Not the “Princess Diana Effect”
Sadly, Brendan O’Neill has jumped on the Theresa May apologist bandwagon, mocking the prime minister’s critics for supposedly demanding that she “perform” for us, wearing her emotions on her sleeve as she weeps with the survivors and bereaved relatives of the Grenfell Tower fire victims.
Apparently by criticising the prime minister’s slow, tone-deaf response to the tragedy and its aftermath we are behaving like a baying mob seeking emotional catharsis rather than concerned citizens with legitimate fears about the quality of leadership that Theresa May is providing. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the public anger directed at the prime minister, and assumes that the hard left socialist agitators who shout the loudest are somehow representative of all of May’s critics. They are not.
Do people want Theresa May to weep in public? Allow herself to be pelted with rotten fruit? Make herself available for cries of “murderer” even though it’s ridiculous for her to be accused of murder? What if it isn’t in her nature to show her feelings to strangers — should she still do it? For the good of the nation? I’m finding this climate of emotional retribution quite ugly, I must say. The public’s urgent questions and anger over Grenfell are being channelled by some into a narrow, cartoonish anti-Toryism designed to hurt May and help Labour. To refight the General Election on the ruins of this building strikes me as a far more callous thing than May’s inability to emote for the cameras.
Ross Clark jumps to the same baseless and rather condescending conclusion (those silly plebs want to see emotion, but we enlightened people are above such base considerations as whether or not the prime minister can act like a real leader in public) over at the Spectator:
If she still hasn’t got the message, it is this: you are expected, Mrs May, to go and blub before the cameras. You are expected to hug, to hold and say that you share everyone’s pain, that you will not rest until you can make sure that tragedies like this will never, ever be allowed to happen again. That you might have been working behind the scenes since Wednesday on an appropriate regulatory response to follow the disaster counts for nothing at all; it is just tears, please.
The idea that Theresa May is some kind of heartless creature who has not been affected by the Grenfell disaster is absurd. I have never met her, but it is quite clear from the look in her face that she is she is as shocked by the whole thing as we all are, one or two psychopaths aside. It is just that she has a very English facet of character which, until a couple of generations ago, was seen as an asset: she has an aversion to showing emotion in public.
As a public figure in modern Britain, however, this will no longer do. What used to be called a stiff upper lip is now seen as fault, if not a disability which requires treatment. The new rules of emotional correctness demand not just that you care but that you can cry with the people.
This is asinine. I don’t think that any sane critic of Theresa May wants the prime minister to “weep in public” or “blub before the cameras”. That’s not what this is about. The problem is not Theresa May’s failure to behave like the most unhinged of Princess Diana mourners and rend her garments in front of the television cameras. The problem is her complete and utter failure to lead, at least according to any modern definition of leadership in the age of television and social media.
Would Theresa May have been subjected to angry, painful and politically awkward scenes had she gone to meet the survivors and volunteer disaster relief workers in public, the day following the fire? Of course. But as a leader, you suck it up. Even if the people heckle, you show up and let the victims of Britain’s worst fire since the Second World War know that their plight and their concerns are receiving the direct and personal attention of the head of government.
It isn’t that a prime ministerial visit would make much of a tangible difference to the relief efforts. But the visual would have been very powerful, and that counts for a lot when it comes to public sentiment. I wrote the other day of examples of politicians in America mucking in and helping with disaster recovery efforts as a means of showing solidarity and giving the appearance of engagement. Neglecting to do so, and then only relenting a day later and agreeing to meet the affected people in tightly controlled circumstances, away from the television cameras, is a failure of leadership plain and simple.
That’s why Theresa May has to go. Either she doesn’t realise that her behaviour has consistently fallen short of the standards expected of a 21st century leader, or she does realise but is incapable of improving her performance. And unfortunately, Brendan O’Neill has conflated his justified distaste with the way that left-wing agitators from Jeremy Corbyn on downwards have sought to exploit the tragedy for political gain with the erroneous idea that Theresa May’s lacklustre response to the crisis (and leadership in general) should therefore be immune from criticism. It shouldn’t.
Is there a cartoonish anti-Tory sentiment out there? Absolutely. I have been writing about it and criticising the left’s reduction of conservatives to two-dimensional cartoon villains more or less constantly since I started this blog in 2012. And are many of the hysterical accusations being hurled at Theresa May completely outlandish and hysterical? Yes, of course they are. But Theresa May has also opened herself to vociferous and fully justified criticism thanks entirely to her astonishing failure to lead or carry out the basic entry-level requirements of a modern head of government.
This is not the same as demanding that Theresa May “performs” or emotes for us, or leads us in some kind of cathartic national therapy session. This is about demanding that the prime minister either steps up and acts like a leader, or quits the field so that somebody else can do the job.
As a country we are drifting at the present time, and Theresa May bears the overwhelming share of responsibility for this fact. Acknowledging this fact and holding the prime minister to account for her repeated abdication of leadership does not mean validating the separate, cynical attacks of the hard left.
On the contrary, it is our duty to demand strong and effective leadership, and to refuse to settle for Theresa May’s pitiful approximation of the same.
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