Theresa May. Photo: Getty
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Why is Theresa May so popular? Because she's not ashamed to be "basic"

She couldn’t encapsulate contemporary British culture better if she’d been designed by Simon Cowell and a BBC pre-watershed commissioning committee.

When I first arrived in England from Sudan in the mid noughties, slightly bewildered and armed with little cultural preparation apart from a diet of BBC World Service radio, nineteenth century literature and old video tapes of Top of the Pops, the country crashed into me. It was so much to take in. And the thought that my fluency in the English language and passing familiarity with British culture via whatever little media or literature had filtered through was any sort of cushion was immediately laughable. One can be able to name British radio newsreaders but still think that 'taking the piss' means to go to the actual loo. That was humbling.

And so I crash-coursed. I binged on Britain 101. I watched back episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Keeping Up Appearances, Monty Python and The Fast Show and Coupling and all of Derek and Clive (on tapes, on a Walkman). As a student, I lived in London council estates and sat in musty pre-smoking ban pubs where you couldn’t get a skinny chip let alone a chunky triple fried one, talking to anyone I could.

The country that unfolded itself before me was not the staid Bush House tones of the BBC but something anarchic, edgy and almost infinitely layered. There was no X Factor, no great Great British Bake-Off. Big Brother had just started and was actually an exciting experiment. It's mind boggling to think that this was all just over ten years ago. The concept of ‘basic’ didn't exist, really because the essence of basicness didn’t exist, that is, a derivative unimaginative reproduced pattern of middlebrow tastes and consumption. I arrived in England when having a Starbucks pumpkin latte, if you could find a Starbucks, was a massively exciting indulgence. What do you mean it’s basic? It’s £5.30! And is a coffee that tastes like pumpkin! What sort of pretentious killjoy are you to not appreciate that? Nothing was ‘cheeky’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’ - most things were just a pleasure if you could afford them. It was right after Cool Britannia and before there was such a thing as a Michelin-starred pub.

Just as I settled in and the country became more familiar to me, it began hurtling very fast in a different direction - one where hyper-capitalism fused with a nominal Englishness to create a huge pool of middlebrow culture, and before I knew it, there was a whole other evolution that I had to track. What was unfolding was a culture that seemed increasingly samey, cynical and designed to appeal to the comforting nostalgia of tweeness while also playing it safe and rolling out barely serviceable offerings. What I’m trying to say is, and you can be forgiven for not seeing where I was going with this, I get Theresa May.

I get Theresa May and I get why others get Theresa May. Sure, much of the left sees her as a monster. I am an immigrant who lived under May’s Home Office, you don’t need to tell me. But she is of the country now in a way that makes so much sense if you just look at from outside the realm of political and policy and through the prism of economic consumption patterns and popular culture. 

You see, May is that hugely popular sitcom that is also painfully and bafflingly unfunny and which everyone claims they never watch. Clearly someone is watching it and lying about it. Her script is obvious and hammy. Her set-ups you can see a mile away. The audience laughter isn’t only canned, it’s frozen. That is May, she is Miranda and Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys and the kid who won X Factor because his grandmother died and a cheeky Pizza Express on a Friday and a 3D Marvel comics movie at the local multiplex where you experience a lot but feel nothing. She couldn’t be more contemporary British culture if she’d been designed by Simon Cowell and a BBC pre-watershed commissioning committee.

That isn't to say that one can’t enjoy Miranda and not be a Tory (although I would like to say to, but alas I do not have the research to back it up), but that you do not need to be a Tory to like Theresa May. 

In the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh observed that ‘May could easily have a people: middle-class, suburban-to-provincial, plain in taste, respectably right-wing, unnerved but not unhinged by modernity.’ This is true but still vastly underestimates her appeal. She has bridged the gap, stepping widely in some look-I-have-a-personality-shoes, to land a foot in the camp of the right wing, and those who do not have any strong political beliefs either way, but find May a plain enough canvas on which to project.

She is an avatar animated by the electorate’s tastes and lack of adventurism in a febrile time, something which she is aware of, and therefore ensures she never says anything unscripted. Her pedigree is perfect. She is Oxbridge without being a chinless Bullingdon buffoon, a woman and thus enough of a break from the usual fare without being too alternative, entitled without being reckless and thus unpredictable. She is a little bit old fashioned with her ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ jobs, but also a little bit modern with her leather trousers and quirky fashion. She is the banal patriotism for whatever the country represents, without the actual love. She is a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mug. She is today’s Britain 101. 

So many on the left don’t see it, rightly observing that May has little tangible substance and is quite possibly incompetent, and blaming the inability to take her on on Corbyn or a ‘crisis of the left’. But it is all much more sweeping than that. May captures a moment in the country’s history that has been taking shape for years and she will rule for many many seasons. Brexit was the country’s last act of political animation before it settles down to a cheeky Nando's in front of Gogglebox.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear