A case against the idolization of Theresa May


Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

Just before the semester came to a rapid close, Trinity held their annual Flora Cameron Lecture on Politics and Public Affairs; their invitee this semester was Theresa May, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. May served as Prime Minister and leader of the British Conservative Party from 2016–2019, the first woman to hold the position since Margaret Thatcher from 1975–1990. As amplified on the Trinity Website, she oversaw “reductions in crime, reform of the police, and the introduction of the landmark Modern Slavery Act … [May] was dedicated to increasing the number of conservative women in Parliament and in public life.” The website continues on with more information as to May’s notable actions throughout her reign as Prime Minister. I, along with many other students on campus, knew there were some aspects of her administration that were purposefully left out.

A few months after she took office, in October 2016, May gave a speech to the Conservative party where she addressed her response to the controversial Brexit policy: the complete exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU). A public referendum in 2016 — before May’s election — resulted in a 52 percent for and 48 percent against vote towards the British exit from the EU. According to an article by Aljazeera, May responded to this vote by proclaiming that “…the Brexit vote gave us a very clear message from the people, that we couldn’t allow freedom of movement as it had done hitherto.” This statement emphasized her efforts towards working with the loss of the free trade between EU countries and the free movement of EU citizens. Within the years after the referendum and while she was in office, May worked diligently to ensure that Brexit took place and that the vote was honored. During her time as Prime Minister, this amounted greatly through her policies restricting immigration to the U.K., which I discuss later. Following her resignation in May of 2019, Brexit came into fruition when the United Kingdom officially stopped being a member of the EU on Jan. 31, 2020.

The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave rise to immigration to the U.K., granting individuals from the Caribbean regions the right to settle; as a result, between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million Caribbean immigrants flowed into the U.K. Today, about 70 percent of the U.K.’s population increase recorded by the Census Bureau between 2001–2011 is a result of immigration. Because the EU allows for the free trade and movement of people across the 28 countries within this union, Brexit completely halted the movement of people between Britain and EU nations.

The enactment of Brexit brought about a huge swath of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies through which these Caribbean immigrants in the EU were alienated and harshly mistreated. Following Brexit, EU nationals would have to apply for legal permanent residency; they will not get indefinite permission to stay in the U.K. Immigrants, particularly those considered low-skilled by the British government, will be turned away and not given Visas to solidify their residence. This isn’t just a harsh side-effect of Brexit — but a calculated act brought about as part of May’s policy actions. In 2012, four years before she became Prime Minister, May declared that her aim in British politics was “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants,” stated in an interview with the Telegraph. May took this statement a step further and enacted a hostile environment policy, bringing about a toxic system of citizen-on-citizen immigration checks all through the U.K.

This hostile environment policy manifested itself greatly through the Windrush scandal taking place in 2018. Such a controversy spiked after a select Home Office Human Rights Committee published a detention report on June 29, 2018, detailing that Caribbean immigrants were being targeted and wrongly mistreated under May’s rule. This scandal concerned those who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and in several cases, wrongly deported from the U.K. by the Home Office. In addition, this scandal — titled to recognize those from the “Windrush generation” of British-born peoples from Caribbean countries — amassed innumerable job firings, healthcare refusals and housing denials concurrently with the detentions and deportations mentioned before. The rights to housing, healthcare, citizenship and work are all human rights that May determinedly took away from refugees in the U.K.

In addition, Theresa May played an instrumental role in stripping the human rights of peoples in other countries. On April 16, 2018, May gave a speech to Parliament through which she justified Britain’s participation in the aggression against Syria, alongside France and the United States, specifically in response to a drone strike on Syria that took place two days before. This strike, according to May’s speech, was in response to attacks on Syrian citizens perpetrated by the “Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons’ capabilities.”

This attack, however, was not meant to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people but to further their suffering “by degrading and destroying their ability to defend themselves,” as stated by Christopher Black, an international criminal lawyer. Such an act should have been tried as a crime of aggression under international criminal law — such a crime being “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State” as defined under article 8 in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. She managed to evade prosecution and justify her actions by the fact that Syria is not a member of the ICC and that this situation was never referred to the court for investigation. It was all swept under the rug as May continued to violate human rights throughout her administration.

At May’s lecture, there were groups of students handing out pamphlets outlining a few of the aforementioned acts that May had enacted during her time as Prime Minister. These students were met with either optimism, mostly from other students, or opposition from willful attendees from on and off campus. Emma Melina Raab, a sophomore, stated that “it was [reckless] for Trinity to let her come to campus and spin the truth to fit a liberal narrative and never focus on the terrible stuff she and her party did to [marginalized groups]. It felt like Trinity supports everything she’s done or wanted it pushed under the rug …”

May’s presence on campus, to those aware of her actions, made marginalized students immensely uncomfortable as she was treated as someone worth canonization. Bringing figures like May to campus signifies to these students that their presences at institutions like Trinity aren’t as valued as those who hold great political notoriety. May serves as a political symbol that holds a history deserving of being viewed holistically — including the violence that she inflicted on working-class communities of color. It is up to Trinity to ensure that all of their students are considered whenever such prominent figures are brought to campus. Fostering diversity and inclusion comes with a promise for the institution to condemn, not reify, the voices that place us in harmed positions to begin with.

Joshua Anaya is a member of Trinity’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.