Tory activists last week were heard to refer to Mrs May as ‘Mummy’. No Corbynista calls their hero ‘Dad’. The human race is guided by myth as much as by logic, and mythology explains people to themselves more vividly than economics. The agony expressed in the liberal intelligent press is understandable. The sensible people who all voted Remain direct much of their fury against the Corbynistas who have taken over the Labour party. Fair enough. Interestingly, however, they attend so closely to what Tony Benn liked to call ‘the ish-oos’ that they ignore the bigger mythological picture.
Last summer the country voted — very unwisely according to the sensible 48 per cent — in favour of Brexit. Times of great collective crisis summon up the blood, create responses which are not entirely rational. While the sensible people wonder how many decades of negotiation will be necessary before we can agree on the necessary tariff for a new Mercedes-Benz or a slab of Camembert, their fellow Britons are in a ‘different galaxy’, perhaps the same meteorite on which sat the Victorian painter Dyce when he depicted Neptune surrendering his sceptre to Britannia — a picture which Prince Albert commissioned for that mythological imperial mother, Queen Victoria. It became her favourite painting.
The British flourish under female leaders. Marlborough’s armies marched to victory for Queen Anne, just as God had blown with his winds and scattered the Armada for the Virgin Queen Elizabeth. The left has consistently failed to understand the mythological psychic power of the female leader. No woman has yet stood a chance of being the Labour leader. The very phrase ‘Blair’s Babes’ cringe-makingly made the point that women were seen by the supposedly sensible people, post-1997, as subservient to the chaps who, in their open-necked shirts, were busy ‘kicking ass’ like the spiv City slickers they all aspired to resemble. The Blairites made no appeal to the imagination — no more do the Corbynistas.
The apolitical British, however, like a warrior queen. Mrs Thatcher was hated and derided as prime minister until General Galtieri invaded the Malvinas. Once she had sent the task force to the South Atlantic, however, the bossyboots of Finchley plumbed the wells of mother worship and nanny reverence which lurks in the British collective unconscious. Some would think it was a collective nostalgia for the pre-Reformation period when England was ‘Mary’s Dowry’ and the King walked barefoot to Walsingham. Certainly Queen Elizabeth, almost blasphemously, exploited these memories. Perhaps it goes back even further, to the era when we worshipped the goddesses of the Northern Theogony — Freya and Erda — and when our slain in war awaited the arrival of Valkyries to carry us to Valhalla.
Theresa May, while she was home secretary, and even when she was a candidate in last summer’s leadership election, seemed an unlikely figure to call forth these essentially visceral, irrational responses.
Why unlikely? Because the emotions I am describing are not sensible and she is patently very sensible. The extravagant collection of shoes, and the controversial leather trousers — so often derided by political commentators and fashion editors — could be seen as attempts to dispel, or at best modify, her sensible image, though I think that judgment overlooks something which we are sometimes too delicate to spell out. This is that — in contrast to some of the other women who have dominated British public life in the last half century — she exudes erotic appeal. Sex appeal is not quite the same as the big mythological draw which was summoned up by, say, Golda Meir or Queen Victoria, but the two are in some way connected.
The Muse of History descends from Heaven and transforms public figures, like a fresco painter turning events into allegory. Had the Labour party had its wits about it, and elected Yvette Cooper as its leader, even she — brisk Balliol graduate of the cropped hair as she may be — could have been in the running for such a transformation. As it was, Destiny chose to touch with its finger the commonsense St Hugh’s geographer. Once this had happened, it became clear that Theresa had ‘It’. You might disagree with much of what she says, but you would be peculiarly insensitive not to have noticed that her voice, the skin, the eyes are all sending signals — whether it is done voluntarily or not does not matter. You can’t invent this quality — she simply has it. This is one of the reasons why the cartoonists who depict her as a beaky-nosed harridan completely fail to capture her essence.
Mrs May will have struck very many pundits, when she came forward as the successor to David Cameron, as a dull person. Her speeches often sound wooden and repetitive. As well as having sex appeal, however, she has been blessed with enemies which a politician could only dream of. As if it was not enough for her to be pitted in the hustings against the hopeless Corbyn, Jean-Claude Juncker lurched, belching over the threshold of Downing Street to transform this busy suburban woman into the Virgin Queen addressing the troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada enters the Channel.
Mrs May must have found it hard to believe her luck. Here was a Galtieri moment, in which she could step forward as the British warrior queen — without the painful necessity of committing a war crime by sinking a Belgrano full of Argentinian teenagers.
Theresa May, who is a politician to her fingertips, can add five marginal seats to her list of Labour scalps every time Juncker opens his mouth to insist on the rights of ‘the 27 member states’. His baiting of her is so clumsy that even those such as myself who voted Remain find ourselves responding strangely to her replies. Our ears hear her repeating the same slightly stilted speech she made on 50 previous news bulletins. Some inner force, however, has turned down the volume, and we find we are listening to Elizabeth at Tilbury.
‘Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects.’ That famous speech in the summer of the Armada has found echoes in many of May’s speeches, from the first as Prime Minister, in which she promised to look after the interests of those who were just getting by, to the repeated election promises to be strong and stable. She is quite definitely one who would ‘think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my Realm’.
Some historians think that Elizabeth knew, even as she made this speech, that the Armada had already been blown off course, and the danger of invasion was nil. This resembles Mrs May’s telling her supporters that they must regard the likelihood of a Corbyn victory as a serious threat.
Juncker will have plenty of fun in the next two years putting a spanner in the works, but for the time being Mummy sweeps onwards, borne in heavenly chariots, floating above painted clouds.