As she faced the TV cameras and the inevitable on Friday morning, Theresa May fought to keep her nerve.
When a man in power shows emotion, he is being thoroughly modern; when a woman does the same, she is letting the side down.
Eventually, it was all too much and in the desperate dying seconds of her statement, her voice went and her granite stare crumpled. She was human after all.
That revelation shocked many who had stockpiled contempt for a relentless android incapable of computing any event not anticipated by her programme.
Every Labour voter I have spoken to in the last 48 hours has expressed sympathy for May. They disdain her politics and policies and think she was a disaster but they saw a woman broken by her own faults and two years of glancing blows from cowards. Who could fail to be moved by such a sight?
Quite a lot of people, actually — at least those salaried zealots on the payroll of Politics, Inc: elected members, staffers and activists. Scottish Labour released a statement from its current leader that was utterly lacking in grace, and the party’s PR operation attacked opponents for finding a few warm words about May.
David Lammy, the once thoughtful Labour MP who has discovered student union politics a quarter-century late, tweeted: ‘If you are gushing with sympathy for Theresa May, pause and think about the thousands of victims of her Hostile Environment policies. Think about the neglect of the Grenfell Tower fire survivors. Think about the EU citizens she insulted & exploited.’
Senior Nationalist MP Joanna Cherry told a Sunday newspaper: ‘I won’t shed a tear for Theresa May. She’s treated Scotland and our government, parliament and MPs with contempt.’
It fell to Nicola Sturgeon to remind those purling at the guillotine that the Prime Minister ‘deserves thanks for her service’. She added: ‘Regardless of our differences of opinion I hope, as I said after our first meeting, that seeing a female first minister welcoming a female prime minister to Scotland showed little girls everywhere that nothing is off limits to them.’
A worthy foe had been vanquished and the honourable thing to do was give her a tip of the hat, not a dig in the ribs. Sturgeon’s response showed class, though in an earlier age it would have been simply routine. The more enlightened we become, the more like barbarians we act.
On social media, the Olympic stadium of competitive wokeness, gleeful contumely was justified by government policy towards the poor and disabled, which is said to have killed thousands.
The claim derives from a 2017 study that estimated an additional 120,000 deaths this decade than there would have been had the previous decade’s mortality rate continued. Researchers noted a correlation between the increased mortality rate and the government’s programme of cuts to health and social care.
While the lead author warned that his work could not prove a causal link, one of his collaborators branded austerity ‘good class politics’ and ‘economic murder’. In the contest between these two conclusions, the latter was always going to win among political partisans.
If Conservative spending reform kills en masse, if it is implemented in full knowledge of these results, if it is targeted at specific income groups and medical conditions, then it is plainly a social genocide and those responsible mass murderers in the dock with history’s greatest monsters.
How warm the righteous glow that finds villainy in an opponent’s policy and intent in their ineptitude. There is no longer any need to engage; indeed, reflection and self-criticism become a dangerous indulgence when confronted by the congenitally wicked.
At last the debate has been wrested from the dull confines of politics, where reasonable people may differ, and elevated to the eternal struggle between Good and Evil.
In a supposedly secular age, politics promises salvation through messianic leaders, the spurning of impious facts as blasphemy, and the denunciation of apostates. In place of faith, hope and charity, there is tribalism, fear and resentment. Armageddon plays out every day and the end of the world is forever just one election or parliamentary vote away.
Once you are in the grips of apocalyptic politics, Theresa May stops being a comically hapless negotiator or a cynical immigration demagogue and becomes the Devil in stylish heels.
Apocalyptic politics makes its adherents see devils everywhere. Take Tory MSP Annie Wells. How do you manage to hate Annie Wells? She’s a Glaswegian Thatcherite lesbian single mother; the only outrage is that BBC Scotland hasn’t commissioned a sitcom about her. But there are people who rage about Wells all day long — who insult and abuse and even threaten her online.
Police had already warned her to enhance her security and stop going out alone when, last week, her constituency office was hit by fire, an incident now under investigation by officers.
Then there is Joan McAlpine, the SNP MSP. She challenges the transgender orthodoxy which has insinuated itself into public and private institutions, in particular education and the third sector, with little debate or democratic mandate.
McAlpine sees grave danger in the rush to erase sex in favour of gender identity, which would allow, for example, in-tact men who ‘self-identify’ as women to demand access to the same services, bathrooms and rape shelters as natal women.
For this, she is calumnied as a bigot and slandered as a ‘TERF’ (‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’) and even the staunchest Unionist opponent of this staunchest of Nationalists would be sickened to see the vitriol to which she is subjected online.
There is an incipient violence to this strain of politics, a shadow-boxing rehearsal for the real thing. Nigel Farage is not the most sympathetic of figures but when chucking a milkshake over him is greeted with hooting congratulation, and a rallying cry that others to his way of thinking be dealt the same treatment, an ominous change has occurred.
Our traditions of civility and courtesy have been replaced by swaggering intolerance. We have stopped listening to both sides of the argument. We no longer believe there are two sides.
More than the undercurrent of threat is this flight from reason. Heterodoxy is now heresy, a dissenting idea an offensive weapon and polite, respectful disagreement a form of hate speech.
Meanwhile, rivals are scorned as demons, literal assault defended as a political statement and incitement celebrated for expressing solidarity with one favoured group or another. All that is profane has become sacred.
How we pull back from this I do not know. The draw of apocalyptic politics may be too powerful to resist. These are angry times and it tells us our anger isn’t merely excusable but imperative — that there is something morally deficient with those who remain calm and respectful of obviously depraved opponents.
There is an insidious appeal to any worldview that aggrandises the sins of others and absolves our own trespasses because we are on the side of the angels. It offers up Theresa May or Annie Wells or Joan McAlpine as the source of our problems, personal and political, and odium as the only solution. Hate them enough and you might like yourself a little more.
The only hope I cling to is that this will remain a pathology of the politically obsessed. Most people I know, out there in the real world where there is more than politics and Twitterstorms no more register than the faintest breeze, do not think like this.
They are not seized by hatred. They welcome other points of view. Those who disagree with them are not fiends but friends — and spouses and siblings and work colleagues.
They understand what those who govern in their name do not: That politics is not Good versus Evil or even life and death most of the time. It’s about trying to fix the mess the last lot left while inadvertently leaving something for the next lot to clean up.
Blind faith can blind you to an earthly truth: neither demons nor angels, we’re all flawed and just trying to make it through.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image © Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.