Theresa May Teaches a Crumbling World a Lesson on Statesmanship

Michael Lucchese

On June 8, British citizens will head to the polls to vote in a snap election called by prime minister Theresa May. While some American observers may be confused by it, May’s decision-making actually offers a model of contemporary statesmanship worthy of emulation.

May ascended to her premiership only about a year ago, after former prime minister David Cameron resigned in the aftermath of the “Brexit” campaign. Thus far, May has been preparing Britain for the process of actually leaving the European Union, and the people are loving it. May’s Tory Party maintains a 21-point lead over their opposition, the left-wing Labour Party.

The 2016 referendum gave the Tories a mandate to start the process, but winning a general election would give May’s pro-Brexit government the strength it needs to fulfill their promises. The Tories realize they cannot successfully navigate the stormy waters ahead with the support of only their faction — they need to build a broad consensus and govern the entire British people.

Brexit highlighted the chief political problem the West faces — the problem of sovereignty. In an increasingly globalized world, how can nations maintain their economic, cultural, and political independence?

“Leaving the European Union will mean that our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast,” May said in her first speech on Brexit. “We will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws.”

May believes Great Britain matters. She is a patriot in the traditional sense of the word — she recognizes that the people of the British Isles have an exceptional society, and that self-government is the best kind of political system.  

In Europe, far-right parties, like Marine le Pen’s National Front in France or Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, attempt to address the crisis of sovereignty in a different way. They promise voters a return to “national greatness,” by which they usually mean economic protectionism, isolationism in foreign affairs, and strong anti-immigration policies. Their heated anti-globalist rhetoric threatens the liberal order which defines the Western world. May, however, rejects the toxic nationalist zeitgeist in favor of a conservative path forward.

“A country in control of its destiny is more, not less able to play a full role in underpinning and strengthening the multilateral rules-based system,” she said at a speech before the World Economic Forum. “Britain is no less British because it is home to people from around the world. In fact, we derive so much of our strength from our diversity… And Britain is no less British because we have led the way in multilateral organizations like the UN, NATO, IMF, and the World Bank over many years.”

Like conservative statesmen before her, May’s guiding principle is the virtue of prudence. She is working hard to balance concerns constituencies at home and partners abroad may have about Brexit, and the polls suggest her people will reward her efforts.

Going forward, conservatives across the globe should look to imitate May’s leadership. As she’s shown, the restoration of sovereignty does not spell doom for the liberal international order, nor does it mean that certain segments of society must be disenfranchised or ignored.   

American conservatives could learn a lot from May. In many ways, our people gave the Republican Party the power to address the crisis of sovereignty, the same way the British people voted to leave the EU. Unlike the Tories, though, Republican politicians face dismal approval ratings, thanks to failures on healthcare reform and controversy in the White House.

“I speak to you not just as prime minister of the United Kingdom, but as a fellow conservative who believes in the same principles that underpin the agenda of your party,” May said in a speech to the leaders of the GOP this January. “The value of liberty. The dignity of work. The principles of nationhood, family, economic prudence, patriotism — and putting power in the hands of the people.”

Like May, we ought to look to the principles that first made the Anglo-American world great. The ship of state can only return to the right course when the virtues of our tradition serve as our guiding star.

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