Is Theresa May a Peronist?

A couple of weeks ago I was doing some reading on early Peronism for a class I was teaching on Latin American populists. Alongside Vargas in Brazil and Cárdenas in Mexico, we were looking at the transition from the military junta (1943-6) to the odd melange of ‘democratic-authoritarian populism’ (!) presided over by Perón in Argentina from 1946-55. The more I read on this period of Perón’s political career – and granted, there are many distinct Perón phases – the more one contemporary figure sprang to mind: Theresa May.*


Clearly the question posed here is a facetious one – I don’t think May has demonstrated particular interest in or knowledge of Latin America, though notably the current visit to the UK of President Santos of Colombia has provided the British government with an opportunity to announce some bilateral deals of the sort that may define the post-Brexit course. I certainly don’t suggest she is an actual admirer or follower of Perón (who for all his towering importance in Latin America is only moderately known and very poorly understood outside the region). However, there are a number of commonalities that I find rather striking.


An important reason why Theresa May came to mind was the difficulty political commentators have had in placing her accurately on a traditional left-right spectrum. I don’t think it’s hard at all, myself; I think it’s fairly clear that this is the most right-wing government Britain has had for generations, and possibly much longer. That said, the British commentariat tied itself in knots following May’s walkover to the Conservative leadership, declaring her to be “curious hybrid”; aiming to “command and hold the centre ground”; a “hard edged version of centrism”; “unideological”, “super pragmatic” and “Tony Blair… in kitten heels”. As the last comment suggests, May has to contend with an awful lot of sexism before her politics gets full attention.


However, at the heart of May’s so-called centrism are sentiments with deeply troubling historical antecedents. “The lesson of Britain,” she claims, “is that we are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship”. Everyone likes family, community, and citizenship don’t they? Of course they do. But the shift from those fluffy abstractions into concretely defined realities is behind many of the twentieth century’s most heinous political movements. (An episode of Novara FM covered some of this in relation to political theory in a fascinating way recently).


Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974, president of Argentina 1946-55, and 1973-4) similarly frustrates many who attempt to place him on a one-dimensional left-right spectrum, though the significant overlap with fascism is to my mind a pretty big clue. In his book The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein (T:@FinchelsteinF) gives a superb account of the genealogy of Argentine political culture. In the chapter on links between fascism and Peronism, he writes (and forgive the lengthy quote, but it is important):


Fascism and Peronism came to power as a result of the failure of liberal-democratic regimes that were thought to be solid or well-established. Both regimes gave a totalitarian answer to the crisis that modernity had provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state. Both regimes were clearly anticommunist and antisocialist. Finally, both regimes mobilized the population “from the top,” through their propaganda and various actions, promoting mass politics and convincing majorities that the regime represented them and the nation as a whole. But while fascism mobilized the middle classes, Peronism rallied the working class.


Let us call the incipient variant of right-nationalism that May and her cabinet represent Mayism. Admittedly this sets aside important ideological differences within the cabinet on matters of trade (though free traders are being allowed enough rope to hang themselves, it seems to me) and civil liberties (again, though, David Davis has changed his mind spectacularly on free speech post-referendum for instance), but there is enough of an emergent dynamic for this to be worth thinking about. To substitute into Finchelstein’s schema:


  • Mayism came to power as a result of the failure of a liberal-democratic regime that was thought to be solid or well-established.
  • Mayism seems to be seeking authoritarian** answers to the crisis that modernity has provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state (see, especially, the rather terrifying “we will never again… let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave”)
  • Mayism is clearly antisocialist.
  • Mayism is attempting to moblize the population “from the top,” through its propaganda and various actions, convincing majorities that the regime represents them and the nation as a whole.


In addition, there are some echoes of Peronism where:


  • Mayism promotes an openly racist immigration policy (though so have many successive governments in Britain).
  • Mayism implicitly promotes a Christian public morality (though two caveats here: first, as far as I know it is yet to become explicitDavid Cameron tried this, and was heavily rebuked; and second, a Catholic political morality as in Argentina may have significant differences to an Anglican political morality in Britain, though I suspect these differences would be overstated, and in any case there are some welcoming May’s apparent Anglo-Catholicism).
  • Mayism has a contingent relationship with democracy, using popular sovereignty to disregard representative institutions where it supports May’s broad project , and vice versa where it does not.


Finchelstein notes that Perón turned from fascism’s middle-class constituency to the Argentine working class. Theresa May’s conference speech (from which the bulk of quotes here are taken verbatim) suggested she wishes to move from the liberal-ish broadly middle-class constituency which backed both Blair and Cameron to some kind of frightened and ‘left behind’ working class, which may or may not exist in that form (it’s certainly not a consistent picture with coherent political expression as James Meek has amply demonstrated in recent years, for example here). To wit:


Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. Because it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.


That’s some epic outsider-populism right there, from someone who has been right at the heart of government for the last six years – a reason to be very sceptical that this cross-class appeal is anything more than a clear demarcation from May’s predecessor, the unrepentantly toffish Cameron. This nod to the less well-off continues, with vague pronouncements on wealth disparity (societal and regional), tax avoidance and (perhaps most interestingly) generational inequality. But the fix suggested is not structural reform of class inequality, it is an exclusionary localism.


Militarism and anti-cosmopolitan sentiment also bubble at the surface. May foregrounded “the servicemen and women I met last week who wear their uniform proudly at home and serve our nation with honour abroad”; she also, chillingly, declared “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Build that wall!


When I note the floundering of the commentariat in the face of political rhetoric which borrows from left (a bit) and extreme right (rather a lot), it is most pertinent in the idea that Theresa May and her government ‘represent the nation as a whole’. Political journalists now – for a number of reasons, I suspect far more than in the past – report on language much more than actions. Curtain-raisers, teasers, speeches, leaks etc are the channel of distribution for political ‘news’, rather than longitudinal policy analysis. Hence, when May said:


I want to explain what a country that works for everyone means. I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics… built on the values of fairness and opportunity… where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person – regardless of their background, or that of their parents – is given the chance to be all they want to be


this was generally reported to be her political philosophy, and to be the basis for forthcoming policies.


To be clear, I am not suggesting that the situation in Britain in 2016 is like that of Argentina in 1946, but there are limited echoes – a volk-ish nostalgia for a fake kitschy past greatness crying out to be restored is definitely in the air, as it is explicitly for Trump of course.


Peronism went on to underpin Argentina populist political culture, which consisted of (Finchelstein again) “the marriage of social reform, state interventionism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism with the logic of single-party rule, social polarization, clientelism, censorship of the press, ostracism, and the persecution of opponents up to, in some cases, prison and torture”. These things are not on the cards, certainly not in that combination, in contemporary Britain.


Yet it is not difficult to imagine, for example, an attempt to de-secularise political culture (some of her cheerleaders are actively encouraging such a path, but this could only be done in a confrontational manner – the ‘family’-centred politics can be a code here, but so could a future elision of the difference between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’); targeted state economic intervention in politically important constituencies (“strategic value” industries, which May denies constitutes “picking winners”); the steady consolidation of a concrete and enduring Conservative parliamentary majority (and thus one-party rule for the foreseeable future in England at least); an unapologetic revanchist and chauvinist nationalism (we have that already in bucketloads, really); and most troublingly, an expansion of May’s clear authoritarian tendencies at the Home Office (which did involve appalling violence against – in particular – detained migrants, but also a broader disgust aimed at human rights as a concept) into government at large. All the more baffling, then, when a self-declared leftist like Giles Fraser celebrates May for ditching neoliberalism in favour of something else which by his own admission is vague and merely rhetorical, a conservatism “so much better for the poor than slick liberals”. Again, the religious angle is noted: “for the vicar’s daughter, the community comes first”. I’m sure many will think of Evita here, but I’m not sure that’s a very fruitful line of enquiry.


It’s early days for May and her nascent -ism. It does not pay to make political predictions in the current conjuncture, in Britain, in Argentina, in the United States, in Colombia. We might not see any of these past echoes grow beyond their current unsettling volume, a distant marching beat. But borrowing bits of far right and left-nationalist rhetoric, fooling commentators into declarations of ‘centrism’ or ‘the politics of unity’, pursuing economic independence and ethnically-exclusive communitarianism as a route out of political and economic crisis – these are all things we can draw upon for comparison’s sake in postwar Argentina.


To conclude, a snippet which I think could have come from either the current British PM or from Juan Domingo himself:


They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.


There it is: machista nationalism, dog-whistle communitarianism, and social authoritarianism, with a nod at the end to old labour. Or possibly Old Labour. We shall see.


*N.B. Peronism now means something very different from Peronism then.

**I shy away from the word totalitarian here, which is clearly not applicable.

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