I arrived in London on Tuesday, the day of a political revolution. Not that any observer would have noticed from the apparent autumnal normalcy of the bustling UK capital, abuzz with busy shoppers, snarled traffic and crisp weather.
But it was a day of extraordinary change. Out went Liz Truss, the shortest serving and most disastrous UK prime minister, perhaps of all time, whose ill-starred turn at the wheel of Number 10 Downing Street drove her country into the ditch. She cost the country’s economy an estimated £300bn (R6.2-trillion) in UK bonds and stock market prices, mortgage price rises and elevated borrowing costs. And that was in just 44 days.
Incoming Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — before he uttered a single word to the nation from the most famous front door in Britain — spoke of an utterly changed country. He is the first non-white head of government, the first Hindu prime minister, the richest in modern times and the youngest in 200 years.
It seemed propitious that Sunak was elected leader of the Conservative Party on Monday, the first day of Diwali, the festival of light. The pride of his fellow religionists, who constitute just 2.5% of the population of England and Wales, was fully justified.
Since there is no end of debate in the UK — no less than in South Africa — about the legacy of colonialism, it is fascinating that Britain has a prime minister of Indian descent and a London mayor, Sadiq Khan, of Pakistani origins just 75 years after the Indian subcontinent, once the “jewel in the imperial crown”, achieved independence.
“Reverse colonialism of a special type”, as one Marxist crowed.
As King Charles welcomed his second premier in just six weeks, it was noted that his great-great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was titled “Empress of India”.
Sunak faces a hideous in-tray. Labour leads the Tories by an unimaginable 30 points and there is a £40bn black hole in the country’s public finances. To restore the country to fiscal credibility, as he promises, means massive spending cuts or further tax rises, probably both, amid the worst inflation and cost of living crisis in 40 years.
Sunak’s improbable rise to the top, given that he has only been an MP for seven years, was cemented when Boris Johnson decided not to stand for the post which he lost less than three months ago. For all Johnson’s governance foibles and ethical lapses, he assembled a winning coalition of voters just three years back. His optimistic populism and Brexit boosterism resonated both in previous Labour strongholds in the north and the Tory shires in the south.
Technocratic Sunak lacks — as his £450 Prada sneakers revealed — the common touch. He also lacks the public money, in the current straitened post-Covid economy, which Johnson lavished on voters. Public reaction to Sunak’s ascendancy includes scepticism over whether someone whose estimated fortune (via his wife) is twice as large as King Charles’s can understand the struggles of ordinary people.
A British friend of mine scoffed at this notion: “Do you think we should be governed by a pauper?” As with the South African head of state, vast riches are not disqualifying attributes.
However long or short Sunak’s tenure at Number 10 proves to be, there are three lessons the Conservative Party and modern Britain offer to other polities including our own.
First, having run through three prime ministers in three months and four chancellors in four months, the ruling party decided that anarchy was a better option than annihilation and so it ditched the disastrous Truss after less than six weeks in office. It says something of a party and country, as a friend observed, “that can recover from making such a high level mistake so quickly and efficiently”. The bond market, the real arbiter of political changes these days, seemed to agree as yields went down to pre-Truss levels after Sunak’s installation.
Second, while race and identity politics hold South Africa in their toxic thrall, it is worth recalling that one of the most eminent Conservative Party politicians of the 1960s, Enoch Powell, warned against mass migration in what became known as his “rivers of blood” speech.
It was in the 1960s that Sunak’s parents migrated to Britain from East Africa because the governments of Kenya and Tanzania decided to use xenophobia — against Asian minorities — to explain state failure. The double irony is that this spirit is alive in South Africa right now and in Britain the fear of immigrants is one of the reasons why Brexit happened.
Finally, and most positively perhaps, while there might be on the outer fringes of the Conservative Party some diehards who resist Sunak on racial grounds, his wide acceptance as its first non-white leader speaks of a country at ease with genuine nonracialism.
Mutaz Ahmed, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, wrote this week: “The calm, nonchalant reaction to Sunak’s elevation comes as a huge comfort because it reflects the sustainability of our approach to ethnic diversity.”
That is a lesson which has universal application, especially in South Africa right now.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA