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The May Doctrine

The Prime Minister on Brexit, Trump, the return of the state and enticing Labour supporters to vote Tory.

1. The Smart State

Quiet resolve: if you read Theresa May’s speeches carefully, you will notice that it’s a recurring phrase she uses when explaining the motivation for Brexit. With “quiet resolve”, the Prime Minister likes to say, the British people voted to leave the European Union. It’s also a phrase that could characterise her unflashy approach to politics and, more specifically, to the premiership-making-or-breaking task of delivering Brexit. Talk to May – perhaps the most inscrutable politician to reach 10 Downing Street in modern times and the first sitting home secretary to become prime minister since Lord Palmerston in 1855 – and certain words and phrases repeat in her conversation: civic duty, responsibility, playing by the rules, the common good.

In May’s speech to the 2002 Conservative party conference – through which she first came to national prominence – she called her party “nasty” and complained that Tony Blair’s Labour government, which had won its second landslide election victory the year before, had borrowed “some of our rhetoric”. Something similar could be said in reverse of May’s discourse since becoming prime minister – because, with its echoes of some of the pro-state interventionist rhetoric of Ed Miliband and Vince Cable, it is strikingly different from what we have come to expect from the Conservatives.

David Cameron came to the leadership eager to soften the image of the Tories. In his early tree-hugging, hoody-embracing, Notting Hill-inflected phase, he announced with considerable banality that there was such a thing as society, as if anyone doubted it, but: “It’s just not the same thing as the state.” For all its soft-focus social liberalism, Cameron’s government was resolutely “neo­liberal”, determined to cut back the state and reduce public spending to 35 per cent of GDP. In power, bolstered by the Liberal Democrats, he and his chancellor, George Osborne, were doctrinaire austerians but also liberal globalisers, with an open immigration policy and mercantilist foreign policy. Osborne was also a self-described “liberal interventionist”.

May is moving the Tories in a different direction, and the public and her party are warming to her in a way they never did with Cameron. Tory MPs say that, unlike her predecessor, she has a “people” and she is far more at ease with the average Tory activist than the Cameroons were (one could always imagine them muttering about “swivel-eyed loons” as they left a village fete). It was emblematic that, when May sacked George Osborne at the start of her premiership, she is reported to have told him to get to know the party better.

The vote for Brexit has unlocked possibilities for her and created an opportunity, she believes, for a new political economy. It was Brexit that opened the door of 10 Downing Street to her, not least because the alternatives – Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove – were so wayward and divisive.

Unlike Boris Johnson, who seems to have no consistent or coherent world-view, Theresa May believes in an interventionist, even moral, state. “The key thing about her is her belief in the efficacy and, so to speak, compensatory function of the state, the important positive functions – you might even say the moral functions of the state,” said the philosopher John Gray, whose recent New Statesman essays have been read with interest in No 10.

 

***

 

When I visited Theresa May one recent morning in her office in Downing Street, we discussed her trip to Davos, Switzerland, in January. In an address to the World Economic Forum, she told the citizens of the world gathered high in the Alps that “those on modest-to-low incomes living in relatively rich countries around the West” feel that the forces of globalisation are not working for them, hence the “quiet resolve” protest vote for Brexit.

I asked what she meant by the phrase, which carries an implicit suggestion of approval, as if people had risen up against those who would suppress or deceive them. Indeed, I asked her, given the resilience of the British economy, which according to the Bank of England’s revised forecasts is expected to grow by 2 per cent this year, whether she regretted not voting for Brexit, so completely had she embraced it. She smiled and said she never answered “hypothetical questions like that” but conceded that, much to the irritation of the liberal wing of her party and the 48 per cent of Britons who voted for the status quo, a “clean” Brexit was necessary and irreversible. There would be no turning back.

May referred to a speech she gave in April 2016, at the start of the referendum campaign. “What I said was, ‘This is a balanced judgement.’ The sky will not fall in if we leave the European Union, and it hasn’t. And this is where the ‘resolve’ comes in, the sense that a lot of people voted for Brexit because they believed in this, they wanted us to feel that we were a sovereign, independent nation, not dependent on decisions taken elsewhere, and they felt that that might bring some problems, but that we would get over them. And that was, if you like, that – and that we would come through stronger. That’s what I’m trying to capture in how we look at this. And the overwhelming view I get from the public, from business, is that, whichever side of the debate people were on before 23 June, the decision’s been made, so let’s get on with it. This is what I meant by the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’.”

My meeting with Theresa May took place a few days after she had returned from her trip to visit Donald Trump in the White House and just as she was preparing to leave for an informal EU summit in Malta. She considers her trip to the US to have been a resounding success, despite Trump’s best attempts to undermine it with the timing of his nefarious executive order seeking to ban refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering America. At a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on the way back from the US, May equivocated when she was asked about the so-called Muslim ban, as if the question had surprised her.

“From memory, I was specifically asked about the refugees,” she told me. “I made the point but in a slightly different way, which is: we have a different approach to this, which, if you like, is saying we don’t do it like that! And we’re not going to do it like that. We do it the way the UK does.”

To many Britons, May’s visit to Trump so soon after his inauguration and the sight of them walking hand in hand were distasteful. Tens of thousands of people marched in London and elsewhere to protest against Trump’s ban and his planned trip to the UK.  But May reaffirmed that the president’s state visit would go ahead. “The invitation has been given and accepted. The relationship we have with the US is very important. And it’s partly because of the nature of the relationship that we can say to them if we don’t agree with something, we can say that openly to them.”

She had not met Trump before the visit and had no prior expectations, despite the many severe doubts expressed by others about his temperament and character. “I’d only seen him on television. Somebody asked me this [if he had lived up to expectations] the other day and I said I’m not the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, I’m going to meet X and they’re going to be A, B, C, D and E, and how am I going to react?’ I just meet them and take them as I find them.”

May is too cautious and pragmatic to condemn the US president, but nor will she commend him. Her approach to Trump’s White House should surely be the same as her approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, on which she said she “wants sanctions to remain”: engage but beware.

 

This is the cover story from this week's New Statesman, on sale from 9 February. For access to the full issue, subscribe here.

 

***

Since the start of the year, when she was mocked on the cover of the Economist as “Theresa Maybe”, Britain’s “indecisive premier”, May has delivered three major speeches – at Lancaster House in London, in Davos and in Philadelphia – which, read together, offer a coherent exposition of what is an emerging May Doctrine. The May Doctrine has three pillars: a new realism in foreign policy; the return of the state in domestic affairs; and social and economic reform leading to a renewed commitment to social cohesion and the common good.

In the Lancaster House speech on 17 January, the Prime Minister confirmed to her audience of diplomats and journalists (I was present) that Britain would leave the European single market and the customs union and take back control of its borders. The speech was praised by Brexiteers, and also in Brussels, where diplomats liked its clarity and the fact that she wasn’t asking for something complicated. How­ever, May has also faced strong criticism over her Brexit strategy, some of it from within her party. On 1 February, in the Commons debate on Article 50, George Osborne suggested that the government had chosen “not to make the economy the priority”. Instead, he said, “They have prioritised immigration control.”

I read the former chancellor’s remarks to May when we met but she pushed back against them. “One of the problems with this debate about Brexit is that people look at too many aspects of it in a binary way,” she said. “They are thinking about this in terms of the power that we’ve had as a member of the EU.”

What is required is a different approach, she told me.

“What we say is: what is the outcome that we want to achieve? And it is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that.”

Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, believes that rather than choosing a “hard” – the Prime Minister prefers “clean” – Brexit, May should have tilted more towards those who voted Remain. She should have pursued what he calls “an economically optimal deal, something like Norway but a bit different, where we would more or less have been in the single market with a little bit of restriction on free movement”.

Grant told me that the Prime Minister might have failed, but at least she would have tried. “She didn’t want to invest any political capital in an economically optimal outcome because she might have failed and it would have been embarrassing. So she has gone for a hard Brexit, which she knows is not really good for our economy but the politics come first. But Britain is in a very weak position. As soon as you activate Article 50, the clock is ticking. Therefore diplomacy matters. To get a half-decent deal, you need the goodwill of your partners.”

It is said in Brussels that Theresa May is not a natural diplomat. In meetings and phone conversations with European partners, she is reported to stick rigidly to her speaking notes. “She may not realise how weak her hand is,” Grant said.

May does not accept that her negotiating position is weak. Yet, even if she did, she wouldn’t say so. “The reason I don’t feel I have a weak hand is because this isn’t just about us, it’s also about the remaining member states of the European Union. If you look at the issues around trade, they will have interests in that, as well. If you look around some of the other aspects of the strategic partnership we want and the co-operation we want, they will have interests in this, as well. This isn’t just about the UK as a supplicant to the EU, it’s about arranging a partnership that works for all of us.”

Perhaps May under-appreciates just how embattled the remaining 27 EU member states are feeling. Not only has the bloc been destabilised by the eurozone and refugee crises and by the vote for Brexit, anti-immigrant populist and ethnic nationalist movements are also sweeping the continent. President Trump, who leads what the conservative American commentator David Brooks describes as not a Republican but an ethnic nationalist administration, unapologetically wants the European project to fail.

In this context, agreeing a mutually beneficial free trade deal with the British might be in the best economic interests of the EU27, but would it be in their political interest? Why should they make it easy for the British, who by leaving the EU are, in the view of the Brussels elites, wilfully weakening the rules-based liberal order?

Worse still, the British have rushed to embrace Trump. According to Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist challenger for the French presidency, Britain is becoming a “vassal state”. In such circumstances, why wouldn’t the EU punish us?

“Well, there has been some language of punishment,” May said, her tone unvaryingly measured and cautious. “But what I’m seeing is, over time, a slightly different approach is being taken . . . There is an issue for the European Union [in relation to its disintegration]. We want to see it remain strong. It’s in our interest to continue to have a good strategic relationship with a strong European Union. And as I also hinted in my Lancaster House speech, the members do need, perhaps, to look at the Brexit vote and think about whether they need to reform the way they approach things. You mentioned the issue of what people often call the populist parties. This is about people saying that there are issues for them that they want their politicians to respond to. It’s so important for mainstream politicians to recognise that and to respond.”

I suggested that these issues are to do with identity, belonging and security.

“Yes, those issues,” May said. “And also the economic impact, of what’s happened in terms of the way the world operates economically these days, people feeling that somehow they’ve been left behind.”

May is committed to reducing the UK’s annual net migration from more than 330,000 to the tens of thousands, which is why her desire to restrict intra-European migration is so fundamental. “We have always been a welcoming country,” she said, “but we want to bring immigration down to sustainable levels. There is evidence – I know people argue about this – but there is a displacement of jobs, and you can see an impact on people, particularly at the lower end of the income scale.

“The Labour Party has abandoned many people who have traditionally supported it. Because it hasn’t responded to their concerns on things like the impact of immigration on lower income levels.”

***

Many people I know were offended when, in her conference speech last year, May said: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Was this an attack on deracinated cosmopolitans, on those whom the writer Pico Iyer calls “global souls”?

“What I was saying was more about [how] people should have a root in a community, should have a feeling that they are part of a community and that they have responsibilities in a community,” May told me. “I was talking about the concept that you can be around the whole world and not have those responsibilities anywhere. I wasn’t getting at a particular grouping or individual . . . Recently there’s been a sense that all that matters is the individual, rather than their responsibilities to other people. I think we need to redress that balance.”

Some of May’s closest aides call her “a new model conservative”. She is neither a Thatcherite nor an old-style One Nation Macmillanite Tory. Her cabinet is more meritocratic than Cameron’s (it is the most state-educated since the Attlee government), older and more serious-minded. She does not tolerate fools or frivolity, though she does have a nicely modulated sense of humour. She said she would not call an early general election and she did not – a notable contrast with the game-playing of Gordon Brown when he became prime minister.

May is not an ideologue but she aspires to be a consensus-breaker, as Margaret Thatcher was before her. In many ways, she is our first post-Thatcherite prime minister, even a post-liberal, but not an anti-liberal: she embraces the liberal reforms of the past two decades, such as gay marriage, and has never said a word against them. To the bewilderment of many on both the left and the right, she is intent on breaking with the orthodoxies of neoliberalism, but
from the right.

“To me, May is a communitarian,” said Ryan Shorthouse, the director of the right-leaning think tank Bright Blue. “She has moved left economically and to the right socially. She doesn’t like excessive individualism and is putting the state central in reforming society. She recognises that globalisation and liberalism have downsides.”

Elected to the House of Commons in 1997, May, the grammar-school-educated daughter of a vicar who grew up in an Oxfordshire vicarage and who was an only child, is not considered to be clubbable in the way that Cameron and Osborne were, with their gilded extended network of like-minded, well-born friends in politics and the media: the so-called chumocracy. “May won the leadership race by not being close to anyone or any faction,” Shorthouse told me. “She isn’t part of any tribe. Cameron had his think tanks, like Policy Exchange, and his journalists, and those who were ideologically loyal to him. But May is an independent figure. There are no Mayites. She’s hard to pin down. As home secretary, she took on the police but also wants to cut down on immigration. She gives a bit to every wing of the party. It makes her vulnerable if the heat is on.”

Because of her relative isolation, May’s closest aides are extraordinarily loyal to and protective of her, and their loyalty – one of them told me that he would “run through a brick wall for her” – is fundamental to understanding her style.

If May, who is 60, succeeds in creating a new political economy combining greater social mobility with enhanced social justice, she will condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s party to electoral oblivion, because, as she told me several times, she intends directly to appeal to disillusioned Labour voters, those who feel let down or abandoned by the party’s turn to the radical left. The Tories are expected to win the Copeland by-election on 23 February, which would be the first time the governing party has a gained a seat in a by-election since 1982.

“I hope there are Labour voters out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it.’ I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”

Listening to May, who delights in reminding Labour that the Tories have had two women prime ministers, speak about the need to create a society “that works for everyone, not just the few”, is to understand that her threat to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven if the EU seeks to “punish” her government for opting for a hard Brexit is no more than a transparent negotiating gambit. Although many on the right yearn for such an outcome, she does not.

“I don’t think we will get there [Britain becoming an offshore tax haven], but I think it needs to be clear: if it [a lack of a deal] did happen, this is what we would do. But I don’t think we’ll get to that point because I think it is in everybody’s interest to find an arrangement, to find a partnership between us that actually meets the needs on both sides. Because there are two sides to this. It isn’t just about what happens to the UK but also about what happens in terms  of economics and manufacturers and others in the European Union.”

2. The Common Good

So far, the rhetorical positioning has been matched by policy initiatives that the Prime Minister’s critics say are modest and incremental at best. She seemed irritated to hear this. “I don’t know which particular policies they’re thinking about, but they’re not modest or incremental,” she said. “Look at the industrial strategy. There have always been industrial policies, but this is an industrial strategy that says, ‘This is about a whole government approach, about looking across the whole country to ensure that we’re making the best of the expertise and the advantages that different parts of the country have, but ensuring that we are seeing that growth spread.”

May believes not that government is the problem, as Ronald Reagan once declared, heralding the neoliberal era, but that it is and should be a force for the common good. In her 2016 conference speech in Birmingham, she denounced the templates of both the socialist left and the libertarian right. I asked what it was about the libertarian right that bothered her. “I suppose it’s the concept that it’s only the individual who matters, that there is no common good, if you like. To me, conservatives have always believed in the common good.”

John Bew, the author of Citizen Clem, an acclaimed biography of Clement Attlee, believes that May is closer to offering “some kind of Attleeite new deal for Britain” than any Labour leader for a generation. (May is an admirer of Attlee and referenced him in her 2016 conference speech, but doesn’t think in such terms.) “Her cool-headed realism now as Brexit hysteria dies down,” Bew told me, “chimes with the mood of Britain, which is why she is doing so well in the polls. Some of it has landed accidentally in her lap . . . But she appeals to a fair-minded, moderate majority. Her vision does not require great virtue from the private citizen like the ‘big society’ – she wants to let people get on with their lives but for the powerful to play by the rules, too. All this is very British in spirit. But is this new credo fit for purpose in this changing world?”

Too often, during the last Conservative government, it seemed as if the poorest were carrying the greatest burden of austerity, as well as being penalised and harassed for minor benefit infringements, while the wealthiest operated by different rules, indifferent to the struggles of the majority. Yet for May, if the common good means anything, it means business recognising its sense of responsibility to wider society.

“There has been a breakdown in trust,” she said. “Wages have been stagnant but there are other aspects to it, too. There’s been a breakdown in trust in institutions that have always formed the core of our society. There’s a sense that business somehow has been playing by a different set of rules, which is unfair. Tax avoidance is one of the issues. I’m trying to show business the importance of recognising the roots in community and the impact that decisions have on a community. What I’m talking about is a wider sharing and signs of solidarity. I don’t tend to think about terms like a new social contract between the state and the citizen, but I do speak about responsibilities. There needs to be a new recognition of the role that the state can play. And the separate responsibilities of the different players that make up our whole society and our economy and the role they have to play in forging a new and different future.”

Her instincts are classically Tory on defence and security issues but no one close to her doubts her sincerity in wanting improved corporate governance and a fairer deal for the ordinary worker, for those who are “just about managing”. As it happens, she did not use this phrase once during our conversation, and I’ve heard that she was furious when, early in her premiership, a civil servant referred to this group by the acronym “Jam” in a written report. May crossed it out and instructed that the acronym should not be used again. Unfortunately for her, it is now in wide circulation.

May is interested in the primacy of social cohesion, John Gray told me. “Of all of the things I note in everything she says – if you think of not just those liberal philosophers like Rawls, but even people like David Cameron – the key thing that they want to deliver is greater consumer choice or greater choice. What she seems to want to deliver is greater opportunities for the good life. And she’s not representing the good life as just increased consumer choice.”

Essential to May’s conception of the common good is the preservation of the Union. “We get so much benefit from being together,” she said. “Look at Scotland and the position it would be in because of what has happened to the oil price, for example, after the referendum. Look at the current polling evidence in Scotland. It shows that the Scottish people don’t want a referendum. And they don’t want independence.”

Should Nicola Sturgeon stop threatening a second referendum? “The vote took place in 2014, which I seem to recall everybody including the SNP said was a ‘once in a generation’ vote. It was clear that Scotland wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. I want to negotiate a deal that is good for all parts of the United Kingdom. Further powers have been devolved. One of the decisions we’ll have to take as part of the Brexit work is where there are currently decisions being made in Brussels, should those return to the UK or be further devolved.”

3. The New Realism

Theresa May’s Philadelphia speech was the most significant on foreign policy by a British prime minister since Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in April 1999, in which in the aftermath of the Nato intervention in Kosovo he fervently defended Western values and made the “moral” case for remaking the world and becoming “actively involved in other people’s conflicts”.

But in Philadelphia, May emphatically broke with liberal interventionism, saying that we should not “attempt to remake the world in our own image”. The speech was misread by some at first as a statement of classic Tory foreign policy restraint and retreat. It was not. The speech made clear that her foreign policy would not be amoral or ethically neutral. Nor would it be “idealist” or universalist, as Blair’s was. Rather, it would be cautiously “realist”: the Prime Minister reaffirmed her commitment to free trade, to multilateral institutions such as Nato and to the rules-based liberal world order, but conceded the limits of Western liberalism, which, she said, cannot be exported or imposed by military intervention.

May and her advisers understand that liberal values are not absolutes but practices that evolve over a long time and can easily be disrupted, as is happening in Donald Trump’s America. These values cannot be merely dropped like bombs on foreign lands, as Blair and Cameron seemed to believe. May is not an advocate of a Pax Americana that is forced on the world by war.

But nor does May rule out military intervention if it should be in the national interest. “We need to put Britain’s interests first but mustn’t just assume there’s a sort of natural thing for the UK to intervene in order to change places in the way we think they should be changed,” she told me. “I’m not saying that we don’t believe that we would like to see more democratic countries, with a very clear [commitment to the] rule of law, but I think there are different ways of achieving that. I’m not ruling out the possibility of
intervention, but we do need to be very clear about when it is in British interests to do that.”

What is the UK’s role in the world? It’s a question that May believes Brexit has brought into “sharper focus”. She said: “As we leave the European Union but remain in close partnership with Europe . . . there is a role for the UK, and the US, to show leadership in the world. There is a real point of change at the moment. That was what the vote on 23 June was about. It was about leaving the EU, but there was a deeper call for change. As mainstream politicians, we need to recognise that and respond to that.”

She believes the UK should stand up for Western values of democracy and the rule of law, for the international rules-based order. “Internationally, there is a turn towards protectionism and isolationism. That is not what we want to see in the UK. We want to be outward-looking. There is a job for us in promoting free trade, to be able to show people what the benefits of that are. And, of course, it is about linking what we do in the world with how we as a government behave here in domestic policy terms.”

I discussed with Theresa May President Obama’s doctrine of “tragic realism” and his belief, influenced by the philosopher-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that there is evil in the world about which sometimes nothing can be done. In a recent interview with the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, Obama cited the celebrated opening to V S Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River, which is set in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Obama said that he thought about that line and Naipaul’s novel when “thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if  that may be true.”

“I don’t think I’d put it in the same way,” Theresa May said of the notion of tragic realism. “But we have to recognise that there are threats out there in the world that we have to deal with.” She then spoke at length about the malignancy of Isis and of Islamist terrorism more generally.

For all the criticism of her trip to Washington, DC – the historian Simon Schama called her “Theresa Appeaser” for meeting Trump – the Prime Minister was delighted that she received from the new president a renewed commitment to Nato. “When President Trump spoke particularly during the election campaign about his attitude to Nato, a lot of people started to worry about what that means: is America going to withdraw? But I got a 100 per cent commitment from him to Nato.”

She said the commitment was made from the president in private as well as at the White House press conference. “It was absolutely yes, there’s an absolute commitment there . . . I didn’t surprise him by it, no. He did say yes into the microphone when I said it. But what he explained . . . is that he’d used some phrases about Nato in the past but what he actually wanted to ensure was that Nato was shaping itself up for the future. And we agree that it needs to do more to ensure that it is able to deal with terrorism and cyber warfare, as well as conventional warfare. I agree with him that we want to see all members of Nato [honouring] their commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP [on defence].”

How toxic is Donald Trump, and how wary should the British be of him? “What I was saying to the Americans is about two things,” the Prime Minister said. “One was about the relationship between the UK and US and the strength that gives us in being able to take that leadership role and that responsibility to lead.”

Does being close to Trump’s White House mean turning away from China? “No, I don’t think so,” said May, who was encouraged by President Xi Jinping’s Davos speech, in which he defended the virtues of free trade, unsurprisingly since globalisation has helped lift 700 million Chinese out of poverty. “Obviously the White House has made certain comments about their future relationship with China, but that will be a matter for the United States. We will continue to build on the strength of our relationship that we have with China.”

May reiterated that the commitment she received on the special relationship and on Nato from President Trump was “very important, not just for our future, but the future of Europe, the security of Europe and indeed the West”.

***

Theresa May speaks of “my method”, by which she means her approach to politics, the way she likes to keep her strategic options open for as long as possible. She weighs and balances the evidence and consults with her closest advisers before acting. She considers it wise to make haste slowly and, I was told, allows the “logic of the situation” to dictate her actions. She chooses the outcome she wants and works backwards from there.

Her aides say that she is anything but indecisive, but she is deliberative: from the beginning, she understood that the referendum result was a mandate not merely to leave the EU but to reshape the economy and society. And she knew what she wanted from Brexit and that it would require Britain leaving the single market and ending freedom of movement. It was just that people refused to listen to what she was saying, or did not read her speeches attentively enough.

May aspires to create a Great Meritocracy and would be delighted if the first of the new grammar schools that she hopes to establish opened in one of the poorest areas in the country, rather than in one of the most affluent. But can her vision of a new, more equitable Britain, in which traditional Labour supporters are enticed into voting Tory, as many were in the Thatcher years, survive the strategic logic of Brexit, with its inevitable fractures and disruptions? The Prime Minister is wagering much on the goodwill of her negotiating partners. She hopes that economic self-interest will prevail over the politics of resentment.

May has a nuanced sense of the British national interest and accepts that she can’t simply have a narrow, trade-based, mercantilist approach to foreign policy. Values also matter, as her campaign against modern slavery demonstrates. In Philadelphia, she appealed directly to the better instincts of the Republican Party because, although she won’t say so, she understands how erratic and unpredictable the Trump White House is as it goads the Chinese, sweet-talks Putin, embraces protectionism and moves remorselessly towards authoritarianism.

Asked about the appointment of a senior general, Napoleon is reported to have said: “Is he lucky?” One should never underplay the role of luck in politics as in life. Theresa May is certainly fortunate in facing such a divided and demoralised opposition. But the last three Conservative prime ministers before her were, in their different ways, all ultimately brought down by Europe. Is it to be May’s destiny to settle the European question once and for all, and thus bring peace to her fractious party, or will the combined forces of Trump and Brexit destabilise the European continent and the fragile British state in ways as yet unimagined?

In his counterfactual novel The Plot Against America (2004), in which the pioneering aviator and America First nationalist Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency and begins to turn the country towards fascism, Philip Roth writes about the “terror of the unforeseen”: the unexpected event, the chance occurrence, the unimagined catastrophe that can transform all our lives.

As soon as Theresa May invokes Article 50, she will lose control of an essential aspect of her foreign policy. She will be at the mercy of events and have to rely on the pragmatic good sense and the kindness of others, by which I mean the spurned EU27. We all live with a sense of the terror of the unforeseen. Theresa May believes in the “quiet resolve” of her fellow Britons. She is optimistic about our future prosperity. She has a clear sense of the direction in which she wants to take the country and how she wishes to transform it. She knows the outcome she wants from Brexit and, after her Lancaster House speech, so does everyone else. Her competence, steeliness and method have taken her a long way, from the vicarage in Oxfordshire to 10 Downing Street. But is she lucky? And given the epic challenge of EU withdrawal, can she be more than the Brexit PM? 

Now read our quickfire questions with the Prime Minister, where she opens up on cooking, Jane Austen, and who she'd spend her last supper with.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.

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Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”

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History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”

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The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”

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The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”

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It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”

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For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine