May attacks 'absolutism' of the new government

Prime Minister’s valedictory address

The World Today
2 minute READ

Theresa May chose Chatham House as the venue to make her valedictory speech as prime minister on July 17, 2019, a week before she was due to leave No 10.

She said she had chosen the venue as it was in St James’s Square that Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, led the planning for D-Day.

‘This will most likely be the last time I speak at length as prime minister,’ she said. ‘I would like today to share some personal reflections on the state of politics in our country around the world.’

During her 20-minute speech, she spoke of the agreements that underpinned the rules-based international order, saying they were reached through ‘pragmatism and compromise’.

‘It is easy now to assume that these landmark agreements, which helped create the international order, will always hold,’ she said. ‘That they are as permanent as the hills. But turning ideals in practical agreements was hard-fought, and we cannot be complacent about ensuring that they endure. Indeed, the current failure to combine principles with pragmatism and compromise, inevitably risks undermining them. We are living through a period of profound change and insecurity.’

Using the word compromise 15 times during her speech, May criticized members of her own party who pursued ideological purity at whatever cost. ‘It has led to what is, in effect, a form of absolutism,’ she said. ‘One believes that if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end.’ She went on: ‘This absolutism at home and abroad is the opposite of politics at its best. It refuses to accept that other points of view are reasonable. It ascribes bad motives to those taking those different views.’

When asked whether her points on absolutism were directed at Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, she replied that they were ‘a general observation on what I have seen in politics across the world. I wanted to speak about it today as I think it is important to bring the debate back into a more reasoned area so that people holding different views can have a more serious debate and discussion with each other.’

May spoke of a breakdown of constructive communication in global politics, saying: ‘Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others … This descent of our debate into rancour and tribal bitterness, and in some cases even vile abuse at a criminal level, is corrosive to the democratic values which we should all be seeking to uphold.’

When asked if she had not contributed to demonizing language herself, the prime minister said she regretted making mistakes, particularly in referring to European Union migrants as ‘queue-jumpers’.

She ended by saying: ‘For the future, if we can recapture the spirit of common purpose, as I believe we must, then we can be optimistic about what, together, we can achieve. We can find common ground that will enable us to forge new, innovative, global agreements on the most crucial challenges of our time, from protecting our planet, to harnessing the power of technology for good.

‘We can renew popular support for liberal democratic values, and international cooperation. And in so doing, we can secure our freedom, our prosperity, and our ability to live together peacefully, now, and for generations to come.’