It says much about the debasement of British politics that new prime minister Rishi Sunak’s seriousness is so worthy of comment and relief as the Tory class prefect replaces the class clowns. A country that historically has prided itself on political sophistication has been rattled by the dangerous incompetence of recent years, but the convulsions can also be seen as part of a consistent theme in modern British history, described by some historians as “the fear of failing”.
For decades that fear revolved around the decline of British empire, and the painful realisation of what Philip Kerr, British diplomat and one-time adviser to British prime minister David Lloyd George, acknowledged in the mid 1930s: “Sooner or later empires decay because they become rigid and rotten at the centre.” But decline can also be enveloped in a delusional nostalgia, which involves identifying new battlegrounds, foregrounded in 1988, for example, by Margaret Thatcher when as prime minister she insisted: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
...for a new generation of Tories, instead of serious politics and a sense of public purpose and service, the myth of regaining lost glory took hold
Nostalgia can become potent and destructive if not managed adroitly by serious politicians. Charles Powell, former adviser to Thatcher, insisted that had she been voting on Brexit she would have voted to remain, with the aim of reforming from within. That is debatable, but what is clear is that for a new generation of Tories, instead of serious politics and a sense of public purpose and service, the myth of regaining lost glory took hold. Consider Boris Johnson last year ordering a new royal yacht for £200 million “to display the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”. It was an attempt, according to the Observer’s Nick Cohen, “to feign 19th century splendour that covers up the impoverishing consequences of Brexit on the UK’s real trade”.
Whether Sunak can make progress will depend on just how serious he is about the office he holds after being elected an MP just seven years ago. We have been helpfully informed that he was head boy at Winchester College where the motto is “Manners Makyth Man”. He also features in Simon Kuper’s recent book, Chums: How a tiny Caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK. As a 17-year-old editor of the Winchester College newspaper and soon to go to Oxford, he expressed dismay that Tony Blair “has plans for the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and membership of an eventual European Superstate”, a reminder of how some of the current ruling Tories forged a crusade built on manufacturing internal and external threats. Sunak hailed Brexit as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny”.
But how much fuel is left in the Brexit tank for further confrontation? Or what Kuper described as lazy narratives “wrapped in Oxford-tutorial level plausibility”?
To mark the third centenary of the office of British prime minister in 2021, historian Anthony Seldon published his book “The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister. “ He suggested that measures of the success of historic prime ministers have included whether they “raised the standard of the country internationally” or “bolstered the union” or both, but not being able to tackle chronic economic problems has also been a measure of failure.
Seldon, as a long-established and well-connected historian of the “establishment”, is perhaps too kind in measuring successes, but a reminder of how the recent upheavals require his book to be updated is that in relation to “ignoble failures” he suggests “only seven prime ministers fall into this class, all of whom lacked a basic moral seriousness, or leadership ability or both”. The short list includes long forgotten figures such as George Grenville and Henry Addington, but now must also include Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Political endurance is a tall order: of the 56 prime ministers before Sunak, only 25 have been at the top longer than five years
Seldon emphasises that the more successful prime ministers have had long apprenticeships “in which they learned about governing, made painful mistakes and arrived at the top with a maturity and a wisdom”. But political endurance is a tall order: of the 56 prime ministers before Sunak, only 25 have been at the top longer than five years. As well as “iron will”, successful prime ministers have needed quality cabinets; Clement Attlee is ranked as one of Britain’s most successful leaders and “few cabinets from 1721 were more talented than Attlee’s from 1945-51″.
Seldon also identifies the need for clear ideas in order to govern successfully. The key issue now is, beyond Brexit, what are the ideas? Of particular relevance to Ireland is Seldon’s observation that “history matters but has been too often ignored at the very heart of government”. The challenge for Sunak is to make a “moral seriousness” take hold that involves an honest engagement with both past and present.