Britain’s Tories: the greatest show on earth?

World | Gwynne Dyer | Oct. 27, 2022

Italy is getting nervous. The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories) has now been led by five different prime ministers in only six years. Italy still holds the long-term record — a new government every 13 months since 1945 — but Britain is now nipping at its heels.

Even more impressively, the U.K. has gone through four Chancellors of the Exchequer (finance ministers) in the past four months. Britain, and particularly the Conservative Party, now resembles a circus clown car whose tightly packed riders keep tumbling out, falling over, quarrelling, setting off pointless fireworks, climbing back in, and doing it all over again.

The latest Tory ex-prime minister, Liz Truss, announced her resignation on Oct. 20 after being essentially overthrown by her own party’s rebellious members of parliament. Her first ‘mini-budget’, unveiled only last month, delighted her radical-right faction of the Tories, but its recklessness about huge unfunded borrowing horrified the markets and the banks.

She momentarily staved off a further collapse of the British pound and even higher interest rates by bringing in a new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. He effectively had the power to force her back to fiscal orthodoxy (by threatening to resign), but it was too little, too late to right the ship of state.

Former Conservative leader William Hague says her premiership was “hanging by a thread”.  Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that Truss was “unfit to hold the office of prime minister.” By Monday morning Oct. 17, almost all of Truss’s announced changes of tax cuts had been cancelled by her new chancellor and de facto boss, Jeremy Hunt, and the markets appeared to be calming down. However, they will not regard the U.K. as a safe place to put money for years to come.

On Thursday, Truss surrendered. And on Monday, Oct. 24 Rishi Sunak became Dead PM Walking number five.

The show certainly gives some innocent amusement to those who like watching once powerful and dignified entities performing serial pratfalls. Beyond all the shouting and schadenfreude, however, there is a curious political phenomenon unfolding here: a once-serious political party has gone gaga.

Everything that has happened politically in the United Kingdom since 2016, starting with the self-mutilation of Brexit right up to Liz Truss’s lunatic Tory version of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, is driven by an unarticulated belief that the country is in terminal decline, and that only radical and risky methods can reverse that.

I owe this observation to Patrick Cockburn, one of the most perceptive British journalists working today. He offers Russia as another example of the same phenomenon.

There are differences between these examples, of course. Russia’s great gamble to reverse its geopolitical and strategic decline is expressed as military aggression. That’s a typical initial response to a perceived fall in power due to the loss of an empire.

The United Kingdom is considerably ahead of Russia on that curve, having got most of its militaristic impulses out of its system with failed military campaigns against Egypt and in a few former colonies in the 1950s and ’60s.

What’s happening in Britain nowadays is an equally desperate but less violent attempt to reverse a long period of relative economic decline, from second-largest economy in the world in 1950 to sixth today (after India).

The more simple-minded nationalists see that as national failure. Brexit was the first radical but foolish attempt to turn the perceived decline around. Truss’s low-tax, high-debt nostrums were another.

This sort of nonsense probably won’t go on forever, because the economic ‘decline’ is just relative. Britain has lost ground to some ‘developing’ countries that are in the high-growth phase of their economic journey, and it has made some major domestic mistakes, but it’s still a rich country — far richer than it was 50 years ago.

This is a phenomenon that only strikes countries with an inflated view of their own importance, generally because they were once great powers or at least owned extensive colonial empires. Britain has a particularly bad case of it, but this too shall pass.

In the meantime, bring on the clowns! ■

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.