Liz Truss’s Britain Is a Morbid Symptom of the World’s New Era

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The new British government is an economic disaster—and a symbol of a global political crisis.

In the last few weeks, we have witnessed the remarkable spectacle of a Conservative government in Britain deliberately taking on the financial markets. With a surprise mini-budget promising 45 billion pounds (about $48 billion) in tax cuts targeted at high-earners, Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng unleashed a currency and bond market crisis the likes of which Britain has not experienced since sterling was driven out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. At that time, Europe as a whole was convulsing. This time, the crisis was Britain’s alone. The last time a Tory government was subject to such near-total condemnation by global expert opinion was in 1956 amid the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt over the Suez Canal.

Of course, Brexit in 2016 was condemned by most reasonable international commentators as well. But that was not the policy of David Cameron’s government. It was an insurgent campaign led by Boris Johnson and the UK Independence Party. It was Johnson’s boast that he had defied “Project Fear”—the mobilization of establishment opinion against the Brexit campaign. Faced with a phalanx of mainstream opinion that included U.S. President Barack Obama and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Johnson dismissed concern for the future of British business with an expletive. He thus marked the moment at which the leading group within the Conservative Party separated itself from any conventional commitment to the “U.K. economy,” in favor of a more nebulous idea of national destiny and the more specific interests of Tory cronies.

Ever since, the political economy of Britain increasingly has resembled the annual showcase of Wimbledon—in cultural terms, a very British affair, celebrated around the world as such, but rarely a stage on which British players actually shine and certainly not an event to which the majority of the population is actually invited.

Preoccupied with Brexit and COVID-19, Johnson did not have time to develop an extensive program of government. Like the Cameron and May administrations, Johnson’s most important constituency appears to have been a rentier class of hedge funds and public-private contractors. But, as his electoral triumph in 2019 attested, Johnson also managed a broad-based political coalition ranging from patriotic working-class voters in the north of England to upper-class London types.

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