By Osmund Agbo
When on September 13, 2012, five Conservative MPs led by an Ivy League educated son of a Ghanaian immigrant, presented a treatise called “Britannia Unchained,” they warned that Great Britain should either adopt the free-market economic theory they propounded or risk “an inevitable slide into mediocrity.” Kwasi Kwarteng was a rising star among the Tories and like the other co-authors including Liz Truss, they were all elected to the British Parliament in May 2010. Ten years later, four out of the five co-authors would become part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet and on September 6, 2022, Liz Truss, the MP from South West Norfolk, became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Described as a tall, imposing figure with a booming voice, Mr. Kwarteng was born in 1975 in East London. An only child of Ghanaian parents, Alfred and Charlotte Kwarteng, who emigrated to Britain as students in the 1960s. Kwasi came from a privileged background. His father was an economist with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London while his mother was a barrister.
The young Kwasi attended Eton College, Britain’s most famous high school, as a King’s Scholar before proceeding to the Trinity College of Cambridge University where he studied classics and history. He later had a stint at Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar before returning to Cambridge for a doctorate in economic history, graduating in 2000.
Before his election as a member of parliament in 2010, Kwarteng was a financial analyst with JP Morgan Chase and also worked as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Since becoming an MP, he had held many other influential positions including Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union; Minister of State for Climate; among others before he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by the then incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss on 6 September 2022.
Mr. Kwarteng until he got his pink slip on 14 October 2022, a mere 38 days after being sworn in as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the highest ranking black in the British Government. Yet, he is not particularly known to embrace his blackness or fight on the side of black people as an oppressed racial minority in the UK. In fact, when the Windrush Scandal, a discriminatory immigration policy that unfairly targeted black people in the UK for years, broke out in April 2018, he was the one junketing around the whole place, defending the untenable position of the British Government.
Prime Minister Truss and her former Chancellor of Exchequer, Mr. Kwasi Kwarteng, at some points were seen as the proverbial two peas in a pod. They both lived close to each other in Greenwich, Southeast London, and the ideological bond they forged when writing “Britannia Unchained” blossomed. It was no surprise that when Liz Truss became the Prime Minister, Mr. Kwarteng was her natural choice for the position of chief financial minister. Having been thrusted into the top echelon of the nation’s leadership, the two decided it was time to carry out the long envisioned economic experiment.
In Britannia Unchained, they set out their vision for the United Kingdom’s future as a leading player in the global economy based on free-market. They argued that Britain runs a bloated state with high taxes and excessive regulation and advocated fewer employment laws and regulations. They suggested that Britain needs to learn lessons from the business and economic practices of other countries of the world who are doing better and characterized the British as being among the worst idlers in the world who work the lowest hours, retire early and are less productive than other nationalities.
On 23 September 2022, Mr. Kwarteng delivered what was referred to as “The Growth Plan” to the House of Commons. In it were the economic policy thrust of the Truss administration. The highlights included the plan to cut income tax from 20% to 19%, reversal of a plan earlier announced in March 2021 to increase corporation tax from 19% to 25% from April 2023. They also planned to abolish a proposed Health and Social Care Levy among other things. The problem was that the hundreds of billions of dollars in the proposed tax cuts were short on how that would be paid for. They believe that lower taxes would simply pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth, something that the new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak referred to as fairy-tail economics.
Not many economic and policy wonks agreed with them. Most importantly, the market was not ready to buy what they were selling. One economic expert in a Guardian opinion article described the potential impact of Trussonomics as thus: “households would face the highly unsettling combination of more uncertain income streams, higher borrowing costs and a further erosion in their purchasing power due to greater imported inflation. Businesses already struggling to keep afloat in the midst of an energy and cost of living crisis would risk being tipped into bankruptcy. ”Like most right-wing policies, it is the most vulnerable segments of the population who are most at risk.
The reforms were audacious and seen as a bitter pill to swallow but the two believed that Britain as a nation needed it to redirect back to the path of global economic reckoning. Problem is those who gave them jobs didn’t want to hear any of that. In fact, just stating their intentions sent markets into a tailspin, followed by a sharp fall in the value of pound sterling against the United States dollar. Expectedly, many called for their heads and somebody had to pay for it. Madam Prime Minister decided it was not going to be her and in a blink of an eye, threw her friend and longtime ideological soulmate under the bus instead.
In the months leading up to the 2020 United States presidential election, former President Barack Obama had cause to address his party, the Democratic Party. The occasion was the annual meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a club of wealthy donors known to support liberals causes. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” Obama was quoted to have warned his party.
The former President was visibly worried at the time, about the actions and utterances of the far left-leaning activist wing of his party represented by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexia Ocasio-Cortez and how the policy direction they championed would impact the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party going into the general election. The group were urging voters to embrace “political revolution” and “big, structural change.” They repeatedly mouthed such extreme far left proposals such as court packing and decriminalization of illegal border crossings. In the end, Democrats voted and Joseph Robin Biden, a moderate and President Obama’s Vice President, emerged from the crowded primary race and went on to win the general election against Donald Trump in November 2020.
Trussonomics seeks to radically change the British economic system and replace it with something new and different. Big problem is that Britons fear the changes proposed which are closely related to a fear of the unknown. Lack of control and predictability increases the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty which were what ruffled the market and sent the pound sterling tumbling down.
A few days after the ceremonial firing of her Chancellor of Exchequer, Liz Truss would find herself sinking deeper in the sea of economic trouble she hoped to avoid and faced an unprecedented pressure to resign her position as the British Prime Minister of Great Britain. She finally threw in the towel in the early hours of October 20, after spending just 44 days on the job, a time someone pointed out is shorter than the shell life of lettuce. She came to find out that sacrificing the black guy to appease the gods of the market, was not enough to save her own political career.
In hindsight, Prime Minister Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng needed to have paid more attention to Mr. Barack Obama’s 2019 warning. Britons, having been in a storm, are looking to have their leaky roofs patched up. They are vehemently opposed to anyone promising to tear the whole house down. Unfortunately, the pair missed the memo.
Prime Minister Sunak is not a member of the squad Britannia like Truss and Kwarteng but nonetheless, he is seen as part of the establishment, far removed from the daily realities of everyday Britons. A combined net worth with his wife and Indian tech heiress, Akshata Murty, estimated at about 730 million pounds, makes him easily one of the richest British Prime Ministers.
As the chancellor of the Exchequer during Covid-19 pandemic, however, Mr. Sunak pushed for spending designed to protect households and businesses from the economic fallout of the virus, a move that gave him a human face and endeared him to a broad segment of British society. But as the Prime Minister, Sunak will face a giant wall of unprecedented challenges. He will lead a Britain with a slowing economy and highest inflation in 40 years. It didn’t help that while on the campaign trail, he said very little about how he will turn things around.
According to the New York Times, the biggest test of PM Sunak’s political career is how to unify a fractured Conservative party and fix Britain’s economy. Like Obama, Sunak may likely have to contend with those who will try to obstruct his government’s every move and subject him to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. As was the case with Obama, there will be individuals who, because of his ancestry, will see him as just another pretender to the throne. The new British Prime Minister would need the Grace, Wisdom and Poise of the 44th President of the United States, to carry him through.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com