Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence U.K.

Patrick Lawrence: The British “Bubble of Unreality”

Liz Truss becoming the newly appointed UK Foreign Secretary, 2021. Office of U.S. Ambassador to U.K., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

I am following British politics during these, Boris Johnson’s final days as prime minister, with interest. It seems that the front-runner to replace the aging boarding-school boy is Liz Truss, who currently serves as foreign secretary. The thought that Truss will be Britain’s next leader interests me a very great deal more than the political jockeying she leads by a wide margin over Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer. Prime Minister Truss: We had better get ready for it.

To keep things in perspective, and setting aside all questions of political tilt, I sometimes conjure the names of some of Truss’s predecessors when the thought of her residing at 10 Downing comes to mind: Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, Churchill, Clement Atlee—Margaret Thatcher, indeed. This is not a question of approving or otherwise the things these prime ministers did. It is to remind myself that, once upon a time, British PMs had some working understanding of the world. They had purpose, intentions, things they wanted to get done because they considered those things in need of doing. A few of them had principles.  

Liz Truss has none of this. In the matter of principles, forget about it. To the extent she can be said to have a purpose, Truss’s purpose as she seeks to be Britain’s next prime minister is to be Britain’s next prime minister.

A little at a time since she came into the public eye, Truss seems to me emblematic of the grave crisis of leadership in the Western post-democracies. Britain will be in very serious trouble if Truss wins the Tories’ vote on September 5. So will the rest of us, given she will represent a new low in our collective elevation of incompetence to high office.

Liz Truss is the foreign secretary who, barking a few months ago at Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, turned out not to know parts of Russia from parts of Ukraine. Liz Truss is the Tory political candidate whose economic platform, as Britons face their worst crisis at least since the 1980s and possibly since 1945 when this is over, begins and ends with a plan to lower taxes.

Lowering taxes and standing fast against Russians are what Thatcher did, you see, and Liz Truss wants to be another Thatcher in the same way Conservative British PMs, including Thatcher, have never gotten over their Churchill complex.

To the extent there is a Liz Truss, Liz Truss is demonstrably a Dummkopf. But it is better to accept that there is no Liz Truss. There is someone who derives her identity by posing atop a NATO tank as Thatcher once did, there is someone who stood fast against Britain’s exit from the European Union and is now overly vigorous in favor of it. But behind the poseur and the shape-shifter there is, by all one can make out, no Liz Truss.

Truss’s plan to lower taxes to appeal to the Conservative constituency that will elect her to succeed Johnson is economic suicide by the reckoning of a large chorus of economists, who think it will worsen an inflation rate that hit 10.1 percent last  week. Predictions of poverty and deprivation—of food, of heat—are dire. “The whole campaign has been conducted in this bubble of unreality,” one of these economists, Tim Bale, who professes at Queen Mary University, London, said in a newspaper interview this week.

I don’t doubt Professor Bale for a second. But let us not miss: The bubble of unreality in which Truss operates is but one case of the bubble into which those purporting to lead the Western post-democracies have marched all of us.

It is interesting to put President Biden in the long line of American presidents in the same way I imagine Truss on the list of British prime ministers. Biden succeeding FDR or Kennedy or LBJ or even Nixon: You get a picture of a long, more or less uninterrupted decline. And you see the same impulse to reenact, to call upon the past for validation. Biden as the second coming of FDR or LBJ: It is ridiculous. Biden has no more purpose to him than Truss, unless we give him the edge as he seeks to stave off America’s loss of its postwar primacy.

I noticed some years ago a peculiar feature of public life in modern America. I named it our culture of representation. Public figures tend to reference the great or supposedly great of the past so as to have some reflected greatness shine upon them.

Among my examples of this phenomenon was Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign in Cuba, June 1898. These were the first moments of overseas combat for American soldiers during what we call the American century. With the buzz of bullets all around him, TR insisted on wearing a cumbersome, useless saber into battle because that is what great soldiers had worn from the American Revolution through the Civil War.

Roosevelt was humorous about this foolishness later in life. “I never wore it again in action,” he wrote in The Rough Riders, “as it kept getting between my legs as I was tearing through the jungle.”

That is our culture of representation in miniature. Since TR’s day it has grown like kudzu over the public life of all the Western post-democracies. Liz Truss is a dedicated practitioner. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, thinks he is de Gaulle come back to life. An interesting thing about Biden is that he tries it—the FDR and LBJ bit—but it is too politically risky even to mimic them. By our standards they are radicals, I am not the first to point out.

It is a fine thing, a sign of wisdom, to learn from the past. But imitation is another matter. For one thing, we are bound to find that the imitators are masking their vacuity—their lack of purpose or intent—behind some previous figure’s purpose and intent. For another, leaders who imitate the past in this way are never going to address the problems confronting their societies effectively. They are going to force their citizens into bubbles of unreality, as Professor Bale nicely put it.

There is another, larger reason for our confinement in bubbles, apart from our leaders’ preoccupation with obscuring their empty opportunism. We live in an historic moment. It does not matter your political stripe, the reality of the West’s loss of primacy after half a millennium—taking my date from da Gama’s arrival in Calicut in 1498—is something we will have to acknowledge if we are to get anywhere in the 21st century.

Those purporting to lead us now prove incapable of acting in response to this moment. They were not trained, as none of us was prepared, to reply to a passage of this magnitude and consequence. All they can do is repeat, to imitate, to charge on with sabers: I want to be another Margaret Thatcher, I want to be another FDR, America is back, and so on.

To turn this point upside down, look at the leaders of prominent non–Western nations. Whatever you may think of Vladimir Putin, whatever you may think of Xi Jinping, whatever you think of Nicolás Maduro or Danny Ortega or Andrés Manuel López Obrador or Miguel Díaz–Canel or any of the new “pink tide” leaders in Latin America, set it aside and consider: These leaders are not wanting in purpose or intent. They do not create or act in bubbles of unreality. They are not given to imitating the past. They have things to do.

President Putin gave another of his remarkable speeches on these matters, delivered at a security conference in Moscow, on August 16. Diego Ramos published a sound analysis of it in ScheerPost on Wednesday. It bears quite directly on the matters I raise. 

I suppose I am circling the thought that the West is exhausted and the non–West is by comparison full of vigor. Perhaps Putin would agree with me: The emergence of the non–West as an energetic pole of power marks an inevitable turn of history’s wheel. The West’s decline does not. It is a choice a frivolous generation of leaders makes for us. And it is not going to end well without a profound change of consciousness, we had better realize.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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