Preaching to the Converted: Theresa May’s Vision of Global Britain

Judi Atkins, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and Leverhulme Fellow, employs a rhetorical reception analysis to demonstrate why Theresa May’s vision of ‘Global Britain’ failed to resonate with pro-Europeans.

Later this month, the government is expected to publish an integrated review of Britain’s foreign, defence and security policy. This review is intended to add flesh to the bones of ‘Global Britain’, as it covers ‘all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development’. Although the term ‘Global Britain’ was first coined in 2016 as shorthand for the government’s post-Brexit approach to foreign affairs, it has so far failed to capture the public imagination.

In a new article, I explore the reasons for this failure through a rhetorical reception analysis of Theresa May’s vision of Britain after Brexit. This approach involves setting her rhetoric in context, analysing the text of her speeches, and examining how audience members interpreted and reacted to her words. A key consideration is how a speaker imagines their audience and selects the arguments they believe will win them over. Whether this imagined audience corresponds to the real-life audience is a different matter, and any mismatch will affect how the rhetoric is received. In May’s case, I argue that her target audience consisted of Leave supporters. Consequently, her account of GlobalBritain alienated many pro-Europeans and cost her their support.  

According to May, the 2016 vote to leave the European Union was ‘the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain’. But who was included in this ‘we’? How did May envisage ‘the British people’? While Remainers would argue that Britain was already able to play a global role as an EU member, May’s use of the word ‘truly’ is a rejection of this viewpoint; in other words, Britain could only fulfil its global destiny outside the EU. This suggests that the word ‘we’ encompassed Leave supporters and, moreover, aligned May with this audience. If this interpretation is correct, then her idea of ‘the British people’ excluded pro-Europeans. To coin a phrase, they were ‘citizens of nowhere’ because they did not share May’s worldview.

In her Lancaster House speech, May stated that ‘Global Britain’ involved being:

The best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike … A great, global trading nation that is respected around the world.

Here, May used the technique of personification to present Global Britain as capable of forming close, lasting relationships with others. She also drew on the idea of Britain as an exceptional nation to praise Brexit as an opportunity for it to recapture past glories. This in turn was intended to arouse feelings of national pride in her imagined Leave-supporting audience.

It is perhaps no coincidence that of the ‘old friends’ mentioned in the speech, Australia, New Zealand, India and (some of) the Gulf States had previously been under British imperial control. While critics labelled this vision ‘Empire 2.0’, nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past would have appealed to much of May’s imagined audience. And, in casting the referendum result in a favourable light, May placed Leave voters on the right side of the argument. This implies that Remain supporters were on the wrong side of history and, by resisting Brexit, they were obstructing Britain’s pursuit of its global ambitions.

The contrast between the EU and the UK was another element of May’s rhetoricof Global Britain. Here, she attributed to ‘the British people’ (i.e. Leave voters) a need for direct accountability and control, and she identified this as a reason why the UKhas never totally felt at home being in the European Union’. She also told ‘the people of Europe’ that:

Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance … and we have little history of coalition government.

Although May tempered her wordswith assurances of friendship, which were likely for the benefit of EU leaders and Remainers, her rhetoric again suggests that she imagined Brexiters as her primary audience. The ideas of sovereignty and national self-determination – encapsulated in Vote Leave’s slogan ‘Take Back Control’ – resonated emotionally with this constituency, and her attribution of these concerns to ‘the British people’ once more excluded pro-Europeans from her definition of ‘the nation’.

May’s account of Global Britain was favourably received by Leavers such as Matthew Elliott of BrexitCentral, who praised the ‘inspiring’ and ‘optimistic’ vision she presented at Lancaster House. However, her pro-European empirical audience took a cynical view, with Polly Toynbee deriding it as fantasy – ‘as if this “great global trading nation” with its gigantic trade deficit still ruled the imperial waves’! In a similar vein, the Observer editorial claimed the Mansion House speech signified ‘a moment of British retreat from the shared ideals and principles of collaborative internationalism’.

While these reactions demonstrate that many Leave supporters were persuaded by May’s appeals to imperial nostalgia and British superiority, Remainers viewed her approach as further evidence of her isolationist impulses. In short, the two sides interpreted May’s words through the lens of the idea of Britain that each accepted, and which constituted their respective identities as ‘Brexiters’ and ‘pro-Europeans’.

If the Johnson government is to breathe new life into Global Britain, then at the very least it needs to purge the concept of its associations with the Empire. This task requires an honest reappraisal of Britain and its place in the world. However, ministers’ recent displays of national triumphalism over the Covid-19 vaccine indicate that such a reassessment will not be forthcoming – at least in the short term. Whether a direct confrontation with the realities of Brexit will prompt an overdue bout of national self-reflection remains to be seen.  

For more on this topic, read Judi’s newly published journal article, ‘Rhetoric and audience reception: An analysis of Theresa May’s vision of Britain and Britishness after Brexit‘, Politics, March 2021.

Judi has published widely on rhetoric and ideology in British politics, including her latest book, Conflict, Co-operation and the Rhetoric of Coalition Government (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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