And just like that, the Prime Minister of the sixth richest economy in the world fell to her knees and resigned. What lessons can we draw from the public anger that swept Liz Truss away in a record 42 days in office?
Over the last four months, the United Kingdom has seen the departure of three chancellors, two home secretaries, two prime ministers and a monarch. The four positions are undeniably the most powerful. They include ministers responsible for finance and national security, the leader of government and the ceremonial head of state. The latest upset may just register the Kingdom as a fragile state by most democratic standards.
Watching the crisis first-hand while in Britain this week, there are several winds that propelled the conservative party leaders through the revolving door of British politics with the speed of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the former Sri Lankan government.
Kwasi Kwarteng triggered the twelfth Prime Minister to resign in a century. Despite the many hardships facing many Britons, the now-former Chancellor arguably presented one of the worst mini budgets in fifty years. He reduced taxes for those earning over Sh 20 million, cut corporation tax, and lifted caps on bankers’ bonuses but failed to address the cost-of-living, health, and social protection challenges for British hustlers.
The tone-deaf insensitivity to the public interest couldn’t have been more glaring. The National Food Security Agency estimates one in three Britons is now buying cheap expired foods. Food poverty, defined as the lack of income to buy adequate and nutritious food, is as real today for 20 per cent of Britons as it is for some of Kenya’s drought-stricken counties.
Energy costs have doubled since last year. One in five households now risks food poisoning by regularly switching off their fridges and freezers to reduce their electricity bills. With winter a few weeks away, many are fearful of how they will survive. This fear is slowly twisting into private outrage and public protest.
Active citizens across civic organisations, trade unions, media houses and the public are rallying. The Enough is Enough Alliance has demanded the slashing of energy bills, an end to food poverty and a minimum wage increase to cope with the high cost of living. The #DontPayUK campaign has urged citizens to stop paying utility bills. “Burn your Bills” rallies are taking place across several cities and towns, and the Just Stop Oil campaign is insisting on an end to fossil fuel-based oil and gas projects and more investment in safer green energy.
Rather than address these concerns, the Conservative Party is investing in criminalising the right to protest. This week, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (2022) was debated in the House of Commons. The Act empowers the police to arrest protestors if they feel a demonstration might “seriously disrupt” businesses or essential services or just be too noisy. And it doesn’t matter if the protest is non-violent or organised by a single individual.
The new law seeks to increase penalties and make protesting in front of parliament impossible. Criminalising protests will also be costly for the state. Critics argue the new law may generate 696 new court cases each year and cost the Government Sh 122 million annually to enforce.
The distance between the British public on the streets and policymakers in boardrooms could not be greater than it is now. While Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are not the only politicians grappling with the catastrophic shocks of global food and fuel hikes, they and others globally must now directly address impoverishment, rising inequalities, and public disaffection.
Rather than adopt “ostrich in the sand” mindsets, it is time for leaders to look again at strengthening direct democracy mechanisms that consult the public and the public interest groups that speak with them. Tough times require more inclusion, dialogue, and engagement not less. Fortress mindsets predictably provoke more public disaffection, violence, and resignations.
Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]