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Britain’s Guilty Men and Women

Liz Truss was just the latest. For the past dozen years, each leader has left the country poorer, weaker, and more divided than the last.

A British Union Jack flag smeared with black paint
Erik Carter / The Atlantic

In July 1940, three journalists published a short, anonymous polemical attack on the failures of British statecraft that forever shaped Britain’s understanding of the Second World War. Guilty Men, by the pseudonymous Cato, accused 15 of Britain’s senior political figures during the interwar years of leading a once prosperous and secure empire “to the edge of national annihilation.” The war may have broken out in 1939, Cato charged, but the genesis of Britain’s misfortunes could be dated to 1929, when the world economy imploded and a monstrous regime of little men took over in London.

Something similar has happened again. And once again, it is time these culprits quit the stage.

Today, Britain is very much not on the edge of national annihilation, whatever the hyperbolic coverage of the past few weeks might suggest. But it is in the grip of chaotic mismanagement that has left the country poorer and weaker, having lost its fourth prime minister in six turbulent years since the Brexit referendum and with an economy pushed close to its breaking point. The next prime minister, whoever that may be, will face an extraordinary set of challenges largely of their Conservative Party’s own making. But when did this era of the small people begin? What was its genesis?

All such start dates are unsatisfactory—calamities are always seeded by events that came before. Some will argue it was the 2016 vote for Brexit, but that lets off the hook those who legislated for it without any plan to enact it. At the other end of the spectrum from that too-recent convulsion, 1990 offers a deeper origin story. That was the year Margaret Thatcher was pulled from office and replaced by John Major, a man no one thinks of as a giant. Major inherited a country in a stronger position than at any time since the 1960s, yet handed over power to Tony Blair having frittered away the Conservative Party’s reputation for economic management.

He had also signed up to a new European treaty that left a fatal tension at the heart of Britain’s membership in the European Union. Major’s European compromise left Britain inside the European Union but outside its single currency. In time, the inherent tension in this position would reveal itself in disastrous fashion—the historian Niall Ferguson has called it “Brexit 1.0.”

Still, all of the blame for today’s problems cannot be laid at Major’s door; his successors had time and options for how to deal with the problems he left. A second origin date, then, might be 1997, when Tony Blair came to power. Blair proved unable to change Major’s compromise and pursued instead a series of radical constitutional changes that slowly undermined the unity of the country he thought he was building.

When Blair left office in 2007, the country was still relatively unified and prosperous. It fell to Gordon Brown, Blair’s replacement, to watch everything explode in the great financial crisis. All of these milestones—1990, 1997, and 2007—have legitimate claims to be the genesis of the current crisis. Yet none quite fits. The regime of little men had not begun. That came in 2010.

For the past 12 years, Britain has been led by a succession of Conservative prime ministers—each, like Russian dolls, somehow smaller than the last—who have contrived to leave the country in a worse state than it was when they took over. By the time Liz Truss assumed office last month, she evidently had no conception of the damage done by this period of Tory rule, how exposed Britain had become, how fragile, how vulnerable. Without Truss realizing it, Britain had become too weak to cope with a leader so small.

The cast list of guilty men and women who left Britain in this position must, therefore, include the unwitting Truss and her hapless chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. But they were merely the clowns ushered in at the end of the performance. The stars of the show were the three prime ministers before her—Boris Johnson, Theresa May, and David Cameron—with supporting roles for the former chancellor George Osborne and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Each of these men and women helped break down the country’s immune system before Truss and Kwarteng sent it into a state of paralyzed shock. In this absurd hospital drama, there were also walk-on parts for two former Labour leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. And Boris Johnson is now attempting a comeback!

These are the guilty men and women of today.

The story begins in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street on a spring day in May 2010. The Conservative Cameron and the Liberal Democrat Clegg, seemingly best buddies, stood hailing the creation of the first peacetime coalition government in Britain since that of Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, coming together in the national interest to tackle the once-in-a-century economic crisis that had left a giant hole in the public finances. Here were the two golden boys of their parties: calm, confident, educated, rich. They were moderate and modernizing, the impeccable products of their impeccable backgrounds, the new Blairs for a new era. And on they marched to calamity.

Both Cameron and Clegg had been elected leader of their respective parties through American-style primaries. Back then, such votes were lauded as “democratization,” much-needed medicine to treat an ailing old constitution. They were no such thing. Rather than injecting more democracy into the process, they did the opposite—empowering tiny caucuses to send their minority tribunes to challenge parliamentary rule.

After the election, Labour tried its own version, elevating Ed Miliband, against the wishes of Labour members of Parliament. In time, Miliband would further “modernize” the process with rule changes that would send the party careering toward populist extremism and electoral annihilation under Jeremy Corbyn. In time, such institutional vandalism would have dire consequences for both the Conservative and Labour Parties, and therefore the country.

Meanwhile, Cameron and Clegg went to work hacking back public spending with extraordinary severity. The result was that Britain experienced the slowest economic recovery in its history, which meant that the coalition government failed to balance the books as it had hoped—exactly, in fact, as Labour had warned would happen. Britain had bailed out the bankers and then watched them get rich while the rest of the country got poorer. No wonder people were angry. Even though Cameron and Clegg would later rail against the pro-Brexit populists who dismissed the “experts” who warned against leaving the EU, they themselves ignored the economic-expert consensus that warned against such deep levels of austerity.

By the time Cameron became prime minister, the global financial crisis had morphed into a European crisis that threatened the very existence of the euro. At this point, the tension built into Britain’s European compromise by Major two decades earlier finally snapped. Faced with a potentially fatal crisis, the euro-zone countries clubbed together to force through emergency reforms to help stabilize their currency. As they did so, Cameron began to panic about the threat to British interests from a more cohesive euro-zone bloc—which was an inevitable consequence of Major’s compromise. After Cameron’s demands for new safeguards to those interests were ignored, he vetoed the euro zone’s reforms. The euro zone went ahead with them anyway. One year into Cameron’s premiership, in 2011, the nightmare of British isolation within the EU had come true.

For the next five years, the British prime minister took a series of gambles that ended in disaster. Alarmed by his veto failure, Cameron concluded that Britain needed to renegotiate its membership entirely—and put it to voters in a referendum, which he promised in 2013. By then he had also agreed to a referendum on Scottish independence. Britain’s future was on the line not once but twice.

The first of these contests, the Scottish referendum in 2014, Cameron won—but by only the slimmest of margins. When, a year later, he campaigned for reelection warning English voters of the danger of domination by the Scots, the result was a Tory victory that guaranteed an EU referendum, a defeat for the Liberal Democrat coalition partner Clegg, and a revolution in Scotland as the pro-independence nationalist party swept the board. Britain is now permanently under the threat of breakup.

A year after his election victory, Cameron had to keep his promise of a referendum on Europe, lost, and resigned. As with the Scottish case, he had refused to countenance any preparations for the possibility of a winning Leave vote. Cameron left behind a country divided and a Parliament that did not want Brexit but was tasked with delivering it without any idea how. By any estimation, it was a catastrophic miscarriage of statecraft.

With the departures of Cameron, Clegg, and Osborne—to the comfort of corporate jobs or consultancies—the next set of characters took the stage for Act II. When the chief protagonists of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, fell out, the task of delivering Brexit became Theresa May’s. May was a serious, qualified, thoughtful Conservative who had opposed Brexit but now assumed responsibility for it. But she was simply not up to the job. Being prime minister requires not just diligence and seriousness but political acumen and an ability to lead. She had too little of either.

And so, she failed in the one overarching purpose of her premiership: to enact the result of the referendum. She set contradictory redlines, failed to stick to them, struck agreements Parliament would not accept, prevaricated to the point of obstinacy, and finally lost the support of her party and Parliament. On top of all this, she called an election she did not need to hold, in 2017, and in doing so exposed her limitations for all to see.

May was hampered throughout her troubled final years as prime minister with a leader of the opposition in Jeremy Corbyn, who was ideologically hostile to any conciliation or compromise with the Tories, empowered by both his own sense of righteous purity and the mandate he had twice received from Labour Party members. He, after all, had a mandate outside Parliament.

And once again, when everything fell apart, the leadership passed along with the country in a chaotic stasis far worse than before.

In 2019, Boris Johnson finally grabbed the long-sought crown—only to find a way to lose it in disgrace three years later. Despite his brief tenure, Johnson remains one of the most influential—and notorious—figures in postwar British history. Without him, the country likely would not have voted for Brexit in the first place, let alone seen it pushed through Parliament.

For his first six months in the job, Johnson thrashed around, threatening, cajoling, bargaining, and eventually accepting the terms offered him. As the price of “getting Brexit done,” he accepted the economic division of the U.K., carving off Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Yet it was not his policies that led to his downfall but his moral incontinence, attending parties in Downing Street while putting the country in lockdown, defending indefensible colleagues, lying and avoiding all responsibility. In the end, Conservative members of Parliament had enough and got rid of him, paving the way for the smallest guilty person of all: Liz Truss.

Something about Truss was immediately dispiriting. Faced with an extraordinary moment in the nation’s history, when Queen Elizabeth died after 70 years on the throne, Truss’s stilted eulogy was the equivalent of sending a condolence card from Hallmark.

And then her premiership exploded—and she had mined it herself. Truss had won the crown by promising to retain what was good about Johnson’s administration but to go further and faster than he’d dared. Her only success was to make Johnson look like a model of prudence.

In their first act in power, Truss and Kwarteng blew up the British government’s reputation for economic competence—and with it went the household budgets of Middle England. Together, they must take their place in the cast of final guilty men and women in our tawdry modern morality tale. In her departure, Truss offered little defense and no apology, confirming her unfitness for office. The fact that she got there at all only reveals the smallness of the regime that awarded her the role.

So now Britain is once again looking for a new prime minister. Boris Johnson is said to be flying home from the Caribbean to enter the fray, dreaming of a Churchillian redemption. The two men who declared him unfit for office—Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove—now also have another shot at power. A fourth contender, Penny Mordaunt, is also auditioning as a Thatcher impersonator. In this company, only Sunak, who warned of the idiocy of Truss’s crash economic program, has much credibility.

To some, the Guilty Men of the 1930s were unfairly maligned. Even one of the pamphlet’s true authors, the journalist Michael Foot—decades later a singularly unsuccessful Labour Party leader himself—subsequently admitted to the polemic’s “unrelenting crudity.” Guilty Men was indeed something of a character assassination of Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin, and MacDonald, among others. Many historians now say these appeasers of the 1930s bought their country much-needed time.

Perhaps a similar revisionism will emerge about the years of Tory misrule. Cameron inherited an economy battered by the great financial crisis and an unmanageable tension with Europe. May was squeezed into an impossible position by domestic and European intransigence. And Johnson did the best he could to rescue a bad situation. Even Truss might be explained away as a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Perhaps. But each, unquestionably, left their country poorer, weaker, angrier, and more divided. Over the past 12 years, Britain has degraded. A sense of decay fills the air, and so, too, a feeling of genuine public fury.

In 1940, Cato demanded that the Guilty Men leave the political stage of their own accord “and so make an essential contribution to the victory upon which all are implacably resolved.” Now, surely, it is time for the party that enabled the guilty of today to heed Cato’s advice: In the name of God, go!