Crushing Saboteurs: Theresa May’s ‘Schmittian’ Gamble


On the eve of the 2015 General Election, The Independent published an article entitled In Defence of Liberal Democracy. Stopping short of giving an express endorsement of the then ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the article, nevertheless gave clear intimations as to the paper’s preferred outcome. In particular, the paper expressed strong fears regarding the rise of nationalism and resultant fragmentation in the Union that it would trigger, particularly from Scottish independence. In order to stop these forces, the article concluded by putting faith in the then coalition Government and, in particular, the Liberal Democrats.

Fast-forward two years and that editorial has not aged well. Aside from predicting an ‘inevitable’ hung parliament in 2015, its concerns regarding the fragmentation of the Union and the rise of nationalism are more prescient than ever. The political party that is undoubtedly responsible for this is the Conservative Party which converted the internal party dispute that was Brexit into a constitutional question. However, when Theresa May tried to exploit this question again to gain a landslide victory in the General Election, it backfired spectacularly. The tone and justification for the election in the early days reveal the underlying thinking of the campaign and, also, why it failed: the attempt at separating friend from enemy and using parliamentary democracy to do so.

Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism and Parliamentary Democracy

Carl Schmitt was a prominent German constitutional theorist of the Weimar era and into the Nazi Third Reich. Schmitt argued that the social stability necessary to found a state and legal order could only be realised through the creation of an ethnically- homogenous ‘people’ or volk. If the volk was too ‘different’, the disagreements between the different groups in society would erupt, rendering the state unstable and collapsing. Therefore, before a state can be established, a distinction must be drawn between friend and enemy. The state can only consist of friends, with the enemy left outside of the state. It is only in this manner that the stability necessary for establishing a state and legal order can be secured. For Schmitt, this distinction between ‘friend and enemy’ is not one made by or controlled by law. In contrast, it is based upon the irrational decision made by the all-powerful political force: the sovereign. The racist potential of this theory is clear and it should come as no surprise that Schmitt both embraced and was embraced by the Nazi regime that emerged from the ashes of Weimar Germany.

Now, of course, it may be argued that all political discourse can be conceptualised as a manifestation of this friend-enemy distinction. “Us v Them” is often an unavoidable aspect of political discourse. However, Schmitt was at pains to stress that the friend-enemy distinction did not refer to the slings and arrows of every day politics within a state. Rather, it concerned the fundamental distinction necessary to ensure the homogeneity of the volk and in turn, the stability of the state. The friend-enemy distinction therefore referred to the tensions and distinctions between the state and those outside of the state. The intensity that marks the friend-enemy distinction is the potential for war and for Schmitt, war was the ‘existential negation of the enemy’. That stated, Schmitt did admit that internal disagreements within a state could intensify to the point that they would satisfy the friend-enemy distinction. It is for this reason, Schmitt was vehemently against liberalism and parliamentary democracy as for him they were ‘the enemy of enemies’. Schmitt argues that liberalism and parliamentary sovereignty either perpetually postpone the necessary decision to distinguish friend from enemy or couches its own politics in faux claims of neutrality.

Theresa May’s Schmittian General Election

If Mayism meant anything, it was the Schmittian belief in a unitary national identity necessary to create a stable political order. And Brexit was the question upon which this could be established. Clues to this were evident from Theresa May’s speech at the annual Conservative Party conference in October 2016 where she stated that, ‘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.’ Her justification for calling a snap general election six months later was a continuation of this theme of unitary national identity:

‘At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.’

Disagreement, the very thing that which parliaments are designed to mediate and resolve was thus framed as sedition, with May’s cheerleader and advisor-in-chief the Daily Mail calling on her to ‘Crush the Saboteurs’. In this regard, Fintan O’Toole argues that May’s constant reiteration of ‘the people have spoken’ to silence all dissent over Brexit, harkens back to Rousseau’s analysis of the French Revolution. This is certainly the case; however, turning this against parliamentary democracy as May sought to do is pure Schmitt.

The Conservative Party thus tried to conduct the election campaign on the basis of this friend-enemy distinction. They tried to intensify the election campaign and conduct it on the existential question of Brexit and the unitary identity of the volk. This certainly worked at the outset of the campaign. After returning from Buckingham Palace upon the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May, May accused the EU of meddling in the British General Election, going so far as saying that European politicians issued threats against Britain. The following day the Conservatives gained a swing of 8% and 563 additional councillors in the local elections.

The Failed Schmittian Gamble

Ultimately, however, this strategy failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, May not only ignored that fact that 48% of the UK voted remain but that two constituent parts of the UK also voted by a majority to remain. In particular, Northern Ireland’s status within the UK is entirely dependent upon power-sharing between two distinct groups. Thus, the difficulty in establishing the friend-enemy distinction through the ballot box rather than through the irrational decision of an all-powerful Sovereign is demonstrated. It is for this reason that Schmitt argued that the people cannot decide. All they can do is affirm or reject a decision that has already been made by the all-powerful Sovereign. May’s strategy therefore embraced Schmitt’s critique of liberalism but ignored his critique of parliamentary democracy.

 Secondly, the Labour campaign sought to de-escalate the narrative of the general election towards the everyday disagreements as to funding for the NHS, university tuition fees, and other ‘day-to-day’ issues. These are important questions; however, the big existential question of Brexit was conspicuous as to its absence and many lamented any meaningful engagement with the elephant in the room. Labour thus sought to fight the election on a class analysis of inequality in the UK rather than a nationalist one based on fears of immigration and thinly-veiled racism.

Even two terrorist attacks were not enough to ratchet the intensity of the debate up again to the level of the friend-enemy distinction. Had the General Election been conducted on the basis of Brexit, debate would not have been about the intricacies of any potential deal; instead, it would undoubtedly have been on the more Schmittian level of the friend-enemy distinction, exactly the same as that which had occurred last summer which was conducted with such vitriol.


The 2017 General Election therefore was battle over the intensity of the political debate in the UK and, thankfully, the more banal issues were what dominated the narrative. This may, in turn, lead to a ‘softer’ Brexit as the Parliamentary vote on the final deal is now no-longer a foregone conclusion.  The ultimate irony therefore of the General Election is that a campaign that can be explained as motivated by Schmitt’s authoritarian philosophy has led to a hung parliament were power has become fragmented and compromise will be key. It has led to the epitome of that which Carl Schmitt’s attack of parliamentary democracy centred on. This does not necessarily mean, however, that parliamentary democracy and liberalism are robust enough to confront Schmitt. That is, perhaps, a question for another blogpost… or maybe another editorial from the Independent.

In defence of liberal democracy, indeed.


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Connecting the Dots between the Lone Wolf and ISIS

Alan Greene, Durham University

While the magnitude of the attack on people enjoying a Saturday evening out in London on June 3 was not on the same scale as the carnage wrought on Manchester the previous month, terrorism and fear of terrorism is not just about the body count.

If what scared the public and motivated politicians most was simply an actuarial risk-assessment exercise, we would be far more afraid of road accidents – or domestic violence, which 432 people (mostly women) lost their lives to in the UK between April 2012 and March 2015.

Rather, what makes terrorism such a visceral and emotive phenomenon is that it is, essentially, political violence. Terrorism courts publicity. It is about the “propaganda of the deed” and using violence to communicate a political message.

The form of the Manchester attack was particularly striking given its use of explosives and the targeting of mostly young teenage girls – a particularly vulnerable section of society – at a concert. But such attacks have become rare in the UK due to a multitude of surveillance and security powers and the cooperation of local communities. Instead, it seems, “low-tech” attacks that use vehicles and knives are on the rise, exploiting the banality of the objects they employ as weapons to avoid arousing suspicion.

Yet these low-tech attacks also seek to send a message. Terrorist attacks are designed to communicate strength through the use of shock tactics.

Islamic State (IS) propaganda is replete with militaristic images, and seeks to recruit followers to join its supposedly massive, well-equipped army. Ironically, low tech attacks should fail to do this – and communicate the exact opposite. They are an express admission that the individual terrorists do not possess the technical capabilities or resources to carry out other, more sophisticated forms of attack. So why then are these low-tech attacks not conceptualised as a sign of weakness?

The lone wolf needs a pack

Following the March attack on Westminster, Prime Minister Theresa May appeared on national TV to reassure the public that one man with a car and a knife would not silence democracy. Of course, he can’t. One man with a bomb in Manchester and three with knives in London could not do so either.

The following day in a speech to Parliament, the Prime Minister again stressed that the attacker acted alone; however, she then in the same speech described the attack as “an attack on free people all over the world”. In so doing, the Westminster attack was framed, not as the actions of a lone individual, but as part of a global trend of similar attacks. Connecting the dots between each so-called “lone wolf” magnifies the threat of IS – and the individuals who claim allegiance to it – increasing their perceived capabilities to “sow terror”.

Given this extra oxygen of publicity, these attacks act as either an inspiration for other copycat attacks or as a recruiting tool for IS. The lone wolf needs IS to give their actions meaning and to magnify their impact beyond the immediate “ground zero” of their attack. Without it, the attacker is just that: a killer with a car and a knife. Similarly, IS needs the lone wolves to demonstrate to the world that their reach extends their immediate sphere of influence. The lone wolf needs the pack as much as the pack needs the lone wolf.

In reality, however, there may be no real communication between IS commanders in the territory they hold in Iraq and Syria, and the attacks they inspire. In fact, there may be no link at all except for that which exists in the minds of attackers; a link that is reified by our willingness to attribute their actions to IS. In turn, we send a signal to other would-be attackers that they too will be elevated to the status of IS fighter in the minds of the public should they decide to carry out similar atrocities.

Certainly, the modus operandi of the London Bridge attack looked like previous attacks attributed to IS – for example, in Nice, France in July 2016 and at a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany in December 2016. The attack also bore a striking resemblance to that carried out by Khalid Masood on Westminster Bridge in March. That attack was also attributed to IS in the popular press yet, to date, the police have found no link between any terrorist organisation and Masood.

IS also claimed responsibility for an attack on a casino in the Philippines on 2 June that left 37 people dead. It subsequently transpired that this attack had nothing to do with IS at all. Why then are we so eager to attribute every possible terrorist attack to IS?

Politicians and the media take great pains to label IS as “so-called Islamic State” or “Daesh” so as not to legitimise it. Yet any reticence to label an incident as terrorist and linking it back to IS is wholly absent. So the group that is supposedly “delegitimised” by being referred to as “so-called” is then, often in the same sentence, aggrandised as capable of carrying out terrorist attacks across the globe, far beyond the territory under its control.

How to fight back

In light of this, what response is needed? Much like terrorism itself, counter-terrorist responses are very often about symbolism and communicating a message, too. Counter-terrorism is about the state seeking to reassert itself and reassure its citizens following a demoralising attack. Often it is unclear whether these measures will make us any safer. Indeed, the more extreme measures may even be counter-productive as evidenced by the use of internment in Northern Ireland, which ravaged community cohesion and acted as the single biggest recruitment tool for the IRA.

Following the Westminster attack in March, Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for new powers for security agencies to access private communications such as WhatsApp which are currently protected by end-to-end encryption. Then on Sunday, Theresa May proposed a new plan centred on tackling online extremism. The difficulty is, however, that there is zero evidence at the present time suggesting that such measures would make us safer.

Low-tech attacks that use knives or vehicles demonstrate that laws surrounding the possession of fire arms or materials that could be used to manufacture explosives are more than sufficiently robust. It is difficult to see therefore what new laws, if any, the UK could enact. This is not to say, however, that we, as a society, are hopeless to confront these attacks.

There may certainly be a case for more resources for police and security services to enable them to make use of the resources they have. However, this is not a point I wish to argue here. Rather, perhaps the one thing we should all agree to do is refuse to connect the dots for IS.

The ConversationWe should refuse to aggrandise both them and the attackers that have committed these heinous atrocities, instead framing the events as the criminal actions of lone individuals. In turn, we should avoid polarising language about engagement in a war of civilisations. Such talk simultaneously divides society in the manner that IS seeks to do while also aggrandising IS into a threat that is capable of challenging our way of life.

Alan Greene, Lecturer in Law, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.