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The Stolen Feathers Are Not Working For You, Theresa May

20/03/2017 12:59
Meriel Jane Waissman via Getty Images

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump have been encouraging me to think of Aesop a lot recently. Not because their wisdom and narrative skills mirror that of the slave and storyteller of ancient Greece, but because of one fable attributed to him.

You might know it as The Vain Jackdaw or The Bird in Borrowed Feathers. The tale has been told in different ways through the centuries but the core theme remains the same.

In one version, the jackdaw flies over the garden of a King's palace and sees, with a mixture of wonder and envy, a flock of peacocks. The jackdaw decides he would be fit for the society of royal peacocks if he looked like them, so he found some of their cast-off feathers and stuck them onto his own.

Returning to his community of jackdaws, he "strutted loftily" to show off, before flying to the royal garden to be among the peacocks. However, they saw beneath the stolen feathers. Angry at the impostor, the peacocks plucked away the stolen feathers and some of his own. When he returned to his own kind, the jackdaw flock punished his show of superiority by attacking him and driving him away.

Another version involves a drab looking bird, often a crow, taking the feathers of other birds to try to outshine them in a beauty contest. He wins, but the stolen feathers start to fall off and so the other birds see through the fraud. The rest off the stuck-on feathers are pecked away, leaving the cheat humiliated.

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump have been using a lot of feathers from other birds. Those of us who obsess over the preening bird show of politics saw them adorning themselves quite some time ago, and therefore it is not surprising to see the feathers falling to the ground at this point.

A bit of nationalism here, oh yes that will appeal to the hard-right! A bit of pretend one-nation drivel here, that will look pretty! A bit of nostalgia for the oldies and those whose pasts were much better than the present. A pinch of Thatcher, a touch of Reagan, yes that will do nicely! But it doesn't, Theresa and Donald, it is cringe-worthy that you even try it. And it is excruciating that you think the public is so stupid that this approach is sustainable.

In Theresa May's speech to the Conservative spring conference on Friday, she might have felt she was looking resplendent from every political angle, but what I saw on the stage was a grubby pile of old feathers on the floor. It is not just that the feathers are blatantly stolen, and therefore fake, but they don't even fit together.

For instance, someone who sent 'Go Home' vans out to intimidate immigrants, and who is dragging the UK towards a hard Brexit, looks ludicrously hypocritical when using the term "obsessive nationalism" in relation to Scots who want to be free of the preening and self-interested Westminster government.

Like so much in her time since stumbling into the role of prime minister, the political costume is thrown together with haste but no sincerity or wisdom. Just like her widely mocked sound bites "Brexit means Brexit" and "We want a red white and blue Brexit", there is no substance to Theresa May's botched cloak of stolen feathers.

Making claims, as she did in Fridays speech, about transcending 'race' and 'class' to build a meritocracy, does not fit with either the toxic xenophobia the hard Brexit movement has fuelled or the fact that new grammar schools are more likely to help the middle class than poorer children.

The push to spend a fortune on new grammar schools, while the schools we have are falling apart and understaffed, is just another example of May trying to glue feathers to herself. This particular adornment, to appeal to the nostalgic and sharp-elbowed, was taken from rotting birds that died decades ago. Nevertheless, oblivious to the state of those old feathers, Theresa May plucked them, glued them on and proudly preened in front of the party faithful, even as other feathers she stuck on recently were falling to the floor.

As for Trump, his stolen feathers are falling off almost as fast as he can glue them on. This is one reason why he has returned to short rallies, where the feathers just have to shine for a few minutes - rather than press conferences where they will be pecked off in moments.

Instead of copying Trump's approach of snake oil salesman fakery, Theresa May would be wise to note his failures and consider why she feels the need to cover up. Her political message is flaky and lacks substance, but she has time to go back to the drawing board and find a way forward that is genuinely one-nation and intelligent. While she messes around with the feathers of more alluring, but dead and rotting, birds, she is failing to be true to herself, let alone the country. Furthermore, those feathers stink as badly as her awful Thatcher impersonation does.

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