Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

3 prime ministers, 2 monarchs, 1 year: This was Britain's tumultuous 2022

Former U.K Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III, current U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; John Stillwell/WPA Pool via Getty Images; Yui Mok/WPA Pool via Getty Images; Henry Nicholls/WPA Pool via Getty Images; Leon Neal/Getty Images
Former U.K Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III, current U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss.

LONDON — This was a tumultuous year in the United Kingdom, where the only constant seemed to be change. In one four-month stretch, the U.K. had four chancellors of the exchequer (essentially Britain's treasury secretary), three prime ministers and two monarchs.

The year concluded with near-11% inflation and a series of walkouts by nurses, immigration officers, driving test examiners, postal staff and railway workers in the worst strikes the country has seen in more than a decade.

"Lots of my colleagues are really struggling financially," said Matthew Lee, a train conductor picketing outside London's King's Cross station earlier this month. "I want to get back to work, but there comes a point where you have to make a stand and just say: 'That's it.'"

National Health Service workers and supporters gather outside Downing Street to protest during the second day of strike action by NHS nurses on Dec. 20 in London. For the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nursing called its members out on strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, over pay and conditions.
Leon Neal / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
National Health Service workers and supporters gather outside Downing Street to protest during the second day of strike action by NHS nurses on Dec. 20 in London. For the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nursing called its members out on strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, over pay and conditions.

There were also signs that — for the first time since leaving the European Union in 2020 — public opinion has turned sharply against Brexit.

More than three-quarters of British firms said the U.K.'s post-Brexit trade deal with Europe is not helping them increase sales, according to a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce.

Another survey found 56% of respondents believed it was wrong to leave the European Union, with only 32% still supporting Brexit.

The 2016 referendum was supposed to resolve Britain's long, tortured relationship with the European Union, but the question now seems far from settled.

"Without any doubt, this sense of regret has become a more prominent feature of British political life," says Matthew Goodwin, a political science professor at the University of Kent. "There will be a growing political pressure to turn this public opinion reality into something at the ballot box ... calling for a much closer relationship with the European Union."

Some factors that drove this year's tumult were beyond Britain's control, such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the queen's death. But many analysts said long-term problems contributed. They include the country's lack of a written constitution and the Conservative Party's selection of leaders, such as Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who promised voters solutions they couldn't deliver.

"Each of them is essentially telling their party and the country that it can — to use Boris Johnson's phrase — have its cake and eat it, too, only to discover, 'surprise, surprise' ... that it can't," says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of the upcoming book, The Conservative Party after Brexit. "I actually don't think ... the U.K. is inherently ungovernable, but I think if you try to govern it on the basis of fantasy, then you're going to eventually get caught."

The royal family saw renewed tumult but still enjoys strong public support

Much of this year's dramatic change emanated from the Conservative Party and another major British institution, the royal family. Queen Elizabeth II died in September, followed by 10 days of mourning as the country said goodbye to the only monarch most Britons had ever known. People lined up for miles along the River Thames for the chance to see the queen's casket, which lay in state in the Houses of Parliament.

<strong>Left:</strong> The procession following the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, aboard the State Hearse, travels up The Long Walk in Windsor on Sept. 19. <strong>Right:</strong> Britain's King Charles III walks behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, during a procession from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in London on Sept. 14.
/ Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images; Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images
/
Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images; Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images
Left: The procession following the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, aboard the State Hearse, travels up The Long Walk in Windsor on Sept. 19. Right: Britain's King Charles III walks behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, during a procession from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in London on Sept. 14.

The royal family now faces a generational challenge: how to remain relevant when its most popular, unifying figure is gone.

King Charles III, 74, did not generate much enthusiasm before his mother's passing. But in polls soon afterward, the percentage of those who thought he would make a good king nearly doubled, from 32% to 63%.

December was a rocky month for the royals. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, dropped a six-part Netflix series in which they criticized members of the royal family, including King Charles, Prince William and even the queen.

The family declined to comment and went on with their usual schedule of public events, following something of a royal motto, "Never complain, never explain." The day after the second set of Netflix episodes debuted, King Charles attended a Hanukkah reception at a Jewish community center in London, where he met volunteers making food packages for the needy.

In this new war of the Windsors, most of the British public has sided with the royal family.

"Here in the U.K., Harry and Meghan are very much [seen as] the villains of this story," says Tom McTague, who writes about Britain for The Atlantic.

That said, King Charles faces some long-term challenges. As a privileged white man, there are limits to how much he can represent an increasingly diverse Britain. Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that researches issues around race and identity, says the king is wise to reach out to people from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds and show support for a multicultural Britain.

"The queen was the source of stability just by always being there for all of our lives," says Katwala. "For the king to be a source of bridging or unity, he's actually got to be more proactive, getting out and showing that the Crown wants to be a source of cohesion in British society."

The Conservative Party has dominated politics for 12 years, but now trails in the polls

Britain's Conservative Party was anything but cohesive this year, as No. 10 Downing St. became a revolving door. Boris Johnson was forced to announce his resignation as prime minister last summer, after he was caught lying about government staff holding parties when they were banned under the government's own COVID-19 rules.

One party, which Johnson did not attend, involved a suitcase full of wine and took place the night before the funeral of Prince Philip, the queen's husband, who died in April 2021. The following day, the queen wore a mask and sat alone in a pew, following the rules. The juxtaposition with drunken government parties was politically devastating for Johnson.

Members of the Conservative Party chose Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to succeed Johnson in September. One of Truss' first acts was to try to close a massive budget gap with unfunded tax cuts, reminiscent of Reagan-era, trickle-down economics in the United States.

The financial markets rebelled and the pound tanked. Truss was forced to resign after about six weeks, becoming the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. She was famously outlasted by a wilting head of lettuce.

Conservative lawmakers then rallied around Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor of the exchequer, who became prime minister in October. He has calmed the markets and called for tax increases and spending cuts.

Political analysts say part of the extraordinary political instability this year is due to the way the major political parties here choose their leaders.

In a country of about 67 million people, Truss was elected by just 81,000 Conservative Party members.

Patrick Dunleavy, an emeritus professor of politics at the London School of Economics, says rank-and-file party members are not representative of the rest of the country. They are older, whiter, much more conservative and — he says — aren't astute judges of politics or economics.

"That is a very good example of what happens when you don't have checks and balances in your constitutional system," says Dunleavy. "Until that's fixed, I don't really think anything much is going to improve in British politics."

Another problem is the conflict between the party's more conservative membership and more pragmatic parliamentarians. This stretches back to at least the Brexit vote and continues to haunt the party and country.

"You had a referendum in 2016 that provided a surprise result that . . . nobody in parliament expected [and] nobody in parliament wanted," says McTague, who is writing a book about the road to Brexit called The Conquest. "This [was] the most enormous constitutional and economic revolution in British politics and there were no instructions on how to do it."

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing St. in central London on Oct. 26 for the House of Commons to take part in his first Prime Minister's Questions. Sunak faced off against opposition lawmakers for the first time as British prime minister, in a raucous parliamentary session following weeks of political turmoil.
/ Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
/
Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing St. in central London on Oct. 26 for the House of Commons to take part in his first Prime Minister's Questions. Sunak faced off against opposition lawmakers for the first time as British prime minister, in a raucous parliamentary session following weeks of political turmoil.

There was at least one bright spot for the British government this year, as it tried to find a new role on the international stage outside the European Union. The U.K. called out Russia before its invasion of Ukraine and went on to heavily arm and train Ukrainian soldiers. As prime minister, Boris Johnson was wildly popular in Ukraine.

Back home, the situation looks considerably tougher for the Conservatives. They are running about 24 percentage points in popularity behind the opposition Labour Party. After a dozen years so far in power, the Tories are expected to lose the next election in 2024.

NPR's London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Related Stories