Forget Global Britain: the UK has become an international punchline

Keep calm and carry on 'Kamikwazi-ing'

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In January 2014, news broke that French President Francois Hollande had been having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet. The details were very Parisian — he’d been taking his moped to her apartment, where his security detail would deliver croissants after their liaisons dangereuses.

I was working in Paris at the time, and the reaction in France was also typically Gallic.

Monsieur Le President had a right to privacy and, well, at last there was some intrigue surrounding the technocrat critics had dubbed “Flanby” after an unexciting caramel pudding. In a country known for its insouciance for philandering politicians, his approval ratings actually went up.

It wasn’t until Mr Hollande visited Britain that month that he got his first real interrogation over the affair. Standing alongside then-prime minister David Cameron at an RAF base in the Cotswolds, a reporter from the London press pack asked Mr Hollande about the “very sensitive subject”.

“Do you think your private life has made France an international joke?” the Daily Telegraph correspondent asked.

Mr Hollande, of course, ducked the provocative question, which generated chortles from the Brits, whose journalists rightly pride themselves on taking a much more combative stance than their deferential peers in France and on US news networks.

At the time, I too chuckled.

But the incident has been replaying in my mind with less mirth as I watch on from the US, my adopted home, as my native country lurches from one self-inflicted catastrophe to the next.

The smug assumption of 2014 that Britain could somehow be the arbiter of which other nations are a “joke” has come full circle as the world laughs at a poorer, colder and smaller UK, untethered from the world stage after Brexit and now on its third prime minister since Mr Cameron.

Economists looked on in disbelief as Prime Minister Liz Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, unveiled their “mini-budget” that sent the pound to its lowest level in history and almost triggered a financial crisis.

Asked at a Singapore summit hosted by the Milken Institute last week whether the UK is behaving like an “emerging market”, Jeff Gardner, a senior portfolio strategist at Bridgewater Associates, gave a withering assessment.

“Maybe not so much an emerging market, because I think that might be an insult to emerging markets,” he told the panel to laughter.

He is hardly the only one to mock Britain.

Former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers said the UK was "behaving a bit like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market".

“Between Brexit, how far the Bank of England got behind the curve and now these fiscal policies, I think Britain will be remembered for having pursued the worst macroeconomic policies of any major country in a long time.”

Twitter wags were quick to pile on too, depicting Mr Kwarteng as a “Kamikwazi” pilot bent on his own destruction. The Economist ran a leader entitled: How not to run a country.

Predictably, Ms Truss on Monday was forced into a U-turn, conceding that now is not the best time to plunge Britain more into debt and further devalue the pound.

It is not clear if Ms Truss is clinging to the disproven voodoo economics playbook that unfunded tax cuts for the richest somehow “trickle down” into better conditions for the rest of us, or if she is trying to implement early 1980s US economic policies in a 2020s post-pandemic, post-Brexit Britain.

Ms Truss already knows about U-turns, having been against Brexit before she was for it, pro-republican before she was a monarchist, and so on. She perhaps honed her reverse-driving skills under Boris Johnson, who abruptly changed course on dozens of policy proposals.

Since the latest reversal, the pound has recouped some of its losses after it nearly hit parity with the dollar last week.

A member of the audience falls asleep whilst waiting for Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng's keynote speech at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Monday. EPA

Britain's woes should be considered in the context of the gloomy global economic picture, and Brexit coincided with the pandemic and many worsening global crises over which the UK alone has little say.

But after lurching from a bodged departure from the EU, to three years of infighting under Theresa May, to the moral and intellectual abyss of Boris Johnson's tenure, Ms Truss and her Conservative Party may have run out of room for manoeuvre. They are now polling 33 points behind Labour, and the Brits have a winter of discontent ahead as inflation remains stubbornly high, energy bills are set to soar again and a recession is all but certain.

It must all be très drôle for Monsieur Hollande and his now-wife Madame Gayet. Presumably they are chuckling over their croissants.

Julie Gayet and Francois Holland in 2019. AFP
Updated: November 18, 2022, 12:30 PM