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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Rawnsley

The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life by Theresa May review – blind to her own failings

‘Spreading the burden of guilt’: Theresa May arrives to deliver a keynote speech on Brexit at Lancaster House in London, January 2017
‘Spreading the burden of guilt’: Theresa May arrives to deliver a keynote speech on Brexit at Lancaster House in London, January 2017. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

It is four years and counting since Theresa May made her teary exit from No 10. That is sufficient time to dab her eyes, reflect on her life and write a memoir, but this is not one. Perhaps the wounds of a miserable prime ministership are still weeping too painfully to address her period in power at length. In the introduction, she says this book “is not an attempt to justify certain decisions I made in office”, though we will later discover that this is not wholly true.

Her central theme is how power is abused by public institutions and those who control them. This ought to be a compelling subject, given how many grotesque and flagrant examples we have witnessed over recent years. It is impossible to quarrel with her contention that “lives have been damaged and sometimes destroyed” by bad actors and negligent ones.

She is far from the first to note that the reflex instinct of many institutions is to close ranks and try to cover up rotten decision-making in order to protect the reputations of organisations and those who run them. This may not be an original observation, but it has extra heft when it comes from someone who was home secretary for six years and prime minister for three.

Examples she explores include the unlawful killing of the 97 football fans who died as a result of a crush in the stands at Sheffield’s Hillsborough football stadium; the inferno at Grenfell Tower that took 72 lives, shattered a community and shocked the nation; child sexual abuse in Rotherham; and bullying and sexual predation at Westminster. There are many more cases that would have merited inclusion, among them the Post Office scandal involving the wrongful prosecutions of hundreds of post office operators falsely accused of fraud, leading to imprisonments of the innocent, sackings, bankruptcies, ill-health and suicides.

May’s prose is plain – she is no more gifted as a wordsmith than she is sparkling as an orator – but she can be punchy. “South Yorkshire police created a web of obfuscation and lies to lay the blame on fans,” she writes of the way in which Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough were smeared in an attempt to divert blame for that disaster away from policing failures by falsely assigning culpability for their deaths to the football fans themselves.

There was a concerted and mendacious effort to traduce the fans as drunken hooligans by “police, the media and some politicians”. That’s true without being as accurate as it might be. May is not always as hard-hitting as she could be when her own party and its allies are complicit in the abuse. She should have written (my additions in italics) that the smear campaign was conducted by “police, the rightwing media and some Conservative politicians”.

After a very long wait, those bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster finally received a full admission by the state of who was truly to blame and an apology in parliament as a result of an inquiry originally set up under New Labour when Alan Johnson was home secretary. May seeks credit for herself – this comes over as rather needy – for deciding to let the Hillsborough independent panel continue when she took over at the Home Office. That scandal occurred long before she was anywhere near government so she finds it easy to use it to present herself as an enemy of injustice and a champion of its victims.

The acid test of this book is how she addresses the Windrush scandal, one of the most despicable abuses of state power because people who had been living in and contributing to the UK for decades were suddenly and entirely wrongly told that they had no right to be here. This scandal very much occurred on her watch. It was unfolding during her time as home secretary and seized national attention when she was at No 10.

By any measure, the disgusting maltreatment of the Windrush generation was a vicious assault by the state on the rights of citizens that inflicted terrible harm on them. But when she’s personally at the heart of the matter, May becomes much less enthusiastic about lacerating the blunders of the powerful. There’s a rather grudging admission that her use of the phrase “hostile environment” was “in retrospect, not a good term to use”.

She presents the Windrush scandal less as the absolute outrage that it was and more as a kind of accident waiting to happen. She spreads the burden of guilt across “the failure of successive governments”, going all the way back to that of Clement Attlee in the late 1940s, to ensure that the Windrush generation “possessed evidence of their right to be in the UK”. She makes a point of saying that there were “27 different home secretaries” between 1948 and 2017, insinuating that she was unlucky that this scandal blew up when she was in charge.

It is convenient for her to point an accusing finger at the “inbuilt cynicism” and “overzealous” approach of Home Office officials. She tells us that she was astonished to learn that officials were demanding that members of the Windrush generation produce “four pieces of documentary evidence for each year they had been in the UK” to prove their entitlement to live here.

Who had responsibility for the standards and the ethos of the Home Office for half a dozen years? Who presided over a culture of institutional ignorance and arrogance towards the Windrush generation? Who was the home secretary when the department received warnings that many of them were being wrongly treated as illegal immigrants? Who had failed to foresee and avoid a scandal that the inquiry into it concluded was “foreseeable and avoidable”?

The answer stares May in the mirror. She can’t authentically present herself as the righteous scourge of injustice when she flinches from properly confronting her role in one of the ugliest abuses of power to stain recent British history.

That’s not the only lacuna in this book. It tells us almost nothing that is not already known, either about the subjects that she addresses or about the author. “I’m pretty sure at one stage my mother wanted me to become a nun” is as tasty as it gets in terms of personal revelation. May says that being a vicar’s daughter taught her to be “very careful with what I say”. Discretion can sometimes be an asset in politics, but it is an awful letdown when the reader has been promised the inside story of seminal events. She tells us that a ministerial colleague hid “in a cupboard” rather than meet families bereaved at Hillsborough. She then dilutes her own anecdote by saying this coward “shall remain nameless”.

It is hard to disagree when she asserts that misuses of power are far too common. Many will also nod along when she suggests that abuses are more likely to occur when countries fall into the hands of nationalists and populists. The bleeding obvious examples are Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. It would have been more interesting to know what she now thinks, and whether there’s any regret, about her own flirtations with nationalist populism when she occupied the top seat. Her notorious “citizens of nowhere” speech to her first party conference as Tory leader was a fateful step down the road to the ruinously rock-hard form of Brexit that has been imposed on the UK.

Speaking of which, she has weirdly inserted a self-justifying chapter about her vain attempts to get a Brexit deal through parliament, the failure that led to her being forced out of No 10 by Tory MPs. This chapter sits very jarringly in a book that is supposed to be about grave injustices. Contrary to her earlier claim that she is not interested in relitigating her prime ministership and settling scores, here she does precisely that. She presents herself as a woman piously motivated by wanting to do the right thing who was unreasonably thwarted by almost everyone else, including EU leaders, the Labour party and speaker John Bercow.

Oddly, she has less to say about the Brextremists in her own party who were the principal saboteurs of her leadership. That there was no Conservative majority in the Commons, because she had thrown it away at the 2017 election, also had something to do with her inability to get a deal through parliament. So did the fact that she did not try to fashion a cross-party consensus about how Brexit should be done until it was far too late.

She justifies the bizarre inclusion of this chapter about Brexit with the extraordinary assertion that opposition to her in parliament was another “abuse of power” because her opponents put their own interests (as she sees it) before the national interest (as she interprets it) by declining to permit her the deal that she wanted.

She has enough self-awareness to realise that “some will find it hard to accept” this claim. Oh, it is way worse than that, Mrs May. It is absurd to count herself among the victims of the “abuse of power”. I am staggered that she thinks the travails of her prime ministership belong in the same category as the suffering inflicted on the casualties of the Hillsborough disaster, the Grenfell tragedy and the Windrush scandal. That suggestion is not just ridiculous, it is repulsive.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

• The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life by Theresa May is published by Headline (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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