Having spent less than seven weeks in 10 Downing Street, Liz Truss turned out to be the shortest-serving British prime minister in the history of the country. Her claim to become a new Margaret Thatcher for the modern Britain ended abruptly with an embarrassing resignation. It would be tempting to attribute this failure to Truss’ bad luck, or to an unfortunate combination of specific personnel decisions, parliamentary blunders and outreach lapses that became lethal to the previously unstoppable political career of the successor to Boris Johnson. So, why don’t we simply turn the page in the British history and hope that Rishi Sunak will do much better and will stay for much longer than unlucky Liz Truss did.
However, there are reasons to believe that the problem we face here is not only about the bad luck Truss had or the specific mistakes Truss made. Rather, the problem might have much deeper roots in the very foundation of the contemporary liberal political systems.
On one hand, universal imperatives of social and economic development call for long-term strategic planning that might almost by default imply that Western leaders should be ready to go for radical, painful and sometimes explicitly unpopular decisions. The art of leadership has always included the ability and commitment to think not only about what is likely to happen over next week or next month, but also about what might or might not take place in five or in 10, or even 20 years down the road.
On the other hand, the existing rules of the political game in liberal democracies incentivize leaders to take mostly tactical, situational, ad hoc decisions guided by the very immediate political interests and considerations. These days, decision-makers simply cannot ignore continuous fluctuations in public opinion, potential moves of their political opponents and adversaries, positions of influential media outlets and omnipotent social networks.
Liz Truss has become a victim of this contradiction between strategic goals and tactical considerations. Her cabinet announced intentions to slash taxes for the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations with no plans to pay for it, took an unclear position on important environmental issues and, moreover, demonstrated a spectacularly low ability to act as a coherent and forward-looking team. Truss seemed to put tactics above strategy. As a result, she lost support within the Conservative Party while failing to get any compensation from the electorate of the Labour Party.
One can argue that there is nothing new in this situation that throughout human history state leaders and politicians have always been squeezed between short-term and long-term considerations, between narrowly defined institutional interests and broader national interests, between the real needs and the stated desires of their respective constituencies. Still, today these eternal dilemmas are significantly complicated by the almost permanent fragility and instability of the ruling political coalitions in most of the Western liberal democracies.
The sad fact is that the majority of contemporary liberal democracies remain deeply divided. Recent elections in the US and in France, in Italy and in the UK time and again reproduce such profound divisions—political, social, economic and even spiritual. Such divisions make men and women in power excessively dependent on their core electorate and group interests. This dependency almost excludes any opportunities for shaping and following a long-term strategic vision – be it in domestic or in foreign affairs. In this sense, Truss has become a victim of the established political system at least as much as a victim of her own mistakes and fallacies.
Unfortunately, this situation is not likely to change anytime soon. Leaders with a narrow and flimsy political and social base cannot demonstrate a strong leadership, no matter how bright and committed they might be. In international affairs it means that the West is likely to continue looking into the past rather than into the future. In other words, the West will continue to focus on a restoration of the old unipolar turn of the century world order, not on building a new multipolar one.
If this happens to be the case, the burden of forward-looking strategic thinking will have to gradually move away from the West to the maturing Rest, where societies are not that divided and where leaders can afford the luxury of a long-term vision and forward planning. One can only hope that the Rest will stand up to the occasion.
From our partner RIAC