By Dr. J Scott Younger*
Rishi Sunak was chosen October 24, 2022 by a fair margin, the next Prime Minister, the first ethnic Asian Briton to be so elected, and we wish him well. His appointment comes after a considerable period of turmoil which has raised many eyebrows around the world. Britain is supposed to be the home of parliamentary democracy. It still is, despite the fractious behaviour, which has not been seen for some time. It was occasionally in the past, but there was nothing like the same level of media scrutiny.
History as a Teacher for the Present
Go back to 1946, when I was a boy just returning from India after WWII with my parents, the population of Britain was 46 billion, and predominantly nearly all born and bred British. Britain claimed vast colonial territories, but they were fatigued by the war. However, there was change in the air, which had gradually been increasing; the precepts of socialism had taken hold in the 1930s and Labour, a socialist party, were displacing the Liberal party as the main opposition to the Conservative party. Much to everyone’s surprise, to some even a shock, Clement Attlee’s Labour (socialist) party beat Winston Churchill’s Conservative party in the election held in 1946. The most notable legacy of this Labour government was the setting up of the National Health Service. Labour were taking over the mantle, largely held by Conservatives, who had the reputation of caring for the working class whose political awareness had matured over the past 15-20 years. This was a one-term government, with the Conservatives led by Churchill who at last was being thanked for his service, taking power for the next 15 years, first under Anthony Eden and latterly under Harold MacMillan with the slogan ‘’you’ve never had it so good’’.
But internationally attitudes were changing. The war end saw the establishment of the United Nations in New York, a theme being the dismantling of colonial rule, which affected Britain the most, France and the Netherlands. The rise of the Soviet bloc which saw all of Eastern Europe being grabbed under a communist government run out of Moscow with Josef Stalin, insisting it was his right for Russia’s part of the war effort. Germany was divided in two around Berlin, the western part, growing to the fore of European nations once it was united with its eastern part.
The Robert Schuman declaration of 1950 which underscored democracy for Europe was followed by the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, which included W. Germany, France and the Benelux Countries, an agreement which stayed in force until expiring in 2002. The industrial zone of the Ruhr was the heart of the ECSC. In time ongoing work by the western European nations gave rise to the first countries of the European Economic Community in 1957 at the Treaty of Rome. Britain was not accepted as a member until 1st January 1973, being out of favour by France’s de Gaulle, or sometimes known as ‘Monsieur Non’. The EEC finally became the European Union in 1992, at the treaty of Maastricht, which became a sizeable bloc of most of European countries, 27 at the latest count. Britain withdrew in 2020.
Britain went through a difficult period in the 1970s with the population increased by 9 million to 55 million partly through immigration from former colonies, India and the Caribbean countries mostly, a restive workforce with strong unions, especially the coal miners, and a poorly performing economy. An interesting time to be a parliamentary candidate! In 1977, The Callaghan Labour government embarrassingly had to call in the IMF for assistance. Its tenure was shortly brought to a close and the next General Election gave way to a decade of Margaret Thatcher and 20 years of Conservative government. The most notable points from the Thatcher years were the Falklands war, the diminution of the power of the Trade Unions and her strong rapport with Ronald Reagan, the 1980-88 US President, almost the whole of the time that Margaret Thatcher was in office.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Conservatives won the 1992 general election with John Major, which brought in the longest period of economic growth for some time and the beginning of the N. Ireland Peace Process. He had been working with a small overall majority but, with lost by-elections, this had been whittled down so it was no surprise when Tony Blair preaching a moderate Labour message took the next general election. The Labour party held the government mandate for the next ten years with Gordon Brown taking over for the last period, before it was once more the Conservatives with David Cameron at the helm until Brexit. The 2000s were a turbulent period what with the Twin Towers debacle in 2001 and the aftermath that has created, the introduction of the US to the region, subsequently Russia to bolster the Syrian regime, and the start of the flight of refugees to Europe. That is another long and complicated tale.
From Brexit to Sunak
Come the 24th June 2016, I was addressing in Jakarta a breakfast meeting, as a board member of the European Chamber, the Foreign Correspondents Group and others on sustainable development. Someone was watching the unfolding news on Brexit, the time difference to UK being 6 hours. At the beginning of the meeting, it looked like the vote count was going the way of those who wanted to remain. An hour later, it all changed, and the Brexiteers had won. There was great puzzlement, an element of shock, and I was left with some explaining to do.
In Britain, David Cameron resigned as leader and PM of the Conservative government, having failed to maintain Britain’s place in Europe as a result of the referendum, and Theresa May, who had voted remain, took over his position. In her relatively short tenure as the prime minister, she concentrated her efforts in trying to reach a fair agreement with the EU. For the Europeans, it was a whole new and very complicated ball-game also. However, Theresa May presided over a divided cabinet, and lost two divisions in the House of Commons concerning Europe with arch Brexiteers seeing a chance to make a change. She resigned and Boris Johnson replaced her. He seized the day, so to speak, and played up to the English vote, mostly the middle aged to older voters, looking backwards that he had hood winked at the time of the referendum, getting away with uncontested untruths, playing up to the old times, which were no longer true. The voters from the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nations had opted to remain in the EU, which is another interesting play today. United Kingdom!? It has added fuel to the Scottish National Party (SNP’s) desire to have independence for Scotland, The SNP has an over whelming majority in the Scottish Parliament and will seek an injunction in the near future. Assuming there is a referendum held with a positive outcome on this very important issue, the SNP would hope, not too long after, to re-join the EU. But there is much to be done, before that.
In 2019, an election for the UK parliament was due, the usual five year term expiring, the Conservatives having been in power for ten years. One of their promotions for continuation in office was ‘’Get Brexit done’’ and they had the Ideal man for this, one not too worried about bending the truth, Boris Johnson. The Brexit negotiations were due to be finalised on 31st January 2020 and were, not surprisingly, protracted and not concluded to this day – e. g. the Irish protocol.
The Conservatives won the election with an overwhelming majority, 80 seats, largest since 1979 with Margaret Thatcher, partly because of the Conservative manifesto and partly due to the Labour Party choosing a leader who leaned too far to the left and espoused out of date doctrines, Jeremy Corbyn. And then the Covid pandemic struck the world for the next two years, and is still around. Boris Johnson did a reasonably good job throughout the pandemic and very credibly in his support of Ukraine against Russian aggression but became unstuck when he was less than truthful to Parliament in his personal goings-on and lost credibility with his cabinet and a good number of the Conservative Party and he was asked to resign. He resigned on 7th July this year.
The 1922 committee, the Parliamentary group of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, duty had then to proceed to choose the next Prime Minister from the sitting body of MPs. In the first rounds, which took seven days, the list of candidates was whittled down to two, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. They then had over 5 weeks to debate each other either on TV programmes or go around the country giving their views on what was needed for the country at a very difficult time. They had quite divergent views, Truss promoting growth almost at the expense of everything else, while Sunak, with good experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was much more cautious in his approach. At the end of the period, paid up members of the Party, not a cross-section of Conservative voters, as well as MPs, voted for which of the two candidates they would choose. The MPs had clearly chosen Sunak, but Party members by a significant margin chose Truss and, since their numbers were considerably more, Truss was chosen.
It only took a mere two weeks to show that Truss’s policy was a disaster. One could only have growth, growth, growth policy if the foundations had been sorted first. One can’t build on ground which is unstable. Truss was ignoring the fundamentals and the financial markets quickly told her so. She was forced to resign and Sunak was quickly chosen in her place. The markets have shown their relief by significantly bringing down the cost of borrowing to pre-Truss government levels.
Rishi Sunak has started well and will bring common sense to the governance and look at growth in a measured way, because Truss was right to highlight this but only after the house was in order.
The population of Britain is now 68 million and immigration, largely from the Commonwealth, includes over 3 million of Asian descent and over I million from African, many from the Caribbean. Sunak is breaking new ground as an Indian born in Britain, 3rd generation, reaching the pinnacle of a career at the relatively young age of 42. There are a good number of overseas people of different descent, who have worked hard and so continue to earn good positions.
However, Britain has been in decline for the past 20 years or so, and Brexit hasn’t helped. I would paraphrase Derek Thompson who wrote in The Atlantic, a view from across the pond ‘’The UK is an object lesson for other countries dealing with a dark triad of deindustrialization, degrowth, and denigration of foreigners. Having offshored industry in favour of finance, its economy wasn’t resilient. The resulting erosion of living standards made the public desperate for something to blame. Blame-seeking conservatives spotted bogeymen abroad. Brexit cut off the economy from further growth and set the stage for a rolling political circus.’’
There is more than an element of truth in that. It is to be hoped that Rishi Sunak understands this and starts to repair bridges with our nearest neighbour; it will greatly help the economy. It is a rule of trading that you should keep transport distances as short as possible.
Difficult times ahead, but they have been mastered before. Watch this space!
About the author: Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.