A controversial British band called the “Sex Pistols” released a song in 1976 called “Anarchy in the UK”. The song’s success and the consequent success of the short-lived band had a great impact on British society and not just on its musical side. The band’s anti-establishment behaviour sparked enough controversy to see the song being banned by British national radio.
But the ban did not diminish either the song’s success or that of the band or that of the related music genre of Punk Rock that swept the UK throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. The song is at number 56 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time due to its resounding political, cultural, and musical effects.
The slogan of “no future” was used by the band in another song called “God Save the Queen” that became synonymous with anti-establishment protests in Britain. Today, the songs of this anti-establishment band remain among the most listened to in Britain, especially since they may seem to correspond to the currently murky political situation in the UK.
Fast forward 46 years, and the British nation finds itself in chaos following Prime Minister Liz Truss’ resignation on 19 October. Truss has broken the previous record, held by George Canning (1770-1827), as the shortest serving prime minister in British history as Canning died in 1827 just 119 days after taking office.
This time around, Truss resigned after serving only 44 days in the country’s most important political position. In fact, it took Truss more time to campaign within the ruling Conservative Party to become the party leader than she spent as prime minister. Rishi Sunak is now set to replace Liz Truss as Prime Minister after he was chosen by The Conservative party on Monday, making history as the first British premier of Indian decedent. His parents migrated from East Africa to Britain in the 1960s.
Sunak was due to meet King Charles III for his official appointing on 25 October.
Truss’ ill-fated time in office was marred by calamities some of which were beyond her control. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II passed away just days after she took office, leaving a nation in mourning. Truss also inherited a difficult economic situation from her predecessor Boris Johnson. Truss did not take long to display to the British that she had promised more than she could deliver, with her economic plans exacerbating an already critical situation inherited from her predecessors.
Her slogan during the elections, “in Liz we Truss (Trust),” did not age well, since it took her fewer than six weeks to lose the nation’s trust and her own party’s confidence. She was pressured to resign, which she eventually did on 19 October.
During Truss’ ill-fated stint in 10 Downing Street, the job became overwhelming. She nearly forgot her proposed economic plans and proposed alternative ones that have wreaked havoc in economic circles in the UK, sending the economy into a tumble. Her plan to slash taxes and kickstart the economy in what Truss’ aides called “the Big Bang” sounded right on paper, just as many other plans have in Britain over the past decade, including Brexit.
But much to Truss’ dismay, the best-laid plans do not always correspond to reality, and she had to retract them after causing the worst fall in the value of the British pound in nearly 40 years. At one point in September, it had reached a value of just $1.03 before recovering slightly to $1.07. This sudden drop in the value of Sterling was accompanied by a wave of chaos in the stock market, exacerbating the highest inflation rate the country has recorded for four decades. This is not to mention an already existing energy crisis as winter approaches.
This was certainly enough for the Labour Party opposition and even Tory MPs to mobilise against the newly appointed prime minister. Even when she attempted to salvage her position by firing her ally finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss’ opponents, including many from her own party, still lined up to oust her from her position. The inevitable then took place, and Truss was left with no alternative but to announce her resignation.
Anarchy has returned briefly to the political scene in the UK during the elections period of Tory MPs attempting to elect a replacement for Truss. One candidate is Penny Mordaunt, who would have been the fourth women prime minister in British history if she won the party’s confidence. But in the end, it was Rishi Sunak who once came in second place against Truss, becoming the victor and winning the party’s confidence. A big surprise came from the fleeting resurfacing of none other than ex-prime minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s appearance on the scene has been shocking to many observers, an ominous sign it seems, of things to come. After all, he is the man who is believed to have caused the chaos leading to the current situation. Johnson’s attempt to salvage his political career, cut short by his lacklustre performance as prime minister, is the last thing the British public want. Luckily for the British nation, he quickly realised that a new term for him is unattainable and he pulled out from the race. Johnson’s supporters have been unable to answer one simple question: what would Johnson bring to the table in a new term as prime minister that he did not present in his first from 2019 to 2021? The political and economic chaos in the country has only worsened.
It is surprising that the world’s oldest democracy is facing such a leadership crisis in the 21st century. The flaws of the system, dominated by the Conservative and Labour Parties, are becoming evident even with the involvement of smaller parties such as the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. These smaller parties are more poised to act as king-makers than the main players in British politics.
Furthermore, the task of Britain’s new prime minister is becoming more gargantuan by the hour, with the British economy reeling under the current political chaos and constituting an obstacle to restoring order in the country. The British political system may be borrowing a page from its Italian counterpart, given the number of prime ministers the country has seen in such a short span of time.
Truss’ successor Sunak will be the fifth prime minister to lead the country following the Brexit vote in 2016. But while the Italian economy has adapted itself to this practice since World War II, the British economy has not, and it is not benefiting from the constant change of faces in 10 Downing Street and the constant political bickering between the parties and even among themselves.
While no one expects Sunak to be the next Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher, he will need to have a workable and realistic plan to save the British economy and restore faith in the establishment after years of chaos.
*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 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.