By Gwynne Dyer

Italy is getting nervous. The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party (aka the Tories) has now been led by four different prime ministers in only six years. Italy still holds the long-term record for revolving governments – on average a new one every thirteen months since 1945– but Britain is now nipping at its heels.

Even more impressively, the UK has gone through four Chancellors of the Exchequer (finance ministers) in the past four months. Britain, and particularly the Conservative Party, now resembles a circus clown car whose tightly packed riders keep tumbling out, falling over, quarrelling, setting off pointless fireworks, climbing back in, and doing it all over again.

The latest Tory prime minister, Liz Truss, may soon be overthrown by her party’s own rebellious members of parliament. Her first ‘mini-budget’, unveiled only last month, delighted her own hard-right Tory faction, but its recklessness about huge unfunded borrowing horrified the markets and the banks.

The British pound collapsed again, interest rates soared, and Truss had to bring in a new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, over the weekend. His job is to force her back to fiscal orthodoxy (by threatening to resign, if necessary), so maybe the ship of state can be righted again. But it is probably too little, too late for her.

By Monday morning, almost all of Truss’s promised tax cuts had been cancelled by Hunt, and the markets appeared to be calming down.  However, they will not regard the UK as a safe place to put money for years to come, and Truss has become “pointless”, as a former Tory cabinet minister put it. 

The show certainly provides some innocent amusement for those who like watching once powerful and dignified entities performing serial pratfalls. Beyond the all shouting and the schadenfreude, however, there is a curious political phenomenon unfolding here: a once-serious political party has gone gaga.

Everything that has happened politically in the United Kingdom since 2016, from the self-mutilation of Brexit to Liz Truss’s lunatic Tory version of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, is driven by an unarticulated belief that the country is in terminal decline, and that only radical and risky methods can reverse it.

I owe this observation to Patrick Cockburn, one of the most perceptive British journalists working today. He offers Russia as another example of the same phenomenon.

Russia’s great gamble to reverse its geopolitical and strategic decline is expressed as military aggression. What has been happening in Britain is an equally desperate but less violent attempt to reverse a long period of relative economic decline, f rom second-largest economy in the world in 1950 to sixth today (after India).

The more simple-minded nationalists see that change in the pecking order as national failure. Brexit was the first radical but foolish attempt to turn the perceived decline around. Truss’s low-tax, high-debt nostrums were another.

This sort of nonsense probably won’t go on forever, because the economic ‘decline’ is just relative. Britain has lost ground to some ‘developing’ countries that are in the high-growth phase of their economic journey, and it has made some major domestic mistakes, but it’s still a rich country – far richer than it was fifty years ago.

This is a phenomenon that only strikes countries with an inflated view of their own importance, generally because they were once great powers or at least owned extensive colonial empires. Britain has a particularly bad case of it, but this too shall pass.

In the meantime, bring on the clowns!