Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May opens Lehigh University’s “Compelling Perspectives” program

Surveying the flaming world from a stage at Lehigh University on Tuesday, Theresa May offset the trepidation with at least a few flashes of hope and humor, delivered gently but firmly in the sort of accent Americans have associated with British competence and pluck at least since Churchill.

If May, the former British prime minister, didn’t have answers for the planet’s most pressing problems — especially the military horrors leading the news every day — she indicated where those answers may lie: in cooperation and compromise, notions that seem to be aging badly in this era of political division and pandemic.

“Elections are won on center ground,” said May, who served as prime minister from 2016 to 2019. The conservative leader warned that the loss of that center to political polarity and absolutism is a threat to democracy and, in consequence, world security.

“You take the same view as me, in which case you’re a saint, or you disagree, in which case you’re the devil incarnate,” she said.

May noted that the decline in civility and compromise has been hastened by the rise of social media, likening it to giving a public forum to the man at the end of the bar who until now had been relegated to muttering his opinions into his beer.

“Now he mutters into social media and discovers all the other people muttering at the end of the bar,” she said.

This compelling sizing-up of what ails the world is what Lehigh hoped for when it invited May — referred to now as Lady May, Member of Parliament for the constituency of Maidenhead — to inaugurate “Compelling Perspectives,” its new program of discourse and debate on challenging topics.

The evening’s theme was national security. Hosted by Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble, the discussion was broad enough to encompass the Israel-Hamas war and the potential impact of artificial intelligence, among other topics.

The Middle East conflict arose repeatedly, with May voicing her hope for a two-state solution — establishing a state for Israelis and another for Palestinians — and her dread of a wider conflict.

May was the second female prime minister in British history, after Margaret Thatcher. She succeeded David Cameron, who resigned after British voters narrowly passed the Brexit referendum calling on the nation to leave the European Union.

May’s inability to craft a deal for the departure led to her resignation. She said Brexit negotiations were an example of leaders abandoning compromise, with the victors offering nothing to appease the 48% of Britons who wanted to remain in the EU.

Before occupying 10 Downing Street, May served as Home Secretary, tasked with keeping the nation secure. She was in the role as the nation prepared for the 2012 Olympics in London, an imposing logistical challenge that required the construction of stadiums and other buildings.

“From absolutely day one, security was being built into those buildings,” she said, noting the importance of foresight and preparation as a nation develops its infrastructure.

May also talked about overcoming the reluctance to share intelligence with other nations, using the story of Sergei Skripal as an example. In the English city of Salisbury in 2018, the former Russian intelligence agent and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by a nerve agent in an assassination attempt.

Both lived, but several months later, a woman who accidentally came in contact with the perfume bottle used to disperse the agent died.

May said her government’s intensive investigation concluded Russia was behind the assassination attempt. The nation shared its intelligence and the result was a the expulsion of Russian diplomats and other personnel from 28 countries.

“We achieved that because we were willing to share intelligence,” May said.

May prompted two rounds of applause in answering students who challenged her on Israel’s actions in Gaza, where Hamas militants are embedded among civilians. One accused the Jewish state of war crimes and a 75-year history of oppression amounting to genocide.

Israel, May said, has a right to defend itself, “but should do that in line with international law.” Hamas, meanwhile, “does not represent all Palestinian people.”

Helble said the next Challenging Perspectives event will be held in the spring, with another speaker offering a different take on the same topic. Details of that event will be announced later.

Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or
 Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May opens Lehigh University’s “Compelling Perspectives” program

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