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Briturkey, Britaly and right-wing fear of Britainistan — Rishi Sunak inherits the new ‘sick man of Europe’


Azubuike Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief at Leadership Media Group.

Britain is broken. Inflation is at a record high, with basic food prices going through the roof, and much of the population struggling to pay mortgage instalments.

In a widely shared story last week, The Economist likened the political carnage in Britain to the situation in Italy in the 1940s. Italy was a major theatre of war, at the end of which the country was in ruins.

Italy is so unstable that, in spite of the tenuous hold of the Christian Democrats on power for much of the time, the country has produced 69 governments since 1945, an average of one-and-a-half governments every two years. It has been the joke of Europe.

With three prime ministers in 50 days, not to mention the removal of four chancellors of the exchequer, with the fifth barely finding his feet, the UK is the new butt of European jokes. It is modern-day Italy — or, if you like, Britaly — however much Italians may dislike the comparison.

But before Britaly there was Briturkey. At the peak of its powers, Turkey, or what was then the Ottoman Empire, controlled much of southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, stretching to the borders of Egypt.

Decline set in around the 18th and 19th centuries as the empire was consumed by corruption, inefficiency and instability. Turkey, under the Sultan, became not just an embarrassment to itself, but also a joke among the powers at the time.

Russian Czar Nicholas I, fed up with the hubris of the Turkish Empire, famously described Turkey as “the sick man of Europe”. He may well have been speaking of Britain, or, if you like, Briturkey.

Perhaps the emergence last Tuesday of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s new prime minister will halt the slide into chaos.


But let’s go back to Brexit, the moment when the chaos gathered pace and finally unravelled. Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson led the campaign. They cashed in on growing right-wing sentiment in the country and converted it into a liveried Brexit bus, fuelled with lies, hysteria and empty promises.

They forged numbers, exaggerated differences and painted a false picture of the El Dorado that the UK would become if only it could throw off the yoke of Brussels and take back control of its borders and politics. Freedom was the buzzword. With the rise of Donald Trump and events in the US at the time, the Bo-Jo frenzy was red meat for the British right wing.

It is true that Britain, a largely food-importing country, has always been on the receiving end of Europe’s poor trade practices, especially its obsession with farm subsidies and shambolic regulations.

But the 27 other members of the EU, who valued Britain’s membership, were not willing to negotiate, especially in a hugely interdependent and globalised world. Even after Britain’s exit from the union, the benefits of membership have still not been fully dismantled in the tangled mess that the Irish border has become.

Britain has always been ambivalent about Europe, which was why it formed the spectacularly unsuccessful rival European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1959.

The French, often impatient, but unfailingly contemptuous of British coyness, kept the UK out of the Common Market (a precursor of the EU) until after the death of General Charles de Gaulle in 1970. After a referendum, the UK joined the EU in 1973. But the demons which had kept it out of the EU were compounded by its discovery of oil (a counterweight to the European farm subsidies), and nationalism stoked its eventual departure in 2020.

Two years down the road, the return of £350-million on the National Health Service alone, which Boris Johnson and co promised on the Brexit campaign bus, is turning out worse than a fantasy: it’s con-artistry. Johnson got Brexit done alright, but he has left British politics in chaos and its economic rating slightly better than junk bonds. Its political reputation has taken a beating reminiscent of the Dardanelles and the Suez Canal.

Modest achievements, high price

Sure, Britain has better flexibility to manage its affairs and its way of life. It is free from the shambolic regulations of Brussels and, let’s face it, managed Covid-19 far better than most European countries, including its traditional ally on the other side of the pond. It even has an unemployment figure lower than that of most countries in Europe and has an independent central bank.

But these modest achievements have come at a very high price. European workers have shunned the UK, with devastating consequences for services, especially the fishing, agriculture and health sectors.  

Britain is broken. Inflation is at a record high, with basic food prices going through the roof, and about 33% of the population outside fixed mortgage contracts now struggling to pay.

Savings have been damaged, pensions are tanking and public services are stretched to breaking point. The British economy, which was 90% the size of the German economy six years ago, has shrunk to 70%, and could shrink further as another recession looms.

On top of all of this, the Russia-Ukraine war, which has destabilised global supply chains, has also exposed Britain to energy shocks significantly worse than might have been the case in the comfort of the EU zone.

This is the difficult job Sunak has taken on. He steps up weeks after the Tory Party nearly exhausted its cardboard list of potential leaders that turned up Liz Truss, who will be remembered for her dizzying flip-flops and disastrous mini budget.

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Former LibDem-turned-Tory, former abolitionist-turned-pro-monarchist, former remainer-turned-Brexiteer and former wage-cutter-turned-spendthrift, the lady, Truss, was always for the turning. She didn’t disappoint. Yet, as the Tory party rank-and-file contemplates their current misery, “otherness” — in this case the migrant, whether British-born or not — will be the scapegoat.

There were two main reasons why Tory MPs didn’t want Sunak, and both have little to do with his competence. The first, of course, was his rebellion against Johnson, which opened the floodgates.

The second, which Britain squirms to discuss, but which nonetheless is rearing its head in radio phone-in programmes, is his race. Having Sadiq Khan, London Mayor of Asian origin was difficult enough, especially at a time when Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle is causing some discomfort in the chemistry of the royal heritage. 

By some accounts, the UK has had at least 11 non-English prime ministers. But never in its more than 220-year history as a union has a non-Caucasian, a 42-year-old Hindu of Indian origin, occupied Number 10.

UK’s Obama moment

The reality of a UK variety of the Obama moment will spook the conservative base, raising the spectre of Britainistan. But MPs who figured that what the Tory party needed the most to retain power was competence over race, strategically blocked the decision of the new party leader from going back to the base.

MPs knew that Sunak, a grafter, was their last card. They also knew he would have lost at a general party conference, which might have thrown up a worse choice, whose precipitous exit would have hastened the call for an election — an election at which Labour would have been sure to decimate them.

But, as happened in the US after Barack Obama’s election, the UK will likely have its own Tea Party moment. A rash of right-wingers who think their country is being stolen from them by “otherness”, will push back, perhaps even violently.

France has struggled to keep this dangerous fringe at bay. The recent election of Italy’s president, Giorgia Meloni, showed how right-wingers are stirring in Europe and they might find cousins in the UK.

Yet, if Sunak manages to reunite his party, calm the markets and stabilise the country — as I believe he can from his Covid-19 record — he might be poised for a historic role; of being more than a Tory placeholder. And, who knows, he might get his own mandate.

It’s Sunak’s moment and I think he will seize it, even though his road will be rough. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Great article – thank you

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    The most bizarre thing is that Tory politicians still crow about Brexit as though it was a good thing. The imposter Johnson is lauded for Getting Brexit Done, in spite of no one being able to figure one good outcome. Not one, amongst the tons of negative ones. When confronted with this the answer is ( like Communist apologists) either it wasn’t implimented harshly enough or that it will take decades to see the benefits.

  • Mike Schroeder says:

    Just to set the record straight … Giorgia Meloni is Italy’s new prime minister. The Italian president is Sergio Mattarella …

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