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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