a passive victim of others – a naïve child who was “groomed” by jihadists (the term ‘grooming’ presumably chosen because it evokes the teenaged victims of Britain’s Anglo-Pakistani rape gangs), and who is now being mistreated by a cruel Tory minister. The reported death of Begum’s newborn child at the beginning of March makes it even more persuasive.
When Begum does come home, as she surely will given the illegality of the Home Secretary’s act and the sympathy she has won, she will likely be used by Islamist extremists to further their cause. It is not at all impossible the entire affair began as part of ISIS information operation, and that Anthony Lloyd, the British journalist who found Begum, was unknowingly helped to discover the pregnant refugee in the hope that her return would become a cause, and then later, she could become a celebrity and inspiration for a new generation as a brave jihadist mother home from the wars.
Begum grew up in the Tower Hamlets area of East London, a borough that exemplifies more than any other, the naivete and incompetence of British immigration policy. Successive waves of immigrants from one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh have created a monocultural quasi-ghetto whose inhabitants have been much less likely to integrate, are less likely to speak English, and are slower to achieve economic success than those of any other immigrant community in the country. They are also the most prone to adopt fundamentalist beliefs. British Bengalis there are much more likely to wear the hijab than their relatives in Bangladesh. Gangs of young men have attacked drinkers, smokers, gay couples and under-covered Asian women in the streets of the borough. Tower Hamlets is also the first place in the UK to experience the common South Asian electoral practice called “booth capturing” which involves the takeover of polling places by goonda thugs who support a particular candidate. In both 2012 and 2016, supporters of Lutfur Rahman, the then-mayor of Tower Hamlets, were able to intimidate voters at polling places from which the Metropolitan Police were unaccountably absent. Rahman has since been found guilty of corrupt practices and banned for standing for election for five years.
Thanks in part to the Shamima Begum case there has been talk in Westminster about amending or updating Britain’s treason laws which, it is often pointed out by the newspapers, date to the fourteenth century. One might imagine from the way that these laws are referred to, that they have not been used for three hundred years. In fact, people were tried and convicted of treason within living memory, during World War II, not least John Amery who tried to raise a “British Free Corps” for the SS and was hanged in 1945.
Why none of the Britons who joined the Taliban or ISIS while British troops were fighting on the other side, some with the express aim of killing British troops, have been charged with treason is unclear. There may well be genuine legal difficulties, especially given that we live in an age in which traditional, declared, inter-state wars are rare. But what has surely made it harder to deal with what is self-evidently a form of treachery and violent betrayal is the reflexive treatment of “treason” as an absurdly, even comically antideluvian notion in itself.
Such an attitude is not confined to the bien-pensants of Hampstead or the progressive publications preferred by BBC brass and top barristers but has spread throughout the political class. It seems quite possible that the resistance to trying British ISIS volunteers for treason may have to do with a lack of political nerve: rooted in terror of being labeled “racist” or anxiety about further alienating certain British Muslim minorities. Or, even more disturbing, a diminished belief in the legitimacy, sovereignty of the British state. The notion of treason necessarily implies the existence of its opposites: a duty of loyalty to the realm, and a solidarity with the millions of strangers who happen to be your fellow citizens — one that trumps other, cross-border forms of affection and allegiance. But a significant section of today’s British establishment have become such internationalists (whether or not they are fervent devotees of the European project) that they are uncomfortable with any assertion of national identity, as if any expression of or appeal to “Britishness” would be both vulgar and atavistic. For them the whole notion of treason is problematic morally and politically, regardless of its legal validity, precisely because it implies an obligation to be primarily loyal to a single sovereign state and its citizens.
In his book The British Dream, David Goodhart recalls a debate with two establishment figures, one a bishop, the other the then-head of the BBC; the first said he would always put global welfare before national welfare, the second said he personally felt a greater obligation to people from Burundi than people from Birmingham. Both men presumably believed that these opinions showed them to be enlightened cosmopolitans, modern citizens of the world. It could in fact suggest a kind of laziness rather than open-mindedness. (A cynic would say such loyalty to everyone really means loyalty just to oneself.) Loyalty to country is admirable partly because it is difficult. It can be much easier to feel an instant connection with fellow academics, bureaucrats, activists, journalists or doctors in other countries than with one’s own countrymen from a different social class and educational background. Disdain for the latter is one of the reasons why middle class Britons so often, like Dickens’ Mrs Jellaby, feel more compassion for picturesque poor people in foreign countries than for disadvantaged folk at home. It is one of the reasons why the UK spends ever greater amounts on foreign aid.