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Commentaries by Mr. Terry Su,
Silk Road Economic Development Research Center Secretary-General, in EJ Insight

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25th June 2024

A Britain Struggling to stay One Step Ahead

Terry Su

It is counting down to July 4th, the day Britain’s snap parliamentary election is to be held. After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made the surprise announcement later last month, the opinion polls have persistently showed a big lead by the opposition Labor Party over the ruling Conservative, with a margin of about 20%. A resounding defeat is being expected by no small number of observers and the Labour Party led by Sir Keir Starmer is widely believed to be able to win by a landslide.

Tea leaf reading in the British media is awash with a plethora of topical issues – economic gloom, cultural disorientation, migration eyesore and the Farage whirlwind. Nigel Farage made his reputation as a die-hard Brexit campaigner and has made a shock entry into the election foray - some even suggest that he, now the iconic leader of the far-right Reform Party, would launch a reversed take-over of a soon-to-be wiped out and demoralized Conservative Party.

Does this mean the British society is being split the way the American one is? Not really. Since the dawning of modernity, Britain has largely remained an orderly body politic made of, in the words of late English political philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, “‘the first person plural’, a pre-political loyalty, which causes neighbours who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens”.

This is especially the case as, for today’s Britain (and Europe for that matter), the domestic considerations tend to pale before a whirlpool of geopolitical externalities incarnate as the overarching US stand-up against China on a global scale and American allies’ obligation to toe the line.

At Washington’s prodding, Britain is removing the 5G equipment made in China and has terminated nuclear power station contracts with the Chinese service providers, to name just two. The geopolitical exogeneity is in the name of value based partnership across the Atlantic and no economic compensations from America are forthcoming or even expected.

What the Britons can do, then, is little more than house cleanings, such as the current parliamentary election, to get themselves wiggle room in anticipation of the developments not under their control – especially those in America.

No sooner had they cast their votes on the Brexit in 2016 under David Cameron’s Conservative government did the Britons know that it was a mistake to part company with the EU, but they have been divided about what to do about it, having had 4 new prime ministers in the past 8 years after Cameron’s post-Brexit resignation and looking all but certain to have yet another one post-July 4th.

Assuming Premiership in 2019, Boris Johnson did not, as I once imagined, exercise his famous (or infamous) trait of being an opportunistic maverick to stall Brexit until a dragged-out process of execution negotiations with Brussels made it effectively null and void. Instead, he had the Brexit executed and, according to Rory Stewart a politics podcaster and former MP in an interview a few days ago, the “dishonest and incompetent buffoon” started the Conservative’s four-and-half-year-long losing election campaign to culminate in an expected wipe-out next week.

Then I thought that Penny Mordaunt, one-time Defence Secretary and a non-Oxbridge rags-to-riches role model, might be picked to fill Johnson’s shoes in the 2022 changeover and breathe some fresh air into post-Brexit Britain, only to see her being passed for Liz Truss another Oxon and, after Truss’s all too brief a stint, for Rishi Sunak yet another Oxon.

This is Britain after all, whose politics since the 1688 Glorious Revolution has been one of conservatism of its unique kind: elitist, calculative and always aware that life goes on no matter what, so prudence and remedy are preferred to pursuit of the ideal and eternal.

Thus, with the miscalculated Brexit bravado turning into a reality, even Johnson known as BoJo the Clown could not step beyond its boundary and instead promoted “Global Britain”, a slogan all but forgotten by now, after his aspiration for an economic hookup with America was shunned by Washington. And, still, the Britons stick with their Oxbridge elite!

Now, as an internationally homeless and feeling more than ever the pull of the polarizing forces of America and China, the British elite seem to have got their cool back and be positioning the country for next wave of contingencies.

It actually started with David Cameron’s sudden comeback from political wilderness late last year. Even King Charles was mobilized at a short notice to knight him so that he was procedurally qualified to take the position of Foreign Secretary in Sunak’s cabinet.

Having been responsible for the Brexit referendum going badly wrong, Cameron’s comeback nevertheless appeared as welcomed as it seemed natural. One would, I guess, be excused if this reminded him of Neville Chamberlain retained in Churchill’s 1940 five-member War Cabinet in spite of the former’s notorious deal-making with Adolf Hitler only to see Nazi Germany go on to drag Europe into disastrous WWII.

Cameron has since done a good job in following America’s lead in its rivalry against China, with which he as Prime Minister had once pioneered the “Golden Era” of the bilateral relations.

Then comes the election which Baron Michael Heseltine, a nonagenarian Conservative politician dubbed “the lion of Remain” in the Brexit debate, has prophesied the Conservatives needed to lose to “heal divisions” of the country. Doesn’t this sound like a long echo to the time of the Reform Act 1832, when Duke of Wellington, a Napoleonic War hero and two-time Tory (Conservative) Prime Minister, constrained his former soldiers not to move against the Whigs who tabled the Act? The same spirit of calculation and reconciliation persists to say the least.

Britain is changing horses, thus getting ready to meet Donald Trump’s probable comeback in November 5th and its warping ramifications across the globe.

Terry Su is president of Lulu Derivation Data Ltd, a Hong Kong-based online publishing house and think tank specialising in geopolitics

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