Italy and the UK, two dominant colonial powers for most of history, have held on to age-old traditions for centuries. White men have always ruled Italy. There was never even an Italian queen. Since Italy gained independence as a democratic nation after the second world war in 1946, it has only had white male Prime Ministers.
Last week, when Giorgia Meloni, a telegenic leader and the head of the Brothers of Italy (FdI) political party since 2014, led a group of conservative parties to electoral victory, she became Italy’s first-ever female leader. The UK has had a different legacy when it comes to women. The country has had three female Prime Ministers: Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990), Theresa May (2016–2019), and the outgoing Liz Truss (2022).
Queen Elizabeth, who died last month, was the longest-ruling monarch (70 years) in that country’s history. She also was the longest verified reign of any female monarch in history. Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, had the second-longest reign and was crowned the Empress of India, an example of Britain’s arrogance during the Raj.
Sir Richard Attenborough ably depicted hubris in the epic 1982 blockbuster Gandhi as the movie captures deliberations between Gandhiji and the British leaders after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre (when King George V was the monarch):
Lord Chelmsford (Viceroy): Forgive me, gentlemen, but you must understand that His Majesty’s government and the British people repudiate both the massacre and the philosophy that prompted it.
Now, what I would like to do is to come to some compromise over the new civil legis...
Gandhi: If you will excuse me, Your Excellency, it is our view that matters have gone beyond legislation. We think it is time you recognise that you are masters in someone else’s home.
Despite the best intentions of the best of you, you must, in the nature of things, humiliate us to control us. General Dyer is but an extreme example of the principle.
It is time you left.
Kinnoch: With respect, Mr. Gandhi, without British administration, this country would be reduced to chaos.
Gandhi: Mr. Kinnoch, I beg you to accept that there are no people on earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.
British Officer #1: Oh, my dear sir, India is British. We’re hardly an alien power.
Lord Chelmsford: Mr. Gandhi, even if His Majesty could wave all other considerations, he has a duty to the millions of his Muslim subjects who are a minority in this realm. And experience suggests that his troops and his administration are essential in order to secure the peace.
Gandhi: All nations contain religious minorities. Like other countries, ours will have its problems. But they will be ours —not yours.
British Officer #2: How do you propose to make them yours? You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India?
Gandhi: Yes. In the end, you will walk out because 1,00,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 3,50,000,000 Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate. And that is what we intend to achieve: peaceful, nonviolent, non-cooperation — till you, yourselves, see the wisdom of leaving.
Against all odds
It is a telling what-goes-around-comes-around story that Rishi Sunak, a brilliant 42-year-old British politician of Indian origin, is now all set to lead the UK as its next Prime Minister. Suave, with degrees from Oxford and Stanford, Sunak attempted to warn the Tory party in the summer that fiscal discipline was crucial and tax cuts would not work in a region torn by high inflation and war.
But Sunak was repudiated by the white-majority Conservatives, who threw their support behind Liz Truss, a white woman. With Liz Truss resigning in disgrace after tanking the Pound Sterling, which almost reached dollar parity, Sunak’s unsaid “I-told-you-so” approach is winning him applause across the spectrum.
Sunak will be the first non-white PM in British history to lead the Tory MPs. And unlike in the Gandhi scene, he will be a legitimate leader elected by the British people.
In two weeks, two giants in Europe, whose best years are behind them, will see fresh faces to lead their countries out of the mess into which Europe has dug itself. It won’t be easy. Young and dynamic, both will appeal to a changing demographic, finally retiring the old guard. That alone is cause for celebration.