Colin Talbot: The failing Bonapartism of Theresa May

Written by Colin Talbot on 17 October 2017 in Opinion

Napoleon Bonaparte might be a useful lens through which to understand the PM's strange balancing acts.

Like many people, I have been struggling to understand exactly what Theresa May is really about. Here’s one, very tentative, possibility.

‘Bonapartism’ is a term in politics suggesting someone – an authoritative and ultimately authoritarian figure - trying to ‘stand above’ traditional factions, classes and institutions and embody in themselves some sort of national unity or national interest.

Crucial to ‘Bonapartism’ is its combination of seemingly radical political and social reforms aimed at meeting the grievances of “the masses” whilst at the same time preserving the essential social structures and power of elites.

The term derives from analyses of the roles of Napoleon Bonaparte in the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution and his nephew Louis-Napoleon after the 1848 revolution. As such is it also about the emergence of a heroic ‘strong leader’ in a time of national crisis.

Other examples of Bonapartist political figures who tried to ‘stand above’ or balance traditional political divides and embody the ‘national interest’ are plentiful – especially in Latin America with figures like Peron. Today it has become more fashionable to call such figures ‘populists’ but is there something specific in the attempt to ‘stand above’ and seemingly negate national divisions in Bonapartism?

So why should we see Theresa May as a would-be ‘Bonapartist’ or perhaps neo-Bonapartist?

Well, she certainly emerged at a time of national crisis. The shock result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 sent tremors through the whole of British society. The Conservative Party in government appeared shattered. The only recently elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, unceremoniously departed leaving the country and Party virtually leaderless. The contenders for his replacement descended into open warfare and betrayal of one another in extraordinary scenes.

From the chaos emerged Theresa May – eventually ‘elected’ by acclaim as the ‘last woman standing’. As a nominal ‘Remainer’ in the Referendum campaign, she seemed an unlikely new leader of the newly Brexit-supporting Tory Party that had for forty years supported membership of the EU.

Her opening declarations showed all the signs of a nascent or neo-Bonapartist project.

First, she declared that ‘we are all Brexiteers now’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’. This was clearly an attempt to unite the Tory Party around acceptance of the Referendum result as a mandate (it was supposed to be advisory) and transform its attitude to the EU.

Second, though, she went much further than simply ‘doing’ Brexit and surprised everyone with her bold statements about the need to address ‘burning injustices’ and her seemingly radical social and economic reform agenda. As she settled into No.10 this theme of social reform became ever more prominent with heady discussions in the media of the Tories renaming themselves the “Workers Party” and of them having “parked their tanks on Jeremy Corbyn’s lawn”.

This all came seemingly out of nowhere – there was little evidence before her new-found social and economic radicalism? Certainly she herself had never shown much sign of such thinking.

However one of her principle political advisers – Nick Timothy – certainly had. In an obscure pamphlet – “Our Joe – Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy” – Timothy has praised and tried to rehabilitate the Radical Liberal turned Conservative politician (1836-1914).

Chamberlain began as a ‘self-made man’. He became the Liberal mayor of Birmingham and was credited with rapid and successful reforms – what some called “gas and water socialism” and he even called himself a ‘socialist’ at times (although not meaning what it dos today). Subsequently he championed the state provision of education, pensions, industrial injury compensation and industrial arbitration. He split with the Liberals over Irish Home Rule and joined with the Conservatives as a Liberal-Unionist causing Churchill to describe as moving from “Fiery Red to True Blue”.

Timothy argues in the pamphlet that Chamberlain was actually fairly consistent in supporting a “small but active state”, in the protection of property rights and above all in an appeal to the working class masses to settle their grievances and engage them into supporting the ‘national interest’, the Union, and Empire.

Timothy also notes that Chamberlain was more than willing, when necessary to both use Party-political institutions but also to break with them, or seem to stand above them, when circumstances demanded.

It is not too much of a stretch to see Timothy’s interpretation of “Our Joe” in Theresa May’s attempt to stand above traditional politics and embody the supposed ‘national interest’ in Brexit and social and economic reform in her June 2017 snap General Election campaign. Her Manifesto was packed with contradictory elements of social reformism and conservatism, all wrapped up in flag-waving nationalism.

Unfortunately for her, Theresa May’s attempt at a sort of neo-Bonapartism project over both Brexit and national social and economic reform is clearly failing.

Her attempt to hold together the warring Tory factions over Brexit has so far involved mainly kicking cans down the road – but she is rapidly running out of road.  

Her attempts at radical social reform have mainly also foundered because of (again) of Brexit, which has sucked the oxygen away from any other policies. She also displayed her own weakness both before and after the General Election as she promised much rhetorically, only to produce paltry policies. The deep unpopularity of some of her proposed radical intergenerational reforms, that would affect elderly Tory voters adversely, damaged her further.

Is Theresa May a little Napoleon? No, clearly in important respects she doesn’t fit the Bonapartist mould. But Bonapartism, of maybe neo-Bonapartism, might be a useful lens to help understand her somewhat strange balancing acts. The fundamental flaw in all Bonapartist projects has always been that the irreconcilable usually are just that, irreconcilable, and you can only put off the inevitable choices for so long.

Writing about the Bonapartism of Napoleon and Louis-Napoleon, Karl Marx famously said: “Hegel remarks somewhere that great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

It certainly doesn’t seem to get any better with further repetition?




Picture by: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment.



About the author

Colin Talbot is professor of government at the University of Manchester.

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