The Global Legacy of Theresa May: the Good, Bad, and Ugly
The departing UK prime minister had three years at the helm. How did she do?
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” Theresa May told the Conservative Party in 2016.
It was intended to be a bold attack on tax avoiders, financial elites, and irresponsible business leaders. But instead it became her calling card, the ultimate antithesis to her repeated calls to build a “Global Britain” as part of her post-Brexit vision.
What the departing prime minister said next perhaps survives as its own retort: “You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
For us, citizenship means a responsibility to the world and all its people.
May’s resignation speech on May 24 included a claim that she had “done all she can”, alongside a list of her proudest achievements during her three-year tenure in 10 Downing Street.
But what did May’s Britain look like? Was it “Global”, even “Great”? Or in the context of the existential challenges faced by our planet — poverty, climate, the “burning injustice” she spoke of in her first speech as prime minister — was it something much less?
Here, we take a close look at the crucial moments that defined her premiership — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and how it might shape the legacy she will leave behind.
On Ending Extreme Poverty
In the years to come, history will judge leaders on what they did to combat the world’s biggest problems: issues like the climate crisis, gender inequality, global health care — progress watched closely by the Sustainable Development Goals.
When done well, it creates the building blocks of societies: safety, plenty, happiness. When that duty is avoided: insecurity, scarcity, extreme poverty.
When Theresa May visited South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya in August 2018, she recommitted to spending 0.7% of Britain’s gross national income (GNI) on UK aid, the budget spent by the Department of International Development (DfID) to empower the 736 million people who live in extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day.
It’s a big deal. The UK is one of the world’s leading donors of aid — and that means we help lead the fight to end female genital mutilation (FGM), are one of the first to respond to natural disasters, and help deliver millions of vaccines to children in the hardest to reach places.
May didn’t quite “crush the saboteurs” who attacked the aid budget, but the impact of her support lives through kids who didn’t die of preventable diseases, families who survived droughts provoked by climate change, and girls who got to go to school because her commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on doing good was unwavering.
Surprise! We've found something that the @Conservatives and @UKLabour actually agree on: #UKAid ✊— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) October 17, 2018
|| @JamesCleverly@Tom_Watson@SamGyimah@DavidLammy@S_Hammond@AndyBurnhamGM@CarolineNokes@JonAshworth@JustineGreening@SKinnock@ClairePerryMP@Eleanor_SmithMP@BimAfolami || pic.twitter.com/BagzSzWmla
On Modern Slavery
When May first became prime minister, she pledged to defeat the “barbaric evil” of modern slavery, writing in the Sunday Telegraph that slavery was "the great human rights issue of our time.”
It’s a tall ask for a pervasive issue: There are more slaves alive in the world right now than at any other point in human history.
She had a strong record, though — May was integral to getting the 2015 Modern Slavery Act enshrined in law, a world-leading piece of legislation, having co-sponsored the bill as home secretary. She backed that up with £33.5 million in funding, which included a taskforce and campaigning arm.
Under May’s leadership, the UK then doubled the money it spends on fighting modern slavery around the world in 2017 — and then increased it again to over £200 million within 12 months. In August 2018, she visited Nigeria, and announced millions more in UK aid to support survivors of slavery access counselling and work training.
The Modern Slavery Act eventually secured a historic first conviction last year, too: against a nurse who was found guilty of forcing five Nigerians into sex work in Europe.
However, the government still cut the financial support offered to survivors of modern slavery in the UK last year. It was labelled “irrational and perverse” by the high court, which ordered the government to row back on its decision.
And despite a campaign led by Freedom United, Anti-Slavery, Free for Good, Christian Action & Researc (CARE), the Co-op, and the Survivor Alliance, and supported by Global Citizen, the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill did not pass into law. If successful, this legislation could have protected survivors from being needlessly put at risk of re-trafficking and homelessness.
There’s an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain right now. But with the public service cuts that have left councils around the country on “life support”, it’s still extremely difficult to offer tangible hope to the country’s most vulnerable people.
It was perhaps the global issue closest to May’s heart when she assumed power. But international appetite for change does not excuse domestic apathy. Her legacy, if any, will likely only murmur about her passion to end modern slavery — and might instead be seen as a missed opportunity.
Over the past year we’ve campaigned hard for the UK to #ProtectNotNeglect survivors of modern slavery.— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) March 14, 2019
Today we march from the @UKHomeOffice to @10DowningStreet to hand over your petition signatures!
The blaze that killed 72 people on June 14, 2017 — in a Kensington tower block in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs — should never have happened. The fact that it did serves as an arresting reminder of the horrific consequences when authorities turn a blind eye to poverty.
It comes down to choices. Like how Kensington and Chelsea Council decided to save £300,000 on the installation of sub-standard cladding in Grenfell Tower, yet issued tax rebates to its richest residents. While it had £129 million in the bank from property sales, it continued to ignore repeated warnings from a residents committee that a “future major disaster” with “serious loss of life” was inevitable without an intervention.
After 27 minutes, the fire had taken hold. It lasted 60 hours. But when it was finally subdued, many were asking the same question: Where was Theresa May?
Not with the survivors of the blaze. A year later, she wrote that not meeting with the residents after the disaster was one of her “biggest regrets” — and yet, when she resigned, she referenced the (delayed) public inquest as one of her successes. The Fire Brigades Union called that a “disgrace”, arguing that May bore “ultimate responsibility.”
It was a tragedy born out of a systematic failure to protect — even, acknowledge — the most vulnerable people in our society. Two years later, survivors are still living in temporary accommodation.
But it appears the stance remains the same: The government just rejected the findings of an independent United Nations report that suggested poverty in Britain was born from austerity, a “political choice” that caused “great misery” and funded “tax cuts for the wealthy.”
"The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos," the UN’s special rapporteur Philip Alston wrote in the report — highlighting that 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, often relying on food banks because of delays to universal credit payments and public service cuts.
But Philip Hammond, appointed by May as chancellor of the exchequer, responded: "I reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country.”
The Windrush Scandal
May’s conception of the “hostile environment” as home secretary was quite the opposite of the notion of global citizenship: In an attempt to reduce immigration numbers, she hired advertising vans to drive around the country, which said: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.” She described her own efforts as “deport first and hear appeals later.”
The consequences of such a policy almost ended her premiership.
In 2012, laws on immigration changed. Even if you’d lived in the UK for decades, the government demanded that you now needed to provide proof. Eventually, the rules led to illegal deportations and healthcare being denied to British citizens, simply because they might not have kept sufficient records of their lives.
Since then, widespread outrage resulted in a £200 million compensation package to victims. But at least 11 Britons died after being deported — and nobody is really sure what happened to most of the people affected by the mistakes.
The Windrush Scandal — named after the boat which took the people invited by the UK government to Britain from the Caribbean after the Second World War — led to the resignation of former home secretary Amber Rudd. However, many saw her as a “human shield” to protect the true architect of the “hostile environment” and its scabrous ramifications: Theresa May.
Junior Green was not allowed to return to the UK for his mother’s funeral even though he has lived in the UK for 60 years, his sister tells @JamesClayton5 the family “couldn't believe it” #newsnightpic.twitter.com/wXZ4VMqVzF— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) April 17, 2018
The climate crisis is perhaps the definitive issue of our time — and it’s certainly true to say that there have been some huge strides forward since 2016. But the background is quite messy.
Britain became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency on May 1 after weeks of direct action from protest group Extinction Rebellion. But as global school strikes hit the UK in February, May criticised the young activists for wasting lesson time — and then failed to meet 16-year-old campaigner Greta Thunberg when she visited Westminster.
Likewise, the UK is now massively investing in offshore wind power. A deal struck in March means that renewable energy consumption will overtake fossil fuels, with a third of all electricity coming from offshore wind by 2030. But that was never the plan — it became an accidental necessity after the expensive breakdown of three proposals for new nuclear power plants, as seven of eight currently in operation are set to close in the next decade.
Britain might be breaking records on coal power all the time too — it just went a week without it for the first time since the industrial revolution — but that cannot be squared with the fact May helped bring back fracking in Lancashire.
And despite leaps forward in the reduction of single-use plastics — including bans on microbeads and plastic straws during her tenure — that has been widely credited as the passion project of environment secretary Michael Gove. Meanwhile, the first minister May selected for that position reportedly asked if climate change was real after getting the job.
Messy, absolutely. Ugly? Ask the people who live in Lancashire.
Heroic students all over the country just skipped school to protest climate change! ✊🌍 So we talked to a few of them to ask them why it's so important.— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) February 15, 2019
(Wait until the end — it's worth it we promise) 💕 #YouthStrike4Climate#SchoolStrike4Climate#ClimateStrikepic.twitter.com/z5BXpbGk1H
Whether you’re for or against Brexit, there’s no doubt it’s been an ugly process. Voters in both camps — 80% of leave and 85% of remain — agree that talks have been handled badly.
Forget for a moment about the £1.5 billion spent on planning for a “no deal Brexit” that might have gone elsewhere; ignore the division and the infighting and differing opinions on what holds up as facts — or, as the Guardian puts it, how May “decommissioned the truth, afraid it might be used as a weapon against her.”
Instead, think again about the 736 million people in extreme poverty. Picture what the future of the planet’s climate looks like; how women are still unequal to men; or all the schools that stay shut around the world because of conflict, drought, or corruption.
Brexit remains the biggest concern for the majority of people in the country. The next prime minister — whomever that ends up being — must recognise that there’s a much, much bigger picture. We need to get on with the job of changing the world for the better.