— James Martin (@Pundamentalism) April 18, 2017
A few hours ago, Theresa May announced that she will call a snap general election to take place a little over six week’s time.
The analysts and commentariat are currently scrabbling for their various takes on this news. At present, it would seem that May’s decision is based on the belief that the Conservatives will win — a confidence perhaps justified — and this will allow them to enter the Brexit negotiations with minimal domestic opposition.
I want to take a moment to consider a couple of devices that May used in her speech. They reveal how she wants us to see her and her opposition.
Gettin’ the Job Done
David Runciman wrote a marvellous article for the London Review of Books that describes May as the ‘do-your-homework prime minister‘. (David Cameron was the ‘essay crisis prime minister’). That image of May as persistent, persevering, and patient was clearly present in her speech:
‘our determination to get the job done’
‘a one-off chance to get this done’
‘opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done’
And while May is the pragmatist faced with ‘decisions I must take’, her opponents are shirkers of responsibility who fail to take things seriously:
‘their political game-playing will continue’
‘show that you do not treat politics as a game’
‘they want to grind the business of government to a standstill’
Strong and stable
We’re left with no doubt about the qualities that May wants us to associate with her government:
‘Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership’
‘partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom’
‘strong and stable leadership’
‘Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger’
‘a stronger Britain’
‘with strong conviction that I say it is necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership’
‘give the country the strong and stable leadership it demands’
‘certainty and stability for the years ahead’
If May’s speech was a school essay, the teacher would be highlighting the word ‘strong’ and asking for a greater variety of adjectives.
Though she does sometimes include an antonym:
‘weak and unstable coalition government’
‘it weakens the government’s negotiating position’
So it’s all about the strong versus the weak, those who get things done versus those who can’t. May offers few other adjectives for what her government represents, other than the empty signifier ‘right’ (‘right plan’, ‘right approach‘, ‘right long-term decisions‘).
It’s curious that May deploys the image of strength so frequently in this speech without identifying what she feels strongly about. Surely not strength for strength’s sake?
Header photo: Stefan Wermuth / Reuters