Modern British history has shown no shortage of great leadership figures that have stirred the country in the darkest of times. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were two examples of how stern and visionary leadership could help to steer the country to safety in times of peace and war.
However, the United Kingdom’s more recent history has lacked such figures. Over the past couple of decades, the country has been struggling with the quality of its political leadership, with this doing the opposite of what its historical antecedents did, which was to help the country through various storms.
The UK’s failure of leadership has become a pattern since at least former prime minister Tony Blair, in office between 1997 and 2007, who parroted former US president George W Bush’s false claims about Iraq possessing nuclear weapons and led his country into invading a sovereign nation in 2003.
This pattern of troubled leadership has continued over the past decade, reaching its highest point when former prime minister David Cameron called for a referendum on leaving the European Union, the so-called Brexit, in 2016, resulting in a British vote to leave the EU. This vote has had ramifications until today, and it was the result of an unexplained lack of political awareness and overconfidence on Cameron’s part.
The result was a slap in the face for the ex-prime minister, who ended up losing his bet on Britain remaining in Europe and opened a Pandora’s Box for further political upheaval that may take decades to fix.
Britain now has a new prime minister in the shape of the Conservative Boris Johnson who has replaced former prime minister Theresa May. The latter had promised to deliver a safe Brexit out of the European Union and firmly negotiate favourable terms with it. Though she had three years to accomplish the task she had sworn to do, she failed miserably on all counts.
Johnson’s first speech as prime minister contained another vow to exit the European Union with fewer than 100 days left before this is due to take place. It is not known how he will attain such a feat. But earlier statements speak about exiting the European Union at all costs even if this means no deal with Europe and economic catastrophe.
May could have done this without all the fuss as well, though it would have left Britain and the British economy stranded at a crossroads between being forced to work with European laws that are no longer acceptable in the United Kingdom and with unpaid debts to the EU that will have their own ramifications for the future of the country.
Johnson’s approach of bullying Europe is highly unlikely to yield tangible results. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already expressed his rejection of Johnson’s rhetoric and said that the EU will not renegotiate a deal with the UK. The deal reached with May is the best that can be achieved, he has said, though this deal was rejected several times by the British parliament.
Johnson’s reaction to this is the first move in his attempt to carve out a legacy as prime minister, which means either he keeps his image as a controversial political activist with an emphasis on media showmanship or adopts an image as the nation’s leader instead. Johnson may not be the most likeable character in the Conservative Party, but if can secure a proper Brexit with the least economic costs for the United Kingdom then he will be looked at in a different light.
There is worse news from the other side of the aisle with the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is not short on controversies, as hardly a month goes by without unrealistic and populist statements emerging from his mouth. Corbyn is not shy about being photographed with representatives of terrorist groups such as the Palestinian group Hamas. He portrays himself as a staunch fighter for human rights, while remaining on cordial terms with figures and groups that do not believe in them.
Corbyn, in fact, is a staunch communist in terms of his political agenda, and he could have been an active leader in the former Soviet Union. Many of his statements may sound plausible to the general public, especially when he delivers speeches about healthcare, social justice and economic reform, but they are always presented within a classically Marxist vision of things. Populist promises fall on hard ground when they are attempted in reality, and for a British leader to adopt such promises spells danger if Corbyn finds his way into 10 Downing Street after future elections.
This will depend on the performance of Johnson in the coming months, and the look of his new cabinet is not promising. It includes two ministers sacked from previous cabinets, one of them being Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who as a former defence minister leaked state secrets that resulted in his firing. The cabinet also includes a significant number from the Remain camp who voted against Brexit and then changed their minds, making their commitment to Johnson’s goal of leaving the EU as soon as possible questionable.
At the moment, distrust of the new cabinet and Johnson himself remains very high among the public and media alike. The three years wasted on attempting to exit the European Union have been harsh on Britain’s social, economic and political position, and the situation cannot continue to remain unresolved for much longer.
Moreover, current domestic feuds within Britain are reflecting negatively on the state of the union, evident in Scotland’s first minister demanding a new independence referendum for Scotland in the light of the Brexit decision which according to her provides a choice for the Scottish people to remain within the union or become independent within the European Union.
She iterated this position in a letter addressed to Johnson this week. Johnson, unpopular in Scotland even among Tory supporters, plans to visit Scotland soon to rally the unionists to his side who managed to win the Scotland independence referendum in 2014. Back then the Brexit was none-existent, however, and being a member of the EU was one of the perks flaunted by the Remain camp to persuade voters to vote to remain in the UK.
Since the 2016 Brexit Referendum, things have changed dramatically, and the very perk that kept Scotland within the United Kingdom may be the same that will now lead to its independence should a new referendum take place.
Since the end of the Second World War, the UK has not found itself in a bigger political crisis, even with the years of economic recession, the Suez Crisis, the Falklands War and then the Gulf War.
The reason is that the Brexit crisis will shape the future of the United Kingdom and its political and economic status for future generations. Given the inept and comic figures that currently hold key positions in Britain, the future does not look bright.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Britain’s leadership crisis