A difficult evolving paradigm for the United Kingdom

Published : 20 Sep 2022 08:39 PM

United Kingdom over the last few days has demonstrated that nothing is permanent. We have witnessed the end of an era and moment of history. This dynamic has underlined that life is a relay race where the baton and marker of responsibility is passed on to someone else on a regular basis. This could happen sooner than expected or later than thought.

 Liz Truss, 47, the new British Prime Minister assumed her office on 6 September afternoon at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, when Queen Elizabeth II formally asked her to form a new government in a carefully choreographed ceremony dictated by centuries of tradition. 

Boris Johnson, who announced his intention to step down two months ago, formally resigned during his own audience with the Queen a short time earlier. It was the first time in the Queen's 70-year reign that the handover of power took place at Balmoral, rather than Buckingham Palace in London. The ceremony was moved to Scotland to provide certainty about the schedule, because the 96-year-old Queen had experienced health problems.

One can be certain that neither of these two politicians had anticipated that this would be their last meeting with the Head of State. 

As it turned out, on 8 September Queen Elizabeth passed away, only two days after performing her ceremonial functional role as Head of State by appointing Liz Truss as the new Prime Minister, the fifteenth, of her reign. This was a shock not only for the new Prime Minister but also the rest of Britain. This has happened at a time when the political matrix in Britain is going through a very awkward situation.    

During Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne Britain underwent dramatic change. The austere postwar 1950s gave way to the swinging 60s, the divisive leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, Tony Blair's three-term New Labour era, a return to economic austerity and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Labour and Conservative governments came and went, feminism changed attitudes to women, and Britain became a much more cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic society.

While the nation she reigned over sometimes struggled to find its place in a new world order and her own family often fell afoul of public expectations, the Queen herself remained a symbol of stability. She also tried to transcend class barriers and earned the grudging respect of even hardened Republicans. To most of the world she was the personification of Britain, yet she remained something of an enigma as an individual, never giving an interview and rarely expressing emotion or offering a personal opinion in public - a woman recognised by millions but known by hardly anyone.

Britain's vote to leave the European Union in 2016 exposed deep divisions in British society, while nationalists continued their push for a new referendum on Scottish independence that had the potential to rip apart the United Kingdom.

Elizabeth II was the longest-serving monarch of Great Britain. During her reign she was served by 15 Prime Ministers. She also had the pleasure of meeting 14 successive US Presidents. She also remained Queen of 15 realms including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tuvalu. She has also performed the important role of being the Head of the Commonwealth of which Bangladesh is a Member.

Queen Elizabeth II will be succeeded by her eldest son Charles who will now become King Charles III. The formality of his succession, through a public announcement was carried out on 10 September after a meeting of the Accession Council.

Bangladesh has underlined its grief for the late Queen by observing three days of State mourning out of respect for her. President M Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have offered Britain's royal family "heartfelt and deep sympathies" over the death of Queen Elizabeth II and also prayed for eternal peace of the departed soul. It may be recalled that the Queen had visited Dhaka, capital of the then East Pakistan on 16 February, 1961 and later again independent Bangladesh from 14 to 17 November in 1983.

On this new chessboard, headed by a King, the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss will have to sit in weekly meetings with King Charles III. The first was held on 9 September. She will also have to analyze and explain the emerging difficulties for her new Administration. In the coming days she will also have to arrange the State funeral of the Queen and crowning of the new King. All these aspects will keep her very busy.

One now has to analyse the multiple difficulties that await the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss. She is now on a chess board where a King is in charge instead of a Queen. However, she will have to deal with issues that will not be influenced by the British monarchy but by the public in general.

Analyst Kamal Ahmed has observed that her “most crucial foreign policy challenge, will be relations with Europe over disputes on implementation of the Brexit deal. The prolonged dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, involving a virtual border on the Irish Sea for cargo movement between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, risks a trade war with Europe. It became even more critical as the devolved administration in Northern Ireland remained without a government due to the unionist party's refusal to join the power-sharing government until the UK government tore up the deal with the EU”. 

He has also recalled that “Liz Truss, as the Foreign Secretary, favored unilaterally opting out of the EU deal, and if she makes good on her promise, a European retribution will aggravate the economy further”. Such a trade war could have wider consequences for the rest of the world, too.

On the political front, the near future might not also see an easy and silky sailing either. Among the party's 172,000 voters, she was endorsed by about 57 percent, which was lower than her three predecessors; each of whom had secured over 60 percent of the votes. 

This means that she will have to tackle the daunting task of uniting the party. Opinion polls suggest the majority of the British people want a national election, and Labour has consistently been performing well against the Conservatives. Ed Davey, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, has also called for an early election in October — something that Truss and the Conservative Party are highly unlikely to do since the Tories are slumping in the polls.

In the meantime, train drivers, port staff, garbage collectors, postal workers and lawyers have all staged strikes to demand that pay increases keep pace with inflation, and millions more, from teachers to nurses, are hinting that they might also walk out in the next few months in view of the health care system being burdened by long waiting lists and staff shortages.

Truss, a low-tax, small-government Conservative who admires Margaret Thatcher, has indicated that her priority is cutting taxes and slashing regulations to fuel economic growth. Critics have however observed that this might fuel further inflation while failing to address the cost-of-living crisis. Truss is under pressure to spell out how she plans to help consumers pay household energy bills that are set to rise to an average of  US Dollar 4,000 a year — triple the cost of a year ago — on October1, unless she intervenes. The uncertainty has rattled money markets, driving the pound below US Dollar $1.14 recently-its weakest since the 1980s.

Strategic analysts have consequently observed that winning the party leadership by Truss was tough, but the next election might turn out to be a monumental challenge.

Geo-strategic analysts have also drawn attention to the fact that one of British politics' firmest critics of China has now become Prime Minister. It may be mentioned that relations between London and Beijing have worsened in the last decade as Britain has grown worried that an open door to Chinese investment could pose national security risks, and that China's military and economic assertiveness may be acting against its post-Brexit free trade agenda. Truss is known to view China as a threat to the rules-based international order that has governed post-World War Two trade and diplomacy, and she sees it as her role to build a bulwark against that.

Truss’s office has indicated that US President Joe Biden was quick to congratulate Truss on her appointment. This has resulted in her mentioning that she is looking forward to to “working closely with President Biden as leaders of free democracies to tackle shared challenges- particularly the extreme economic problems, deepening cooperation on NATO and AUKUS, the US-Australia-Britain security agreement set up last year as a counter to China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning has already observed that she hopes relations with Britain will remain "on the right track". This aspect has grown significantly more important since the evolving western robust economic response to what is happening in Ukraine. Analyst James Rogers has said that Truss might now impose more restrictions on China buying up British companies and would do more to bind together countries to counter China's rise.

Katya Adler of the BBC has also pointed out that the tone of EU leaders' messages to Liz Truss - seen in Brussels as a hardliner on Brexit- has revealed a lot more than a superficial "well done". Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief has tweeted that the UK and EU were partners, facing current challenges together - but that she hoped as Prime Minister, Liz Truss would be "constructive", respecting agreements previously reached earlier between the two sides. 

The European Commission appears to be obviously worried as to whether the UK in view of its current internal difficulties will be able to agree on a constructive engagement pertaining to honoring its commitments under the Brexit treaty on Northern Ireland signed by Boris Johnson and the EU - known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Politicians in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, have openly applauded the UK for its tough stance towards the Kremlin, and have been unreservedly warm regarding the new British Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Truss has correctly said that “We are facing global headwinds”. 

However she has to ride out the socio-economic and political storm. The world needs to wait and see.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance