Theresa May’s Trumpian statement was reminiscent of a sovereign dictator

The Prime Minister has aligned herself with an anti-liberal tradition in which executive power overrides all else. 

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In December, Theresa May’s government became the first in modern parliamentary history to be declared in “contempt of parliament” for failing to publish the full legal advice on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. On Wednesday, May made it clear that she holds parliament in contempt.  

After her long-awaited statement, the Prime Minister occupied broadcast news slots to tell the people not why she had to resign, but why she had to stay: “You are tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows,” she said.  “You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side.”

The political game May was referring to is liberal parliamentarianism; the arcane procedural rows are those of representative democracy. The people, on whose side she claimed to be, is the sovereign British will – as interpreted through the will of the Prime Minister.

In Westminster’s model of democracy, sovereignty belongs to parliament and the people speak through their representatives. Political parties forge a link between representatives and the represented.

The role of executive power – the power that the Prime Minister holds – is to execute the will of the people. Divisions in parliament, including those that result in bitter fights, reflect the diversity of the citizenry. There is not a single will of the people; instead, parliament has processes and rules that help shape and define a will from a multitude of interests.

May’s speech made a mockery of these principles. She appealed to the will of the people as a group that is distinct from its elected representatives. In doing so, she aligned herself with a very different, anti-liberal tradition of thought about people and politicians. This tradition prioritises executives over legislatures. It aims to concentrate rather than separate powers. It is about speaking to the people directly, without the mediation of parties. It makes claims to a unitary will of the nation, rather than the different principles and views that citizens hold.

The fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt studied how these political conditions flower in states of exception. In extraordinary circumstances, parliamentary liberalism, with all the intricacies of voting procedures, committee work, suggested amendments, planned meetings and debates will only produce confusion and delay.

Schmitt argued that a sovereign is the person who decides on whether a political situation constitutes a state of exception. Brexit is a state of exception – or, at least, that is how May paints it. The deadline is approaching, the country is paralysed, the people are divided, and parliament still continues to debate.

Schmitt explained that a normal legal course of action is of no help in the state of exception. In moments of crisis, appealing to existing legal mechanisms can obstruct effective action. Established practices and conventions will most likely fail.

The Roman republic had a name for the institution that could resolve this impasse: it was called a dictatorship. For Schmitt, dictatorship in modern circumstances is sovereign dictatorship, which requires the executive to intervene and replace the sovereignty of parliament with their own.

A decisive, charismatic leader is needed, one who is in tune with the real needs of the political community, who can stand above the law or suspend its normal course of action and act swiftly to promote the higher interests of the nation.

If there is no unanimity in the community, a strong leader will have to create it. If that leader must rely on the desires of only one party to interpret what the entire community wants, that is what is required. That is what it takes to rule in exceptional circumstances. That is what strong and stable leadership looks like.

May spoke on Wednesday in the manner of a sovereign dictator. She said the people have had enough. She urged MPs to decide. But the MPs have already decided, more than once, albeit not on the course that she desires. Instead of resigning to give way to a different interpretation of the will of the people, she implied hers is the only plausible route.

Her words and rhetoric were evocative of those that Donald Trump has used to dismiss the Supreme Court and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán uses to dismiss civil society. It is the same rhetoric with which Louis Bonaparte dismissed the French National Assembly in 1851. In a country once named the “mother of parliaments”, May was the executive unbound.

In exceptional circumstances of crisis, the liberal conflict of interests cannot be contained by compromise between parties. This is a staple theme in conservative writings on liberalism. A sovereign dictator is needed, one that speaks with one voice and in the name of the people.

The institution of sovereign dictatorship can bring an end to liberal crisis. But, as Schmitt teaches us, it usually also heralds the beginning of fascism.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship