The figure of Boudica, queen of the Iceni, is surprisingly resilient. Since the Renaissance, she has turned up in public discourse pretty consistently in Britain, from celebrations of the defeat of the Spanish Armada to the imperialist triumphalism of the late Victorian era. Over this long period, Boudica has come in for criticism, as well as for lionisation. The latest example of the latter is Nick Timothy’s recent article in The Sun, encouraging his former boss, Theresa May, to “find her inner Boudicca [sic]”, in negotiations with the EU.
The Windrush scandal and the subsequent resignation of yet another Cabinet Minister, Amber Rudd, means that Theresa May’s continued occupancy of No. 10 Downing Street appears ever more insecure. Her political obituary has already been written on multiple occasions, and yet she continues to survive.
Has there ever been a British Prime Minister who has displayed such resilience when their odds of political survival looked so bleak?
Yes. His name is Harold Wilson.
These days Wilson is more commonly compared to David Cameron, as in 2016 when Cameron attempted without success to follow Wilson’s playbook on how to win a European referendum. However, in political style and temperament Wilson has far more in common with May than Cameron.
As long as Theresa May’s Conservative government is representing the UK at the Brexit negotiating table, Britain’s imperial past will continue to haunt its European withdrawal. The ghost that looms largest is none other than the prime minister’s “political hero” and “new lodestar”, Birmingham’s turn-of-the-century imperial protectionist, Joseph Chamberlain.