Is Liz Truss a mere symptom of the UK’s decline?

People around the world usually associate the British with traits such as decency, common sense, level-headedness, prudence and fair play. However, for those who observe closely, and even less closely, current British politics feels as if all of these commendable characteristics have been sadly thrown off the top of the Big Ben tower.

This is epitomized by years of instability that kicked off in 2016 with the ill-conceived referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, which since then has claimed the scalps of four Conservative prime ministers, leaving the country facing one of its worst-ever social and economic crises, and in the process becoming the world’s laughing stock.

The saga of members of the Conservative Party electing Liz Truss as their leader, and for the rest of us as prime minister, lasted an embarrassing 44 days, and considering the damage her government caused in such a short time, even her rushed resignation felt long overdue, given the consequences of her finance minister’s announcement of an economic plan that could not have been more detached from reality.

Yet, with the chaotic and emotional scenes of the last few days it is difficult to avoid becoming immersed in the here-and-now intricacies of British politics, while ignoring the fact that this is only the latest episode in the decline of what of has become the dis-United Kingdom.

Much discussion has inevitably concentrated on the chaotic manner in which the country’s affairs are being conducted by Westminster and the resignation of two prime ministers in quick succession, but all this is a mere symptom of a country that has lost its sense of direction, and is struggling with the tensions between being a modern democratic liberal society, while still unable and unwilling to completely rid itself of an enduringly class-based social and economic structure and a nostalgia for what too many consider to be a glorious imperial past.

This weighs heavily on Britain’s shoulders, and its prevailing island mentality is holding it back from becoming a genuine modern-progressive society fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Truss has now gone, and soon her premiership will be confined to a very brief entry in the UK’s annals that refers to someone who had more ambition than the necessary competence to lead a political party, let alone a country. Within minutes of her pitiful resignation speech, more likely even before she spoke, the “ruthless party” was busy searching for her successor.

The failure of Truss is just one more result of the repeated failure of the Conservative party in the course of its 12 long years in power, to produce decent and competent leaders and policies for all.

Yossi Mekelberg

Despite the justified criticisms of Truss and the incomprehensible manner in which she approached her ascendency to 10 Downing Street, the party’s MPs and members who voted for her and her “fantasy economics,” as her rival for the leadership (and now Conservatice Party leader) Rishi Sunak put it, must shoulder much responsibility for throwing the country into this upheaval.

Those are the same people who believed in all the fantasies of her predecessor Boris Johnson about the merits of Brexit, and all his lies about, well, almost everything.

How on earth could the great people of the British Isles, who are supposed to believe in common sense, decency and fair play, elect a government of Robin Hoods in reverse, who in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis have seen fit to cut taxes for the rich, who have too many xenophobic ministers claiming that immigrants and asylum-seekers are an existential threat to the character of the country, and who are harming the national interest by constantly picking quarrels with their neighboring countries?

How could it be right for the same people who inflicted on us the totally disastrous, appallingly ill-judged, though thankfully short, premiership of Truss, to be entitled to promptly go about choosing another prime minister while we, the rest of the British public, are mere bystanders?

It is simply preposterous that the political system as it currently stands should allow them to do this twice in a row, after they have already inflicted chaos and confusion on the economy and society, leaving the financial markets despairing of the pound, inflation at a 40-year high and interest rates rising inexorably, and spreading anxiety among millions of people who cannot afford to buy sufficient food or pay their energy and mortgage bills and thus face the dire consequence of losing their home.

The failure of Truss is just one more result of the repeated failure of the Conservative party in the course of its 12 long years in power, to produce decent and competent leaders and policies for all.

But the country has been in a state of flux for many years, and has been deeply divided over the basic values and ideology of running a modern liberal-democratic welfare society, especially in a globalized world environment. These deep disagreements were focused for a long time on the issue of being part of Europe, after the UK joined the European Common Market in 1973. Subsequently being part of the EU meant accepting progressive labor rights, allowing the free movement of people, and taking crucial decisions in collaboration with other member states.

For many, this went against their exceptionalist, island mentality, and such people were not necessarily Conservative Party supporters. The enduring wish to preserve British uniqueness by differentiation and limited engagement with the “Continent” and the rest of the world, while still holding on to the past through being the driving force behind the Commonwealth of Nations, which is comprised of former possessions of Britain’s Empire, illustrates the UK’s inability redefine its character and mission for the 21st century. Its history and traditions have become a burden instead of an asset.  Both Truss and Johnson, in their different ways, represented this confused and destructive approach which both creates social tensions at home, through clearly favoring the better off in society and perpetuating their status, and instigates tensions abroad as part of a nationalist-populist agenda.

But 12 years of Tory chaotic and partisan time in power has finally led the public to completely lose faith in them, and should elections be held today, opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives would be destined for near-extinction. At this very low point in British history lies also a great opportunity for a new government and direction, which listens to the majority of the British people, and is not afraid to play a constructive role on the world stage. For this to happen, the next UK government must be chosen by all the British people, not just the members of the Conservative Party.

• Yossi Mekelberg

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