Rishi Sunak and Star Wars: what the UK prime minister can learn about governing from his favourite films
This article was written by David Kenny, Associate Professor of Law and Fellow, Trinity College Dublin and Conor Casey, Lecturer in Law, School of Law & Social Justice, University of Liverpool. It was orginall published in the Conversation:
Rishi Sunak is probably the biggest Star Wars fan to hold the post of UK prime minister. It has been reported that he looks to the films for inspiration, both personally and politically. One MP said, presumably with some hyperbole, that much of Sunak’s political philosophy comes from the trade wars in Star Wars.
Personal inspiration is easy to find in Star Wars. It is a classic hero’s journey, with a call to adventure for a reluctant young protagonist who ultimately has greatness thrust upon them.
Finding political inspiration is a bit trickier. We have previously written about the lessons for constitutionalism and democracy sliding into tyranny that can be learned from the prequel trilogy. One hopes that Sunak won’t face such a challenge as PM.
Star Wars may not carry the same kind of gravitas as The Art of War or Machiavelli’s The Prince as a manual of political instruction. But it is nonetheless filled with interesting lessons and cautionary examples for those seeking to promote peace, order and good government in this galaxy or any other. Here are a few lessons Sunak should take note of.
1. Incompetence leads to secession and strife
The main lesson of the prequel films, which lead to the rise of the Empire, is that political dysfunction sows the seeds of democratic decay. The inaction of gridlocked legislative bodies and slow, grinding bureaucracies in the face of crisis precipitates the rise of a strong leader who promises to take charge and restore order.
The Phantom Menace portrays a Galactic Republic in turmoil, with the squabbling senate and incompetent Supreme Chancellor unable to respond effectively. The situation reaches a breaking point in Attack of the Clones, as thousands of star systems secede from the Republic and go it alone. The Chancellor raises a huge army in response, and the galaxy is at war.
Sunak takes over a country facing many problems, after a period of chaotic leadership. War is unlikely of course, but secession and national chaos are possible.
The UK supreme court has just heard a case on the legality of a second Scottish independence referendum. The Northern Irish Executive has failed to form following elections earlier in the year, an issue bound up with Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. Meanwhile, discussion of unification referendums in Ireland continue to gather momentum.
Sunak should keep in mind that dysfunctional and incompetent governments build centrifugal forces that can break apart even very old and established unions.
2. Trade keeps the peace, but bores people
The origin of the crisis for the Galactic Republic, we are told in The Phantom Menace, is disputes about the “taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems”. Notoriously, audiences found this exceptionally boring.
Sunak could learn from George Lucas’s mistakes: though people tend to like the benefits of trade when it is going well, they really don’t like hearing about trade disputes and taxes. In a post-Brexit world, where more and better trade deals will be essential to Britain’s future, avoiding trade wars, quietly improving trade and keeping it out of the headlines would help avoid public backlash.
The other lesson here is that when trade is good it keeps the peace, while trade disputes sow the seeds of much more serious conflicts. This is one of the founding principles of the EU – that trade interdependency builds a basis for lasting peace. Good trading arrangements with the EU will be an essential part of keeping the peace process on the rails in Northern Ireland and building good relations with the UK’s European neighbours.
3. Don’t lead from the background
In A New Hope, the first film in the original trilogy, we don’t see the Emperor. Looming ominously in the background, he relies on a ragtag band of semi-competent subordinates who bicker amongst themselves. Various senior imperial officials – system governors, admirals, Darth Vader – jostle for control, and in the end the Empire’s all-important Death Star is destroyed by the rebels.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader is in charge – one imagines the casualties from the destruction of the Death Star moved him quite far up the organisational chart. His aggressive management style is based on summary execution of subordinates for poor performance. But he doesn’t get the job done either, and in the third film the Emperor has to step forward. At this point, it is too late and the rebel plan to destroy the Empire succeeds.
This is great storytelling, but it’s not good governance. For a would-be leader, the lesson is clear: you need to be felt as a political force, or a rebel alliance will come to get you. Having just toppled a prime minister who lurked in the background, this is a lesson Sunak should know without needing to learn it from his favourite films.
4. Be careful altering the deal
In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader makes a deal with Lando Calrissian, administrator of Cloud City, to have him turn over Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in exchange for a promise that his city would be left alone by the Empire.
But Vader takes Leia and Chewbacca prisoner, and when Lando complains that this was outside the agreement, he responds: “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further.” Realising what deals with Vader are worth, Lando abandons their agreement and helps our heroes escape Vader’s clutches.
The obvious lesson is to be careful when you renege on your commitments. A crucial challenge that Sunak will face is attempting to renegotiate aspects of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, particularly the Northern Ireland protocol.
There are signs of positive engagement between the two sides, and hopefully an agreeable compromise can be reached. But if it cannot, Sunak needs to be careful in terms of the UK honouring its promises, or its would-be partners might, like Lando, come to wonder what their deals are worth.