May launches a new era of British pragmatism

May and Thatcher: As Elinor Dashwood (left) and her passionate sister Marianne (right).

Today the UK’s prime minister will make arguably the most important speech of her life. The best way to understand it, say those close to her, is as a ringing defence of head over heart.

‘I will be calm; I will be mistress of myself.’

Elinor Dashwood said this, in Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. But perhaps today Theresa May, the UK’s prime minister, could include it in her keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference.

May’s speech is a crucial chance to tell the country, and world, how she plans to handle gathering challenges — particularly Brexit. Her words are likely to be realistic. She has said politicians should be ‘pragmatic’ and declared herself ‘a bit suspicious of -isms’. Her instructions to ministers have echoed this.

But many in her party are driven by ideals, especially on the UK’s relationship with the EU. During June’s referendum May gave lukewarm support to Remain, largely for practical reasons. Most Conservative voters indulged what Times columnist Rachel Sylvester has called ‘a romantic bid for independence’ by voting Leave.

Sylvester has likened this divide to Austen’s classic. Like the quiet and prudent Elinor, the prime minister represents ‘sense’. Tory members are more like her younger sister Marianne, who personifies ‘sensibility’ by chasing a dashing but unsuitable man.

The idealists now want May to take a firm line in negotiations with the EU, to give Britain as much control of its affairs as possible. They have invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister who famously defended British sovereignty.

But Sylvester says May should remain true to her nature. If she is to satisfy many businesses, who want close trading ties with the EU, she may need to compromise. And she has said she will govern as a ‘one nation’ conservative, in the flexible tradition of leaders such as Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan.

There is similar tension in the Labour Party: hardliner Jeremy Corbyn has inspired left-wing idealists, but those in the party’s centre are disillusioned. In the USA, President Obama’s visionary campaigning style has been replaced by a pragmatic one when governing. Which should politicians prioritise: pragmatism or their principles?

The real deal

Pragmatists say politicians must accept reality. No idea is sacred and the world is far too complex for human certainties. Rational grown-ups see politics as a way of improving people’s lives, not an arrogant attempt to enforce one’s worldview on others. The greatest harm is usually done by those who refuse to change their minds or compromise.

How depressing, say idealists. Leaders such as Thatcher, Churchill and Gandhi changed the world because they were driven by conviction. Politics is by definition a battle between competing ideas and visions of the world; without principle, it might as well be management consultancy.

You Decide

  1. Are you more like Elinor or Marianne Dashwood?
  2. Should politicians prioritise pragmatism or principle?


  1. Think of a problem which you, or people of your age, often face. Discuss in groups how pragmatists and idealists would respond to it. Who do you think would handle the problem better?
  2. Research some of the key challenges facing Theresa May during the Brexit negotiations. Write a two-minute speech on her behalf, explaining how she should tackle them. Read some speeches out and discuss their merits.

Some People Say...

“What matters in politics is what works.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do the squabbles in one political party really matter?
The process which politicians go through has a crucial bearing on decisions which affect millions of people. On Brexit, for example, Theresa May will have to choose whether to define her negotiating positions clearly or be flexible. This will affect any deal she makes with the EU and so, in turn, the social reality and job prospects facing you in years to come.
I am not British. How does this affect me?
May’s handling of the upcoming negotiations could prove an example for countries around the world to follow or ignore. But the tussle between idealists and pragmatists is reflected elsewhere. For example, Spain has not had a government for nine months, as politicians have refused to abandon their principles and work with other parties.

Word Watch

Ideologies like socialism, liberalism or conservatism.
Her chancellor, Philip Hammond, has abandoned George Osborne’s tough approach to deficit reduction. May has reportedly told Boris Johnson to be ‘realistic’ as foreign secretary.
As home secretary, May was worried Brexit would harm intelligence sharing, crime fighting and the UK’s integrity.
58% of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted to leave the EU, according to a poll by Lord Ashcroft.
Elinor says: ‘It’s not what we think or feel that makes us who we are, it is what we do or fail to do’.
Prime minister from 1979 to 1990. When Parliament debated European integration in her final days, she said ‘no, no, no’. She was committed to the free market and a tough foreign policy. Thatcher memorabilia dominates in the conference’s party shop this week.
Twice prime minister in the 19th century. His social reforms departed from traditional Conservative policy.
Prime minister from 1957 to 1963. His mixed economy combined public investment and private enterprise.

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