In September 1923, the Empire of Great Britain, already the largest the world had ever seen, grew to its peak geographic size following its assumption of control over the territory of Palestine. A century later, the United Kingdom has become one of the foremost declining powers of our time as domestic incompetencies, divisions, and delusions continue to drag the nation down. The U.K.’s power and significance have been deteriorating for a long time, but the past decade has marked one of the most pronounced segments of the fall of this once mighty country.
Why has this happened? Much of the problem can be attributed to those in power in the U.K. since 2010, who have overseen this era of austerity, crisis, and mockery. The Conservative Party, the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher that has long been a dominant force in British politics, has recently confirmed itself to be one of the most right-wing regimes in the Western democratic world. Not only are their policies extreme, but they have also proven themselves to be inept, self-serving, prejudicial actors who lack coherent ideological guidelines and primarily seek to maintain power.
The premise of this piece will be to take a journey through the last eight or so years of Conservative rule, to review the actions taken by a succession of governments and prime ministers, and to ascertain the negative consequences of more than a decade of governance by a party that does not understand or care about what it is doing to its people.
We begin our story in May of 2015, when the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, swept to a surprising election victory. Cameron’s Tories took advantage of an uninspiring and clumsy campaign by the opposition Labour Party to gain an outright majority in Parliament. But the election victory and the promises made to secure it would prove to be a poisoned chalice for the Prime Minister. To gain the support of voters and politicians from the far-right, anti-European U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron promised that, if he were reelected, he would call a referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union.
Cameron was a firm believer in remaining committed to the E.U. despite its problems, but he tied his hands with his overzealous promise. So, in 2016, he called the referendum, and the rest is history: the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union, initiating what has been a never-ending national crisis.
Since the Brexit vote, Britain’s GDP has shrunk by 2-3% per year, and its departure from the E.U. single market has contributed to the country’s 6.8% inflation rate in the price of consumer goods, the highest within the G7. Estimates say that leaving the European Union has added billions each year to Britons’ grocery bills, and the increased border checks on items entering the U.K. from the E.U. have resulted in retailers periodically rationing food and medical supplies.
As for David Cameron, who staked his political career on the calling of the referendum, the loss of his favored side was a significant indictment of his mandate to lead. Immediately following the vote, he resigned as Prime Minister before quitting Parliament entirely the next year, his political career seemingly dead and buried.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, inherited the mess made by the Brexit vote and struggled to perform damage control. Seeking to bolster her mandate, she called an election in 2017 that resulted in the Conservatives losing their outright majority and forced them to enter into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-line conservative Christian party in Northern Ireland staunchly opposed to gay marriage and abortion, and long opposed to efforts to create peace and power sharing in Northern Ireland.
May’s primary job was to deliver a satisfactory Brexit deal, an almost impossible task at which she did not succeed. Her time as prime minister came to an end in 2019, after her proposed withdrawal agreement failed to gain support from enough members of her party on multiple votes, and she stepped down.
Via another internal party ballot, May was soon replaced by her former foreign secretary, one of the leaders of the rebellion against her withdrawal agreement, and a man already well-known for being one of the most polarizing figures in U.K. politics – Boris Johnson. The former London mayor followed May’s lead in calling an election soon after being made the leader of his party and was able to ride public exhaustion with the protracted E.U. withdrawal process to secure a substantial outright majority.
Johnson successfully negotiated a withdrawal agreement approved by the E.U. and by Parliament, though the agreement remains highly controversial to this day for its treatment of Northern Ireland. In an effort to prevent the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland, goods traveling from one territory to the other are generally not subject to customs checks. However, goods traveling from the rest of the U.K. to Northern Ireland are subjected to checks, which has angered Unionists loyal to Britain, who see the protocol as separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. and moving it closer to a union with the Republic to its south. Tensions over this agreement have been steadily rising since early last year, and continue to threaten the long-term viability of the Good Friday Agreement and the maintenance of sectarian peace in Northern Ireland.
Johnson was no stranger to scandal prior to his term as prime minister, but during his time in power, hardly a day went by where he was not plagued by allegations of corruption, dishonesty, or ineptitude. Johnson was prime minister during the COVID-19 pandemic, which to date has claimed the lives of over two-hundred thousand in the U.K., one of the highest numbers in Europe. As it happened, the response of Johnson and his government was heavily criticized for its slow pace, lack of clarity, and frequent contradictions and reversals. Currently, Parliament is investigating the government’s actions to see if more could have been done. Government scientists have produced several substantial revelations. They have described Johnson as being “bamboozled” by basic scientific explanations of the situation in the form of data or graphs and stated that it was “awful” to watch him try to understand the information presented to him. Johnson also reportedly wanted to be injected with COVID-19 on live television to allay fears over its severity, though he later almost died from the virus upon contracting it.
The even bigger scandal from his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was the so-called “Partygate”, where Johnson and his staffers hosted parties, often rather raucous and alcohol-filled, at Downing Street in flagrant violation of the government’s own lockdown rules. These rules – as many pointed out – prevented thousands across the country from seeing their loved ones in hospital or holding proper funerals. Johnson initially claimed he had no knowledge of the parties, but it quickly became clear that he not only allowed the parties to continue uninhibited, but actively participated in them.
And as the Partygate investigation was coming to a head, it emerged that Johnson had promoted Chris Pincher, a man that he knew had several allegations of sexual misconduct made against him, to a party leadership position. This proved to be the final straw for his premiership, as the resignation of many of his cabinet ministers combined with general public distrust of his leadership compelled Johnson to resign.
But the problems kept coming. Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss, lasted a grand total of 44 days in office, after her outlandish budget proposal to massively cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations sent markets into a frenzy, and her government’s slow, uncalculated reversal stirred up additional chaos and distrust. And so, the Conservatives then were required to elect a new leader. Fatigued by having only recently concluded a leadership contest, the party was only able to muster up one candidate who fulfilled the requirement of having the backing of 100 MPs. That candidate was Rishi Sunak, who thus became prime minister having been elected by two millionths of a percent of the population (0.000002%).
Things have not gotten much better on Sunak’s watch. Sunak is the first person of color ever to lead the country, but he is also one of the most anti-democratic leaders the U.K. has seen for a long time. Under Sunak, the freedom to assemble and protest have been restricted in favor of greatly expanding the power of police to stop and search individuals without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and to bar people altogether from future protest activity if convicted of certain offenses. The government has also failed to deal with the substantial rates of inflation that have heavily hit the British economy. The government’s most recent plan has been to lower taxes in spite of major budget shortfalls and the fact that inflated wages will actually result in most working people paying higher rates anyway.
Probably the most egregious actions taken by Sunak’s government have been with regard to shutting out asylum seekers. In attempting to “stop the boats” filled with migrants primarily from war-torn Middle Eastern countries arriving on British shores, Sunak has championed zero-tolerance policies for asylum applicants, and a plan to send anyone detained without proper documentation to the small, densely populated, authoritarian nation of Rwanda.
Apart from being a flagrant violation of United Nations and E.U. regulations regarding the rights of asylum seekers to be granted protection and to be guaranteed against refoulement, or the return of migrants to countries where they will be unsafe, sending refugees and asylum seekers to a country like Rwanda is a completely ludicrous idea. Rwanda has been ruled for decades by Paul Kagame, a dictator with a military background who regularly persecutes political and ethnic opponents and rigs elections in his favor. In fact, current U.K. asylum laws actually designate Rwanda as a nation from which people may apply for asylum in order to receive protection in the U.K. It is also unclear whether it is feasible to send tens of thousands of people by boat or plane to a tiny country like Rwanda each year, whether we are speaking practically or financially.
Finally, to bring this whole bizarre series of events full circle, after Home Secretary Suella Braverman, one of the primary supporters of the Rwanda scheme, was sacked from her position after a series of inflammatory comments, including claiming that homelessness was a “lifestyle choice,” Sunak brought back the once politically-deceased David Cameron to serve as Foreign Secretary. Cameron is still not a member of the House of Commons, thus Sunak appointed him to the House of Lords, where he will serve, unelected, as the nation’s foremost political representative on foreign affairs.
The United Kingdom is an absolute mess, and it is clear who is largely responsible for it. As countries throughout the Western World grapple with challenges to democratic norms in response to the world becoming a more complicated, interconnected, and threatening place, the United Kingdom finds itself in quite possibly the most difficult position of any of its wealthy, developed allies. There can be hope that things will get better, as the Conservatives are badly trailing the Labour Party in the polls, with the next general election likely sometime within the next 12 months. That is not to say that Labour is the answer to all of the country’s problems — the party has its own severe issues with disunity, failure to promote inspiring messages, and a tendency to either lean too far left or too far to the middle — but you cannot get much worse than the current Conservative government.
The sun has most certainly set on the British Empire, the question now is whether the nation that once held off the advances of fascist totalitarianism almost single-handedly is set to sink beneath the waves of irrelevancy, dysfunction, and disorder.
Featured Image Source: CBC News