The British Bad Dream

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Yesterday (10/4/2017) Theresa May gave a speech at the Conservative Party conference in which a remarkable number of things went wrong: she suffered an extended coughing fit, the comedian Simon Brodkin handed her a fake dismissal form ("P45") signed by Boris Johnson, and two letters fell off her background slogan "BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS (F)OR EVERYON(E)". For details and commentary, see e.g. "The cough, the P45, the falling F: Theresa May's speech calamity"; "Theresa May battles a sore throat and prankster in conference speech"; "Theresa May’s speech overshadowed by a persistent cough and a prankster"; "The most excruciating moments in Theresa May’s speech"; "Theresa May's nightmare speech: a prankster, a lost voice and a stage-set fail"; "Theresa May, Coughing and Caught by a Prankster, Endures a Speech to Forget".

But besides these performance issues, the content of the speech also came in for some criticism — there was the "British Dream" theme, and the alleged West Wing plagiarism.

The text of May's speech starts this way:

A little over forty years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative Party. I did it because it was the party that had the ideas to build a better Britain. It understood the hard work and discipline necessary to see them through.

And it had at its heart a simple promise that spoke to me, my values and my aspirations: that each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future. That each generation should live the British Dream. And that dream is what I believe in.

A few of the notable reactions on Twitter:

And then there's the apparent echo of a West Wing episode (See e.g. "Theresa May accused of plagiarising The West Wing in keynote speech to Conservative Party Conference", The Mirror 10/4/2017).

The video comparison seems more striking than the textual comparison:

Theresa May: And it is when tested the most that we reach deep within ourselves and find that our capacity to rise to the challenge before us may well be limitless.

Jed Bartlet: The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.

The general concept is the same, and the three words capacitychallengelimitless occur in the same order, but this seems to be a case where the speechwriter might well have been influenced by the original without intending a literal copy or even remembering the source.

The Mirror quotes "a senior Downing Street source" as saying that "There's no question of plagiarism. But if you're interesting the PM's favourite US TV shows, the West Wing isn't among them." This is amusing because it implies that Theresa May writes her own speeches. For more on the oddity of plagiarism accusations in politics, see

"Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006
"Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008
"Rand Paul's (staffers') plagiarism", 11/7/2013
"Intersecting hypocrisies", 7/20/2016

Oh, and one more presentational issue — "Theresa May speech: Is her Frida Kahlo bracelet sending a secret communist message?", The Express 10/4/2017. Or on the Twitter:

Perhaps Frida's ghost was also responsible for pulling the letters off the backdrop.

May's full speech is here:

[h/t Ian Preston]



  1. Arthur Baker said,

    October 4, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

    Whoa! Visual props don’t come much funnier than seeing letters drop off a sign which reads “Building a country that works for everyone”. If you can’t build a sign that stays intact for the duration of a party conference, what hope, one might be excused for thinking, for a country that works for anyone, even for a microsecond? Poor sod. By the end of it, she probably felt more in need of a VAT69 than a P45.

  2. Keith said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 2:09 am

    The Mirror wrote “But if you’re interested in the PM’s favourite US TV shows, the West Wing isn’t among them.”

    The Economist Espresso (daily bulletin delivered by cellphone) this morning wrote: "… the stage-set lost some of its letterin" [sic]. The Economist has much more humour than the Mirror.

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 2:38 am

    Hm. Should it not be "bad British dream"? Sounds better to these non-native ears.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 3:49 am

    Jarek: I can never remember the technical words, but 'bad dream' here is a single entity – a nightmare, or the milder form where you wake up upset but not actually terrified.

    It's a British example of a bad dream, not a bad example of a British dream.

  5. Bev Rowe said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 5:37 am

    What I find amazing is that with forty years of close experience, she hasn't realised the true nature of the Conservative Party.

  6. J said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 8:57 am

    The Barlet speech was all over social media, as many quoted, "the streets of Heaven are filled with angels" after the massacre in Vegas. The writer probably heard it.

  7. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

    @Jen: Thanks! Make perfect sense, and you made me realize it works exactly the same way in my first language.

  8. D.O. said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

    I am a bit surprised that in a headline after headline it is "Theresa May" all the time. Never only Theresa or only May.

  9. Arthur Baker said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

    D.O., perhaps headline writers regard using only the given name as disrespectful. And her surname, being a modal verb, is difficult to deploy by itself without unintended overtones.

  10. ajay said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 5:03 am

    It would be very unusual indeed for a British non-tabloid source to use first name only in a headline, except possibly for royalty. But, contra D.O., it's quite common for her to be "May" only. Headlines in the Guardian over the last few days show a fairly even split between "Theresa May" and just "May", though my instinct would be that "May" is much less common that "Blair" or "Brown" or "Cameron" were. As well as being a modal verb, it's also a month, after all, and something like "May debate victory weakens Labour" could leave you legitimately confused, especially if it appeared in early June.

    Tory ministers privately agree May should go, says Grant Shapps
    Tory elite undermines May as young turn against capitalism
    Theresa May in battle for survival as Tories sharpen knives
    Theresa May will fight and win next election, says Damian Green
    Philip Hammond raises further doubts about May's future as Tory leader Davis dismissive of Johnson's influence on May's Florence speech
    Boris Johnson: I won't quit over Theresa May's Brexit speech
    Theresa May attempts to reassert authority after Johnson's Brexit claim
    Furious Tory MPs reject Theresa May’s threats over Brexit votes

  11. Rodger C said,

    October 7, 2017 @ 11:18 am

    Then there are us Americans who might think first of James May.

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