June 2023

A lucrative speaking engagement in Tokyo was Liz Truss’s reward for tanking the British economy 

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss speaks at a conference in Tokyo earlier this year. Photo: Justin McCurry

The billing accorded Liz Truss was worthy of visiting royalty. The packed audience had been chosen by lottery, we were told, and ID and security checks were required before taking our seats in the hushed lecture hall. In his warm up, Masakazu Sugiyama, director of the University of Tokyo’s new Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, could barely contain himself, promising “the world’s most exciting guest”.

I couldn’t believe my ears. The shortest-serving prime minister in British history, who in six chaotic weeks was blamed for nearly crashing the economy, had certainly detonated a megaton of excitement, but it was hardly the kind suggested by Professor Sugiyama. Why were we kept in the dark about Truss’s tumultuous rise and fall?

Last summer, Boris Johnson resigned as British prime minister amid a blizzard of controversy. Truss, his foreign secretary, won a leadership election for the Conservative Party, and on September 7, Queen Elizabeth II formally requested her to form a new government. The audience at Balmoral Castle was Queen Elizabeth’s last official engagement; she died two days later.  National mourning placed normal politics on ice, but as soon as the state funeral was over, Truss and her finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, were panting to implement their radical free-market agenda. 

The “mini budget” Kwarteng unveiled on September 23 slashed taxes while leaving government spending untouched. The Bank of England was not briefed beforehand, and there was no official forecast of economic impact.

Panic erupted on the financial markets. Inflation was raging in the U.K., and public finances were parlous from energy handouts and the legacy of eye-watering expenditure during the Covid pandemic – including £70 billion on a furlough scheme that paid employees 80% of their wages in return for staying at home and doing nothing, a sum twice as large as the total military aid the U.S. has supplied to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.

The pound crashed to an all-time low against the dollar, while the interest rate on U.K. government debt soared. The resulting collapse in prices of government bonds, or “gilts”, rocked the giant British pensions industry, thanks to a hitherto unnoticed reliance upon an obscure hedging mechanism, Liability-Driven Investment. To calm the markets, and protect its own imperilled staff pensions, the Bank of England was forced to spend £65 billion on buying up gilts.

The consternation had been entirely predictable, yet Truss seemed frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. “I was utterly amazed by the complete inability to politically execute anything,” commented Mark Littlewood, an ideological soulmate of Truss who heads a free market thinktank. “It was totally shambolic.” 

One British tabloid compared Truss to a supermarket lettuce and set up a webcam to see if it would have a longer shelf life than the prime minister. An image of the wilting lettuce was beamed onto the Houses of Parliament. The lettuce won the longevity contest when Truss resigned.

Foreign affairs provided an easy escape route from domestic failure and disgrace. Standing up, at least rhetorically, against Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine, and Xi Jinping for threatening Taiwan, has earned Truss political plaudits without any risk of precipitating another financial meltdown. An adroit costume change, donning the Cold War mantle of Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady Mark II, has brought her some lucrative speaking engagements and even positive press coverage.

But Truss’s performance at the University of Tokyo proved she is no Thatcher or Churchill. On the other hand, what Truss lacks in oratorical finesse is compensated by an affecting simplicity and directness of speech. She also spoke at length without notes or teleprompter.

Her big idea is to turn the Group of Seven into an “economic NATO” by formalising cooperation between the industrialised democracies, presumably (though she didn't say so) through a permanent headquarters and secretariat.  As the only Asian member of the G7, this would further Japan’s integration into Western collective security.

Japan is turning its back on many decades of pacifism, and Truss’s allusions to the role of MI6, the fabled British foreign intelligence service, seemed to thrill her Japanese audience; their reaction was akin to young adolescents hearing tittle-tattle about sex, or being handed a key to the liquor cabinet. After her speech came a discussion chaired by Akira Igata, an academic specialising in security affairs. He suggested Japan could benefit from having its own MI6. Truss scowled and snapped, “Are you seeing yourself as a version of James Bond?” Igata appeared stunned and humiliated.

Soon there was no getting away from a Licence to Kill and spying. "I'm a great fan of 007 James Bond," a Japanese cosmologist from Todai’s physics department prefaced a serious question about Brexit. Truss bubbled with schoolgirl enthusiasm. "On the subject of MI6 and James Bond," she replied, "I didn't really know anything about it until I became foreign secretary. As foreign secretary, you have responsibility for MI6, and I would seriously consider, if I started my career again, going into MI6 after graduating. It's so fascinating, honestly! It's one of the surprises in government ...  I thought, this is really, really, interesting!"

The self-inflicted disaster of Britain’s departure from the European Union had Truss folding as many times as an origami crane. "I decided to back remain because I was concerned about the disruption. I was also a loyal minister of David Cameron at the time,” she pleaded lamely. “Once people voted for [Brexit], I'm a democrat. I believe people wanted it. I saw the opportunities."

Truss was paid £6,443.60, equivalent to ¥1.1 million, by Todai for the lecture. This was only one-tenth what she received the previous month for speaking in Mumbai. Indian media conglomerate ABP paid her £65,751.62, or ¥11.3 million, plus travel and accommodation. While in Mumbai, Truss spoke in favour of India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi has refused to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and India continues to do brisk business with Russia.

Heritage and tree-hugging

The rescue of Tokyo Station is testament to a growing appreciation of Japan’s built heritage beyond shrines, temples, palaces and daimyo castles. Tatsuo Kingo’s 1914 masterpiece, the Marunouchi side meticulously restored to its profile before American bombs shattered its twin domes and third floor, has become a favourite backdrop for tourist photographs. Do they realise the station narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in a madcap bubble-era scheme of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to place skyscrapers on top?

Mitsubishi Estate, which owns much of Marunouchi and is the FCCJ’s landlord, was impressed and decided to rebuild another Meiji red-brick icon. Designed by British architect Josiah Conder, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan (No. 1 Building), had been torn down in 1968. As the Tokyo Station project neared completion, Mitsubishi began a faithful re-creation of Japan’s first office building. So faithfully does the Mitsubishi Ichigokan reproduce Conder’s original, down to the opulent banking hall now used as the 1894 Café, that many visitors unwittingly assume it is the original.

Sadly, Tokyo’s trees have yet to benefit from this new support for conservation. Besides their natural beauty, trees play an essential role in sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen, and their canopies provide welcome respite from Tokyo’s scorching summer heat.

Rochelle Kopp, an ebullient Tokyo resident and business consultant, told me about her campaign to stop the redevelopment of the Jingu Gaien oasis of greenery in central Tokyo that will endanger a celebrated avenue of 150 gingko trees. Championed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the plan calls for razing a baseball stadium where Babe Ruth once played, as well as a neighbouring rugby stadium, and erecting two 190-metre skyscrapers and a shopping centre. The new baseball stadium will abut onto the ginkgos, damaging their roots.  Renowned composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto joined a chorus of protest just days before his death from cancer on March 28.

Koike has form when it comes to felling gingko trees. In December 2016, the year she was elected governor, the Japan Times reported on a petition by Japanese citizens opposed to cutting down any more of the trees in Ueno Park. Planners claimed the gingkos were blocking a long walking trail from Ueno Station. Koike was unmoved by the petition, and it is now possible to walk the length of the park unimpeded by greenery, or the benefit of shade from a blazing sun. In the summer months, this means that the stone flags, laid at great expense, are hot enough to fry an egg. 

Felling of urban trees has also become an issue in England. In Plymouth, a port city on the southwest coast, contractors employed by the Conservative-controlled council took chainsaws to 119 trees under cover of darkness. A storm of protest against the ‘Midnight Massacre’ prompted the council leader to resign, and in recent local elections Labour won a majority in Plymouth.  Governor Koike should pay heed.

Wyman strikes a chord

Like other hell-raising rockers, Bill Wyman, the former bass guitarist for the Rolling Stones,is mellowing gracefully into old age. Now 86, and aided by a walking stick, he has just published a guide to Chelsea, once the pulsing heart of Swinging Sixties London, where he has lived for the past four decades. Bill Wyman’s Chelsea is not some memoir of drug-fuelled orgies but a genteel saunter through the history and architecture of a fascinating corner of the capital. Wyman can’t understand why people don’t stop in their tracks to ponder plaques commemorating a former manor house of King Henry VIII, or the London home of Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne. His book even has pages of photographs of decorative Chelsea manhole covers.

“Concentration levels are minimal,” Wyman complains. “Most people are not aware of what’s going on the streets because they don’t look around.”

Perhaps my own most rewarding activity in Japan was tramping the wards of Tokyo to write a guidebook. Since so much of Tokyo has been destroyed by fire, earthquake and wrecking ball, the task of discerning its past sometimes resembled urban archaeology, but when historical contours did emerge, the effect could be revelatory. I remember the thrill of “discovering” the Edo origins of Ueno Park as the great Tendai temple of Kan’ei-ji, almost obliterated in the 1868 battle of Ueno Hill.

In Japan, what first appears hallowed with age can be relatively new, while what is genuinely old can easily pass unnoticed. At Senso-ji in Asakusa, throngs of tourists appear oblivious to what they are actually photographing: post-war replicas funded by billionaire entrepreneurs Konosuke Matsushita and Yonetaro Otani, after the original temple was destroyed in the Tokyo firebombing of March 1945. Meanwhile, Senso-ji’s real bell, immortalised in a haiku by Matsuo Basho, is neglected in a corner of the temple precincts: 

Hana no kumo / kane wa Ueno ka / Asakusa ka 

           (Cloud of blossoms / is that the bell in Ueno / or Asakusa?)

The Ueno bell was that of Kan’ei-ji. It too has survived and can be found in the backyard of a house, beside the entrance carpark to the Seiyoken restaurant in Ueno Park. 

Peter McGill is a veteran journalist, published by over 100 magazines and newspapers. A former Tokyo correspondent of The Observer, he was the youngest-ever president of the FCCJ. He is currently writing a book about Japanese business.