Britain's political turmoil shatters its pragmatic image

That self-image was, many felt, part of British exceptionalism, part of the national brand
Last Updated : 21 October 2022, 10:56 IST

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When the United Kingdom walked out of the European Union two years ago, Brexit supporters believed British pragmatism and common sense would not only see them through but also allow their country to flourish as it stood alone.

That self-image was, many felt, part of British exceptionalism, part of the national brand.

Events of the past 12 months, with three British prime ministers occupying No. 10 Downing Street after Liz Truss quit Thursday following just 45 days in office, have shattered that image.

“There is no question that the UK's standing in the world has been severely battered by (Truss's resignation) and by the revolving door of prime ministers,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the international affairs think tank Chatham House.

“For the UK to regain respect — and an image of reliability — it needs to acquire another soon, one who is capable of putting policies into action,” Maddox added.

Years of political turbulence followed the 2016 UK referendum vote to abandon the other 27 countries in the EU.

British politics descended into warring factions, and Truss's transient administration may turn out to be the climax of that turbulent period.

The recent British narrative left some shaking their heads. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted after Truss's resignation: “Downhill downhill from Brexit. But tragic tragic for a great nation.”

Maddox, of Chatham House, said Brexit was a seismic event, delivering “a huge shock to the country's position in the world,” and left diplomats in London scratching their heads.

“It's not their image of Britain, which they saw for years as a beacon of stability,” she said.

The UK's attempt to redefine itself has gone off course. Far from the Cool Britannia moniker of 25 years ago, the country is now often dubbed Broken Britain.

The next British leader's in-tray includes mending strained diplomatic and economic ties with the EU, its biggest trading partner, as part of a wider effort at restoring government credibility and reliability.

The post-divorce antagonism and quarreling, especially over trade rules and the status of the Northern Ireland border, made the EU deeply wary of Britain.

After Truss quit, EU leaders expressed hope that relations might improve.

“I hope in any case that Great Britain can find stability as rapidly as possible, and move forward,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at an EU summit in Brussels. “It's good for us, and it's good for our Europe.”

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin agreed that a lot is at stake.

“Stability is very important,” he said, “given the fairly significant geopolitical issues facing Europe (like) the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis.”

Michel Barnier, who negotiated the terms of Brexit on behalf of the EU, said he took no pleasure in Britain's discomfiture.

“No one should or can be happy about the political & economic turmoil in the UK,” Barnier tweeted. He said, “We must find stability and cooperate, across Europe.”

Further afield, the latest change at the top of British government was viewed as an unwelcome setback.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was impatient for a free trade agreement between Britain and Australia and had discussed with Truss the possibility of fast-tracking the negotiations.

Albanese added that his government was stable and orderly, and “the adults are in charge” in Australia.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he ordinarily would refrain from commenting on the internal affairs of another country. But he noted that Britain is an important strategic partner for Japan, with increasingly close defense ties.

“I will keep a close watch on the future movements in Britain,” he said.

Amid the chaotic scenes at Westminster, Chatham House's Maddox found a grain of optimism. The authority of Parliament and other UK bodies, such as the Bank of England, were “reaffirmed” in recent days, she said.

“It might not seem that way to observers around the world, but (Truss's) departure marks a victory for the institutions of the U.K,” she said.

That wasn't the way it was seen in China, where political chaos in foreign democracies is cited by the government and many Chinese as validating their opaque, one-party system.

The Communist Party's current 20th National Congress in Beijing is poised to produce a new cadre of leaders.

“It's all very orderly,” said Zhang, a Beijing retiree who only gave his surname, as is common among Chinese people.

Published 21 October 2022, 10:55 IST

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