By Harlan Ullman
After overseeing Britain’s victory in World War II and then being voted out of office in July 1945, Winston Churchill had few kind words about his successor. Churchill acidly observed that an empty taxicab pulled up in front of Parliament and Clement Atlee got out. One of the crises Britain and America jointly face today is an excess of empty taxicabs arriving in politics and governing.
An informal survey of current and former British members of both Houses of Parliament; senior ministers; field marshals; generals; admirals; and other distinguished personages I contacted revealed a shared and stunning universal complaint. The British government, and by extension its American cousins, are suffering from an acute absence of leaders and leadership. But this assessment was symptomatic. The causes are more profound.
The causes arose from the many failures of a series of British governments to govern smartly and to provide adequately for the governed. And failed and failing government extends well beyond Whitehall. In America, the demise of leadership began with both catastrophic foreign and domestic policy decisions. The Vietnam conflict and second Iraq War followed by the disastrous 2011 Libyan intervention that has since disintegrated into civil war, and the inability of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to address effectively entitlement, tax, healthcare and other crucial domestic issues, has produced a government that is broken and indeed has failed its citizens.
In Britain, Tony Blair‘s abandonment of “New Labor’s” centrist policies was almost as destructive as the prime minister’s blind and obedient following of George W. Bush‘s ill-conceived foray into Iraq. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, was a caretaker. After a promising start, David Cameron ran hard aground over Brexit, ultimately losing the referendum on whether Britain should remain or leave the European Union.
Perhaps Cameron thought himself bulletproof after winning an unexpected outright Conservative Parliamentary majority in 2015 along with the Scottish vote to stay in the U.K. Failing to convince his EU colleagues of Britain’s grave reservations about free flow of people in Europe and Brussels’ choking super-regulatory regime, Cameron succumbed to his party’s right wing and put the question to a referendum. Whether overly confident about winning or no longer interested in governing, Cameron was half-hearted at best in waging the “remain campaign.” And for a referendum with such profound consequences, why Cameron allowed a majority vote to determine the outcome as opposed to a super-majority of 3/5 or 2/3 is inexplicable.
Britain voted to leave 52 to 48. Cameron resigned, replaced by former Home Secretary Theresa May as prime minister. May, believing polls that predicted the Conservatives would win a large majority possibly by as much as 50 seats called a snap election two months ago. In part because of a flawed campaign that provided a huge opening for Labor and its left-wing Socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, May lost her majority and was forced to form a coalition partnership with the right-wing Northern Ireland Democratic Union Party. Labeled a “dead woman walking” by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, May has been badly if not mortally politically wounded. However, to keep party unity, the betting is that May will remain in office through part if not all of the Brexit negotiations.
The winners were Labor and its leader Corbyn, who makes socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders seem more conservative than President Ronald Reagan. Should Labor succeed in the next election and make good on its promises, according to this sampling of the elite noted above, Britain would take decades to recover. Scotland and Northern Ireland could too easily leave the U.K. The free market would be overturned by free education and the re-establishment of the welfare state. Britain would withdraw from NATO and abandon its nuclear deterrent, all with the most grievous results.
Returning to America, the overwhelming British opinion of President Donald Trump is intensely negative. Trump is regarded as unfit, unready, unable, too uncouth and most importantly, too dangerous (and this was before the current rhetorical war with North Korea) to serve as America’s president. And Trump’s disdaining tweet about London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan means that if a presidential visit to Britain does occur, it will not be pleasant.
As Vladimir Lenin asked, “What is to be done?”
The only leaders who seem to have answers are Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jingping. The prospect of an emerging future Lincoln who saved the Union; a Franklin Roosevelt who navigated the Great Depression and World War II; or a Churchill who led wartime Britain seems very remote. Amplifying Churchill’s empty taxi metaphor is the title of Samuel Beckett‘s bizarre play, Waiting for Godot.
But Godot never arrives. Is this then what the future holds for the leaders and leadership crucial to repairing failed and failing government both in Britain and in America? This may be the most important question of the coming decade.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, “Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts,” will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.