What was Theresa May?

by Sam Kriss

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Theresa May has a facial tic. When she’s giving a speech to four glum men in an enormous aircraft hangar, or engaged in fruitless eight-hour negotiations with her plumber, or licking all the nuclear launch codes so her successor can’t touch them, or otherwise discharging her duties as the head of Her Majesty’s government, the corners of her mouth will twitch and turn down, and she’ll flash an expression of utter disgust. As if she’s suddenly had a moment of terrible clarity, and realised exactly what it is she’s become. In photos she looks like a deep-sea fish, face gulping in permanent horror. Combined with the natural whelk-grey texture of her skin, it gives the sense of a general aquatic unhealthiness. Stinking silt, creatures with translucent needle-sharp teeth, worms feasting on the sunken corpse of a whale: she has come to us from the grey and empty place where dead things fall.

In general, the British media tend not to be unkind enough to actually mention her noticeable facial tic. That would be rude. Instead, whenever she dramatically bungles some minor endeavour – which is just about every day – they cover the front pages of the newspapers with a picture of her grimacing like a fart’s just come out of her own mouth. But some people are less generous than others. Me, for instance. I know, without remembering, that at some point in the last three years, in one outlet or another, I must have mocked the one thing about the woman that’s not her fault. I also know why I did it. It’s because I also have a facial tic.

I can keep it under control, mostly; strangers probably see it more often than friends. On the street, on the Tube, at the urinals – the need grabs me, and I have to push out my lower lip and fold it over itself, so the mucous membrane glistens and I look like a sad, drooling clown. I don’t enjoy doing this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It just happens, at my direction but without my consent. It was worse when I was younger. Sometimes, at parties, I’d have to briefly hide myself in a corner to do it four or five times in quick succession where nobody could see me – but the whole procedure of hiding my weird facial spasms would put me in such a nervous state that I’d immediately feel the need to do it again. Throughout my teenage years, I was basically terrified that someone would see me doing it, and then call attention to it in front of everybody. Then they’d all know that I’m not really a person, but an animal, a thing of dumb instinct, a freak. So while I don’t know what it’s like for your embarrassing facial tic to be on the front page of the newspapers every morning, I can imagine. And this is why I can’t stand to see Theresa May do her trademark grimace. Not because she looks so gruesome and so weird, but because in the worst possible way, she and I are the same.

I don’t think this is just me. Theresa May has set herself up as the most nakedly authoritarian leader in recent British political history. She’s catastrophically mismanaged a major constitutional transition, devastated anonymous thousands of lives, wrecked the country, wrecked her own party, wrecked our future. But as she prepares to leave office, the big question isn’t about her actions or her legacy, or even the mess she’s left on the steps of Downing Street. It’s this: is it ok to feel sorry for her?

I do. I can’t help it. I feel sorry for Theresa May.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this. For a moment, in late 2016 and early 2017, Theresa May was the most popular British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. Or, at least, something that went by the name of Theresa May was. Whatever people loved in those short months, it wasn’t her.

The old political classes took this tense, rangy, fleabitten creature, these shabby rags framing a vulturine stoop, and turned her into Mummy. A big warm milky ocean you can also fuck, a fat-cheeked Oedipal fantasy come to envelop all the overgrown permanent schoolboys in acres of pillowy flesh – and then, when they’ve been naughty, to cane them across their leathery arses, because Mummy loves them, and Mummy needs them to obey.

The sensible technocratic classes took this screeching ideologue, the woman who sent vans with National Front slogans trundling around the outer boroughs of London, the woman who summarily deported 34,000 students because she couldn’t properly invigilate an English test, and turned her into A Firm Hand On The Wheel. Capable and serious, walking the sensible middle line between the irrational extreme of just murdering everyone and the irrational extreme of trying to make things somewhat better, a Remainer willing to make compromises, a capable negotiator with all the facts at her fingertips, a kind of vast spreadsheet buzzing behind synthetic skin.

The red-nosed tabloid editors took this glob spat out of the Tory front benches and into Downing Street, a woman whose premiership was secured on the basis of 199 votes in a country of sixty-six million, and turned her into The Voice Of The People. Red eyes, white hair, blue politics; a giant avenging mecha-suit powered by the incoherent outrage of millions of retired insurance salesmen, in a power stance so uncomfortably wide her legs straddle the entire country: one vast kitten heel ploughing through Lancashire until bubbles of shale gas wheeze out of the soil, the other flattening London into a great glowing splat of pulverised elites.

But all politicians create fantasies about themselves. What makes Theresa May different is that she’s so bad at it. Someone like Tony Blair is a pure simulacrum: there’s no point asking what the real Tony Blair is really like, because he’s just neon and soundbites all the way down. You can try to look behind his curtain, but it was put there by Parrhasius. Theresa May, on the other hand, was hiding something. She was alive in there, buried deep beneath mummy and monster and machine. She didn’t want to be seen. She has a facial tic.

* * *

It was the 2017 election that changed everything, but at first it was hard to see what was happening. The event was announced with terrifying authoritarian fanfare. ‘Every vote for the Conservatives,’ she said, ‘will make me stronger.’ The energy-vampire, swelling itself on a million willing sacrifices. Give me power! Give me life! A Schmittian sovereign, here to exercise the popular will with her limitless power to decide, inhaling blood and sweat. ‘There should be unity here in Westminster,’ she said, ‘but instead there is division. The country is coming together,’ she said, ‘but Westminster is not.’ Across the country, the stolid yeoman folk of England perform mass synchronised maypole dances around the eaten cake – and why aren’t you keeping time? And then, in two short months, it all fell apart.

She wouldn’t debate, she cringed when voters confronted her in the street, she spoke in front of tiny rallies while Corbyn was mobbed everywhere he went. It’s nice to pretend that it’s her nasty reactionary politics that were unpopular, but that’s not really true. Her politics were popular; they’re still popular today. It wasn’t that she was hollow inside: we like hollow flashy politicians with no substance. The problem was that the shell of Theresa May wasn’t empty enough. There was a little hermit crab in there, all claws and angles, and it was weird. We watched her gurn and grimace, and we could not love her.

Since then, it’s been humiliation after humiliation. Her Parliamentary majority vanished. Her throat caved in. Scenery collapsed around her. She suffered historic defeats in the Commons, and African schoolchildren laughed in her face when she tried to dance. She ended up in front of Downing Street, still notionally the most powerful person in the country, resigning in tears. Her own party hate her, in the cruel, spiny way that an overgrown schoolboy hates his own mother. The press hate her, in the hazy, slurring way that a professional fantasist hates all of invertebrate reality. And everyone else too. The electorate, the donors, the Europeans, the BBC studio audiences, the stalks of wheat bristling in the fields. As it turns out, people have an almost instinctual horror of Theresa May.

Henri Bergson, in his theory of laughter, suggests that we find animals funny ‘because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression’ – a dog trying to walk on two legs, or with some recognisable plaintiveness or eagerness in its face – and that we find people funny when they behave like machines. ‘The laughable element consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity… the rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ Theresa May is a person who behaves like a machine.

It was there from the start, in her favourite awful tautology: Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It was there in her glum repetition, strong and stable, strong and stable, a computer stuttering as its circuits are deactivated one by one. She submitted the same Brexit bill to Parliament three hundred and twelve times, and each time it was rejected, and each time she tried again. When she has private meetings with MPs, instead of actually talking to them she writes what she wants to say on a piece of paper, and reads it out in front of them. The Guardian‘s sketchwriter started calling her the Maybot, and it stuck – because she’s not like other people, because there’s only a mechanical clunking behind her eyes.

But Bergson never noticed what happens when you run the sequence backwards. A machine that behaves like a human; a living doll, a creepy figure stalking the uncanny valley. A human that behaves like an animal; blind, grunting, savage instinct, where there should be thoughts and words. What these things inspire is horror. And as much as she was laughed at, there was always something deeply unsettling about May. A tic is something both animal and mechanical. A shudder in the gears, a flash of the wetness inside a living creature’s mouth. It turned the smooth fascist ideal of Brexit Britain into rotting flesh; it turned Mummy into the clockwork mother-thing whose wheels scream in the night.

* * *

So it’s not surprising that the dominant answer to the question of whether it’s ok to feel sorry for her seems to be a loud, bitter no. You can’t consider her on a merely human level, because she isn’t human. She’s the tens of thousands immiserated by austerity, women abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Windrush generation humiliated, surging right-wing street violence, Grenfell in flames. She’s a hostile environment. She’s tendons and rust.

And she is all of these things. But this is precisely why she might be the most human politician we’ve had. A human is not good; a human is a monster, an awful assemblage of animal and machine. In the Greek origin myth, Epimetheus gives the animals their attributes, sharp claws or wings or poison-tipped spears, but by the time he gets to us there’s nothing left. This is why Prometheus has to step in and give us fire and language and culture: we can’t live without machines. And we’re taking our revenge: one by one, the other animals are vanishing. Our true face is the grey face of the ticcing thing, the naked disaster, incompetent and despised.

Nobody likes looking in an unexpected mirror. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for the great ugly weirdos of the world; that’s fine. My problem is with the implicit commandment against sympathy, the point where I don’t becomes you can’t. For the left, it is politically unacceptable to feel sorry for Theresa May. As if there’s a ration-card system for human feelings. As if feeling sorry for her means diminishing your stock of sympathy for all the numberless people whose worlds she’s destroyed. As if you could measure someone’s moral worth by whether they feel sorry for the wrong kind of people. Watch your own feelings, citizen: make sure you’re only feeling bad for the correct designated victims. All this strikes me as not just misguided, but actively deranged.

The thing about sympathy is that it’s involuntary. Theresa May doesn’t deserve my sympathy, but she has it – and if you can only feel sympathy for the people that deserve it, what you have isn’t sympathy at all, just an opinion. I can’t see a person who lost everything – not because of blind chance, or because someone else took it from her, but simply because of what she was – and not feel sorry for her. And there’s something desperate in all these professions of indifference. People training themselves not to care, because they’re seized with the mad idea that how you feel is a question of political duty. People installing a GCHQ listening station inside their own heads. It’s a cruelty that’s not too different from Mayism itself, which taught the country not to feel sorry for the foreigners, the scroungers, the asylum seekers, the shouty metropolitan young people, because they were the wrong type.

Of course, it’s possible I’m being played here. Is this just what power looks like now? May is gone, and the dark hulking teddy-bear shape of Boris Johnson squats heavy on the horizon. Here he is, stuck on a zipline. Here he is, falling into a pond. Here he is, accidentally reeling off a series of obsolete racial slurs in a speech to the United Nations. It’s not his fault, he’s just a bit clumsy and a bit out of touch. Don’t you feel sorry for him?