Photo: Rythum Vinoben

Theresa May talks Brexit, climate change and political division

May, who served as the U.K.’s prime minister from 2016 to 2019, spoke about the divisive present and potentially promising future of Western democracies at the 100th Ogden Lecture at Brown University.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What spurred the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party to push a referendum to leave the European Union? According to Theresa May, it was a growing recognition that many in the country felt left behind by rapid societal changes.

“There was… this wider sense that politics wasn’t working for many people,” May said. “People felt they were left behind, politics wasn’t working for them. We felt the issue had to be addressed.”

Theresa May and Christina Paxson at Brown University
Theresa May, right, spoke with Brown President Christina Paxson in a Q&A following her talk. Photo: Rythum Vinoben

Speaking to a crowd of more than 2,000 at Brown University on Wednesday, March 4, the former U.K. prime minister shared insights on issues ranging from global political division to climate change to Brexit, the 2016 referendum in which British voters approved withdrawal from the European Union. May ascended to Britain’s highest elected office following the resignation of David Cameron after the referendum.

In a Q&A with Brown President Christina H. Paxson following a talk, May said many of those driven to vote “leave” felt disillusioned by the state of the U.K. in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which exacerbated economic inequality both in Great Britain and abroad and played a role in stoking tensions between native Britons and immigrants.

“It’s supposed to be about a single issue — it’s a single question — but other things always come into people’s decisions on how to vote on a referendum,” she said. “There was a growing sense that they didn’t want to be told what to do by Brussels. Immigration is one of the issues where they wanted [the U.K.] government to make its own decisions on immigration rules. But there was also this wider sense… that certain parts of the U.K. were doing very nicely, thank you, in economic terms, and other parts weren’t.” 

May visited Brown to deliver the 100th Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs, named in memory of the Class of 1960 Brown graduate who planned to pursue a career promoting international peace before he died in 1963. Past guests have included diplomats, religious leaders and heads of state from around the world, including Cameron in 2017. May’s talk was titled “Politics, Populism and Polarization: Perspectives on the Global Economy.”

A member of the U.K. Conservative Party, May was prime minister from 2016 to 2019, when she resigned. She was just the second woman to hold the position, after Margaret Thatcher. Previously, she made history by becoming the longest-serving Conservative home secretary in the past 100 years. Today, she represents the constituency of Maidenhead in Parliament.

Economic and racial tensions are hardly unique to her home country, May noted at the beginning of her presentation. She observed a “growing assertiveness” among far-right nationalist political leaders, whom she characterized as “state actors who have never subscribed to democratic values.” Fueling their rise, she said, were polarized viewpoints and growing rancor in public debate, a result of increased insecurity as technological advances shift society and as offshoring continues to siphon blue-collar work away from Western countries. 

Our economies need to work for everyone, in every community, in small provincial towns as well as big metropolitan cities

Theresa May U.K. Prime Minister

May also said politicians’ inability to halt climate change is sowing doubt about the effectiveness of the traditional democratic system among young generations.

“If climate change proceeds unchecked... the effects will inevitably fall hardest upon the young,” she said. “I suspect this is at least part of the explanation why younger people have less confidence in democratic politics to deliver for them. Decisions taken by successive governments over many years have contributed to the challenges we now face. And there's been too little evidence that politicians are serious about taking action to remedy it.”

The solution to all of these growing tensions, May said, might be for Western democracies to harness the power of new technologies to restore confidence in democratic core values and the institutions that embody them. For example, making a technological breakthrough in developing electric cars could not only help to curb climate change, she said, but could also create new jobs for skilled laborers.

“Our economies need to work for everyone, in every community, in small provincial towns as well as big metropolitan cities,” she said. “This fourth industrial revolution has the potential to be transformative. It’s therefore essential that governments play an active role in shaping its development and ensuring everybody can benefit.” 

In the Q&A with Paxson, where she answered questions posed by Brown students and faculty, May expanded on the plans she helped to develop as prime minister to curb climate change. She said the progress the U.K. has made is a result of a combination of new laws and government incentives — a recent ban on the production of microbeads in cosmetics, for instance — and growing public pressure on companies to amend unsustainable practices. 

May, who got her start in politics stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative Association, also doled out advice to students who aspired to political careers. She cautioned women against caving to pressure to “behave like the men” in the political sphere and encouraged all political hopefuls to persist in the quest to improve others’ lives.

“Go ahead, go into it, persevere, keep going,” she said. “Politics can be a real rough and tumble. The key, I suppose... is to be true to yourself.”