We all remember it from school, whether as perpetrator, or assistant of perpetrator, or victim: the moment when everyone turns against another pupil and it becomes legitimate to be vile to her. When she is ‘down’, it becomes more and more enjoyable to torture her and to find endless new aspects of her to be woundingly vicious about, every hour of every day. It has been like this for Theresa May in the last week. She’s the outcast in the playground, knowing that if she so much as opens her mouth to say something, she’ll receive a torrent of withering sarcasm.
Please can it stop? It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, whatever one’s politics. It’s actually worse than school bullying, because at least that kind is nakedly nasty, so you know where you are with it. The bullying of Mrs May we’ve seen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire is a different, more subtly nasty kind: it’s the sanctimonious bullying of someone who is already ‘down’. Polly Toynbee saying Mrs May is ‘dead to emotion or empathy’; Julian Glover tweeting (along with millions of others) the photo of her chatting to firemen beside a photo of Corbyn hugging a volunteer, and writing, ‘Contrast between these two pics is devastating.’ Comments like those are designed to flag up the writer’s own empathy and niceness. They’re saying, ‘I am good but you, Mrs May, are a mad evil witch.’ She’s being kicked to pieces – and the people doing it are feeling chuffed with their own sense of virtue. Today’s sanctimonious bullies would be horrified and surprised if you called them bullies – they would see themselves as strongly ‘anti-bullying’ – but they are bullies, needling away at their target’s weaknesses, not stopping until she’s both down and out.
When you’re stuck in an abusive, coercive relationship, as May now is with the whole country, it becomes almost impossible to do anything properly. Self-esteem plummets and with it the ability even to spread butter on a piece of toast without it falling to the floor butter-side down. The poor woman is now expected to steer this whole furious country out of the European Union, with everyone being horrible to her 24 hours a day. Can we give her a chance?
She has managed to corner herself into a uniquely torturous situation. If we reach deeply into our reserves of empathy, we must surely admit that we could have made just the same mistakes. Told by her advisors, ‘You’re bound to win this – just avoid making any blunders’, she was so studiously dull and repetitive during the election campaign that the very avoidance of blunders was in itself the blunder. I remember thinking, when she made the pathetic ‘fields of wheat’ comment, ‘I wish you’d say you set fire to the chemistry lab’ – although that, in hindsight, would have been a really disastrous thing to say.
The tide turned; she changed in a few weeks from ‘can’t do anything wrong’ to ‘can’t do anything right’. Mocked, chastened and weakened, but pinned down and unable to resign, she awoke last Wednesday morning to the appalling conflagration in North Kensington. It seems tasteless even to mention the timing of the fire, in the context of the utter tragedy of it; but for the bullying mob the timing was spot-on, providing a wealth of new poisoned barbs with which to taunt her. The fire became the symbol of a whole divided capitalist country going up in flames, leaderless. Baying for Mrs May to come and meet the victims, what everyone really wanted was to see her being screamed at, lynched. She did dare to turn up at the Finsbury Park mosque hours after the attack, and was (predictably) heckled and jeered at as she got quickly back into her car, head down.
I can’t help imagining her clinging to Philip in his Hackett nightshirt, shaking and sobbing and saying, ‘Why is everything suddenly all my fault?’ Yes, if you’re Prime Minister you’re ultimately responsible for what the State does, but can she really be blamed for the woeful piece of micro-management that was the decision to go for cladding that cost £2 less per square metre?
As with a divorce, the fact that she was recently loved seems to have made the seething hatred even more virulent: she is hated and blamed for ‘turning out not to be the person we thought she was’. Perhaps public hatred of women is more virulent than hatred of men, bringing out a strain of misogyny that still lurks beneath the surface. Why does it all have to be so extreme? Why do we have to absolutely love or absolutely loathe our Prime Minister? Why can’t we just have moderate opinions such as, ‘Well, I quite like her – she has her strong points and her weaknesses, but so do you and I’? Social media has turned us all into mini-extremists. We hone our sarcasm and loathing into 140 characters, which leave no space for seeing two sides of arguments.
It’s acceptable to revel in the demise of an out-and-out corrupt, tyrannical baddie. Theresa May has been foolish and hubristic but she is not an unfeeling monster. If we continue to bully our Prime Ministers in this way, we’ll create a situation where the only people who can face going into politics will be the unfeeling monsters.