Why is Theresa May so popular? Because she’s not ashamed to be “basic”


When I first arrived in England from Sudan in the mid noughties, slightly bewildered and armed with little cultural preparation apart from a diet of BBC World Service radio, nineteenth century literature and old video tapes of Top of the Pops, the country crashed into me. It was so much to take in. And the thought that my fluency in the English language and passing familiarity with British culture via whatever little media or literature had filtered through was any sort of cushion was immediately laughable. One can be able to name British radio newsreaders but still think that ‘taking the piss’ means to go to the actual loo. That was humbling.

And so I crash-coursed. I binged on Britain 101. I watched back episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Keeping Up Appearances, Monty Python and The Fast Show and Coupling and all of Derek and Clive (on tapes, on a Walkman). As a student, I lived in London council estates and sat in musty pre-smoking ban pubs where you couldn’t get a skinny chip let alone a chunky triple fried one, talking to anyone I could.

The country that unfolded itself before me was not the staid Bush House tones of the BBC but something anarchic, edgy and almost infinitely layered. There was no X Factor, no great Great British Bake-Off. Big Brother had just started and was actually an exciting experiment. It’s mind boggling to think that this was all just over ten years ago. The concept of ‘basic’ didn’t exist, really because the essence of basicness didn’t exist, that is, a derivative unimaginative reproduced pattern of middlebrow tastes and consumption. I arrived in England when having a Starbucks pumpkin latte, if you could find a Starbucks, was a massively exciting indulgence. What do you mean it’s basic? It’s £5.30! And is a coffee that tastes like pumpkin! What sort of pretentious killjoy are you to not appreciate that? Nothing was ‘cheeky’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’ – most things were just a pleasure if you could afford them. It was right after Cool Britannia and before there was such a thing as a Michelin-starred pub.

Just as I settled in and the country became more familiar to me, it began hurtling very fast in a different direction – one where hyper-capitalism fused with a nominal Englishness to create a huge pool of middlebrow culture, and before I knew it, there was a whole other evolution that I had to track. What was unfolding was a culture that seemed increasingly samey, cynical and designed to appeal to the comforting nostalgia of tweeness while also playing it safe and rolling out barely serviceable offerings. What I’m trying to say is, and you can be forgiven for not seeing where I was going with this, I get Theresa May.

I get Theresa May and I get why others get Theresa May. Sure, much of the left sees her as a monster. I am an immigrant who lived under May’s Home Office, you don’t need to tell me. But she is of the country now in a way that makes so much sense if you just look at from outside the realm of political and policy and through the prism of economic consumption patterns and popular culture. 

You see, May is that hugely popular sitcom that is also painfully and bafflingly unfunny and which everyone claims they never watch. Clearly someone is watching it and lying about it. Her script is obvious and hammy. Her set-ups you can see a mile away. The audience laughter isn’t only canned, it’s frozen. That is May, she is Miranda and Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys and the kid who won X Factor because his grandmother died and a cheeky Pizza Express on a Friday and a 3D Marvel comics movie at the local multiplex where you experience a lot but feel nothing. She couldn’t be more contemporary British culture if she’d been designed by Simon Cowell and a BBC pre-watershed commissioning committee.

That isn’t to say that one can’t enjoy Miranda and not be a Tory (although I would like to say to, but alas I do not have the research to back it up), but that you do not need to be a Tory to like Theresa May. 

In the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh observed that ‘May could easily have a people: middle-class, suburban-to-provincial, plain in taste, respectably right-wing, unnerved but not unhinged by modernity.’ This is true but still vastly underestimates her appeal. She has bridged the gap, stepping widely in some look-I-have-a-personality-shoes, to land a foot in the camp of the right wing, and those who do not have any strong political beliefs either way, but find May a plain enough canvas on which to project.

She is an avatar animated by the electorate’s tastes and lack of adventurism in a febrile time, something which she is aware of, and therefore ensures she never says anything unscripted. Her pedigree is perfect. She is Oxbridge without being a chinless Bullingdon buffoon, a woman and thus enough of a break from the usual fare without being too alternative, entitled without being reckless and thus unpredictable. She is a little bit old fashioned with her ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ jobs, but also a little bit modern with her leather trousers and quirky fashion. She is the banal patriotism for whatever the country represents, without the actual love. She is a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mug. She is today’s Britain 101. 

So many on the left don’t see it, rightly observing that May has little tangible substance and is quite possibly incompetent, and blaming the inability to take her on on Corbyn or a ‘crisis of the left’. But it is all much more sweeping than that. May captures a moment in the country’s history that has been taking shape for years and she will rule for many many seasons. Brexit was the country’s last act of political animation before it settles down to a cheeky Nando’s in front of Gogglebox.

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