Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

British Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation, outside Number 10 Downing Street, London on Oct. 20.TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

Are we not entertained?

The resignation on Thursday of British Prime Minister Liz Truss after 45 calamity-ridden days in office was a source of hilarity for many people. A London tabloid, the Daily Star, last week placed a head of iceberg on a table beside a photo of Ms. Truss and asked, “Which wet lettuce will last longer?” When the unrefrigerated greens handily won the contest, it was salad days for punsters on social media.

And fair enough. Ms. Truss’s brief tenure as prime minister – the shortest in British history – deserves all the derision it gets. Few politicians have ever been able to fit so much ineptitude into so few days; the average inept person would need at least a year to do as much damage to her country and her party as she did in a month and a half.

But behind the laughter there ought to be real anger about Ms. Truss’s actions in office, and their consequences.

Her decision, made along with her disgraced former chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, to drop massive unfunded tax cuts into a mini-budget last month nearly caused the collapse of the British economy and its currency.

The market and media backlash to the ill-conceived plan, and the government’s move to abandon it this week, directly led to her downfall – and to the search for the country’s fifth prime minister in six years. Britain, once seen as a pillar of stability and rectitude, now rivals Italy’s status as the home of Europe’s most capricious polity.

This is not good. But it does serve as a useful warning against handing your government to people on the populist end of the political spectrum who lack the seriousness required for the job.

Ms. Truss won the Conservative Party leadership in September vowing to take on economic “orthodoxy” – the idea that expansionary fiscal policy in the form of large tax cuts and new spending would work at cross-purposes with the Bank of England’s efforts to cool inflation by raising interest rates.

A move she insisted would resuscitate Britain’s sluggish growth instead prompted bond traders to dump British government gilts. It caused a crisis that forced the Bank of England to buy billions of pounds of gilts to prevent the collapse of pension funds. The pound also crashed, for a moment approaching parity with the U.S. dollar.

The mess prompted one market analyst to coin the term ”moron risk premium,” defined in The Financial Times as “the extra money the U.K. is paying to borrow because its leaders are a few sandwiches short of a tea party.”

Ms. Truss indeed veered into sandwich scarcity when she sneered at legitimate concerns about her budgetary plans and dismissed them as “orthodoxy” – as if the advice not to point a loaded gun at your foot and pull the trigger was just a self-serving bromide coined by fancy establishment types who like to boast of having all their toes.

Her actions were the height of irresponsibility, and her downfall is well-earned. The way she chose to brush aside sound economic thinking was just too much of a part with the snake oil of Brexit, which has left Britain poorer, and with the belligerent populism of Donald Trump and his cancerous lies about the 2020 U.S. election results.

These are all examples of the threat inherent to populist politicians who sell simplistic answers for complex problems, who ignore the advice of experts in the name of ideology, and who throw around coded insults.

Whether it’s “orthodoxy” or “elites” or “gatekeepers,” it adds up to the same thing: the transformation of mainstream opinions, inconvenient truths and common-sense safeguards into something pernicious – something purportedly created by a shadowy cabal solely to prevent the populist’s supporters from prospering; or, even worse, to take away their freedoms.

Canada isn’t immune from this, and it’s something to worry us all. The near collapse of Britain’s economy and the resignation of Ms. Truss are, like the catastrophes of Brexit and Mr. Trump’s big lie, real-time demonstrations of what happens when the careless fictions espoused by populists crash into reality.

The problems of the world desperately need the attention of serious-minded politicians who aren’t blinded by their own orthodoxies and short-sighted agendas. This is something this page has said before, and will be saying again tomorrow with a focus on Canada.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe