The fact that there have been five prime ministers in the UK over the past six years, including three in the past two months, confirms that there are serious problems with the country, writes Konstantin Khudolei, head of the Department of European Studies at the Faculty of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University.
Rishi Sunak, who became the new leader of the Conservative party and prime minister, differs in many ways from his predecessors. First of all, he is the youngest head of the British government in the last two centuries (he is 42 years old). He is the owner of a large fortune and is among the 250 richest people in the country. His predecessors were wealthy people, but none of them was at the very top of the business elite. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Sunak is a descendant of immigrants from India. In recent years, the descendants of immigrants, including those from former African and Asian colonies, have held high positions in the British government, but for the first time one has managed to reach the very top, which, of course, says a lot about the internal processes going on in British society. Suffice it to recall that when 100 years ago a native of Canada, Andrew Bonar Law (also a conservative!), became Prime Minister, this did not cause any public reaction.
Rishi Sunak undoubtedly faces a number of very serious problems, both current and long-term, and he will face a tough test of strength. First of all, there’s the economy. The country is experiencing a high level of inflation, the main sectors of the economy are in recession and all this is happening amid an energy crisis. The situation is aggravated by the consequences of the ill-conceived steps taken by the cabinet of Liz Truss, who, with her plans to reform the tax system, infuriated the business community and undermined the pound sterling. Sunak is well aware of the complexity of the current situation. “The United Kingdom,” he said, “is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge.” It is significant that, although most experts believe that he will return to “fiscal conservatism,” Sunak himself speaks very carefully about his future economic policy.
No less difficult problems await the new prime minister inside the Conservative party. The party is divided and, to a certain extent, has even become demoralised by the long crisis of leadership. For conservatives, this aspect traditionally plays a very important role, since the party, for almost its entire history, has focused on the nomination of strong personalities to leadership positions who could not only shape the political agenda, but also inspire their supporters and lead the party to success. None of the last leaders of the conservatives has possessed such qualities. Whether Rishi Sunak is able to play such a role is not yet clear. Moreover, many ordinary conservatives at this stage sympathise with other potential leaders. In addition, some conservatives are clearly expressing sentiments that it could be better for the party to go into opposition and engage in internal transformations. Despite the fact that the leader of the conservatives has a lot of individual power, it will be very difficult for him to control the party. It should be noted that the leadership crisis also has an international dimension.
Now the conservatives have a stable majority in the House of Commons, but in the event of growing disagreement or conflict, the prospect of early parliamentary elections may become very real. Polls show that Labour is well ahead of the Conservative party. Sunak faces an incredible task in turning the tide in his favour. In reality, this can be done only by raising the living standards of the population, but given the current situation in the economy, this is hardly possible.
There is no doubt that the new prime minister will have certain problems in relations with Northern Ireland and Scotland, which voted for EU membership in the 2016 referendum. The agreements between London and Brussels made it possible to temporarily alleviate the problem of Northern Ireland, but not completely resolve it. In Scotland, the nationalists have a strong position. However, many of them understand that an independent Scotland has virtually no chance of joining the EU, and without this, a break with England will do more harm. Therefore, the nationalists will demand an even greater redistribution of powers in favour of Edinburgh, which cannot but cause discontent in London. Generally, there is no prospect of a Scottish or Northern Ireland exit from the UK at this time, but no doubt that friction and controversy will be significant.
Finally, the position of Rishi Sunak, and possibly the next prime ministers, will be weakened by the decline in the popularity of the monarchy. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II played a very important role as a symbol that unites British people of various nationalities, religions, social strata and political views. Charles III does not enjoy such authority. Most Britons still support the preservation of the monarchy, but the personal influence of the monarch will no longer be so significant.
Britain’s foreign policy is also facing difficult challenges. Like all former empires, it is constantly searching for its place in a changing world. After the end of World War II, the British ruling circles proceeded from the concept of three circles — special relations with the United States, close cooperation with Western Europe, and maintaining ties and interactions with dominions and former colonies. Then a course was taken towards membership in the European Communities and the European Union. However, the entry of a great power into integration associations created without its participation and taking into account its specific interests led to the emergence of a huge set of problems that could not be resolved, even over the course of several decades. In addition, part of the elite and, to an even greater extent, the public reacted painfully to the restriction of the country’s sovereignty. Since the statehood of Britain, unlike France, Germany and Italy, withstood the blows of World War II, the transfer of powers to supranational bodies caused some dissatisfaction. After leaving the EU, London approved a new line — a “Global Britain”, which it has been trying to pursue in recent years. At the same time, special emphasis is placed on the Indo-Pacific region (the AUKUS alliance, the development of ties with India, Japan, etc.). In the context of this policy, London also pursues a particularly hard line toward Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. By providing significant assistance to Ukraine, Britain is trying to increase its importance in world affairs. It is unlikely that Rishi Sunak will make significant adjustments to British foreign policy.
Thus, the UK faces rather acute and serious problems, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the resources and opportunities to influence world affairs that it retains. Therefore, within the framework of overcoming the current international crisis, the normalisation of Russian-British relations is not only desirable, but necessary.