UK’s economic slowdown, scandals and workplace bullying
In the months leading up to King Charles’ coronation on May 6, while the UK was mourning the passing of its popular queen of 70 years, politics rudely and repeatedly intruded. First, it was the brief but tumultuous 49-day premiership of Liz Truss, whom Queen Elizabeth asked to form a new government just two days before the monarch passed away on Sept. 8.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak formed his new government on Oct. 25, after Truss was pressured to resign following a number of policy missteps. The youngest, richest and one of the most business-savvy prime ministers in modern British history raised hopes that the UK was finally on a clear path toward recovery from Brexit and COVID-19. But Sunak’s steady hand has yet to restore confidence in the British economy or lift the country’s spirits, as I noticed during a recent lengthy visit. The coronation’s pomp and circumstance were needed shots in the arm for the country’s morale, but the economic doldrums persist and political scandals at the highest levels of government dampen that spirit.
Less than seven months into PM Sunak’s term, the economy has not recovered. According to government reports published last week, Britain’s economy grew sluggishly in early 2023. Gross domestic product edged up a mere one tenth of 1 percent in the first three months of the year, the same tepid pace as in the last three months of 2022. A sharp GDP drop in March alarmed the markets.
Widespread labor strikes may have contributed to the poor performance, but experts also point to inflation and rising interest rates. Britain’s inflation rate exceeded 10 percent in March, double the US level and much higher than the eurozone’s. Last Thursday, the Bank of England raised the interest rate to 4.5 percent, its highest level since 2008. The central bank still forecasts the economy to grow 0.25 percent in 2023, which, although weak, is better than its earlier forecast of a contraction during this year.
Following Brexit, the UK has been counting on leveraging its deregulated economic environment to attract new investment and trade with its partners, according to the 100-page report on the “Benefits of Brexit,” which came out last year. Gulf Cooperation Council countries were clearly among those partners, but COVID-19, the Ukraine war, industrial action and the resultant economic stagnation have not made it easy.
Nor has the drip, drip of political scandals. Sunak’s pledge in October that his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability” set a new high bar, given the circumstances and timing of his mandate. However, within six months, several senior officials were forced to resign amid controversies about their conduct.
In November, Sir Gavin Williamson, a senior minister and close ally of Sunak’s, was forced to resign on charges of bullying his fellow colleagues. In January, the powerful Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi left the Cabinet when he was found to be in “serious breach” of the ministerial code related to his taxes. Then, in April, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab quit the Cabinet following the conclusion of an inquiry into bullying allegations against him by two dozen former subordinates.
In addition to these public resignations, British tabloids have continued sniping at the prime minister and his Cabinet, with innuendo and leaks intimating further misconduct. This rate of attrition, with three high-ranking officials quitting the Cabinet in six months, worries investors, especially given the amplification of these stories and others by the British media. It may have added to the sluggishness of the economic recovery.
However, there may be a positive unintended consequence of Raab’s resignation. While discussions continue in Britain over whether existing laws bar the kind of conduct he is accused of, the story has unleashed a larger conversation over the degree of pressure and admonition that may or may not be tolerated in high-pressure business situations, especially those involving senior government officials.
According to the UK government’s definition, bullying and harassment are behaviors that make someone feel “intimidated or offended.” While harassment is unlawful under Britain’s Equality Act of 2010, bullying may not be illegal except in certain circumstances. There is a fine legal line between harassment and bullying, hence the ambiguity. Examples of bullying or harassing behavior include unfair treatment, picking on or regularly undermining someone, denying someone training or promotion opportunities, or “spreading malicious rumors,” according to the government. Bullying and harassment can happen face-to-face or by letter, email or by phone.
While bullying itself is not against the law, it can be regarded as harassment, and thus be unlawful, when the unwanted behavior is related to gender, religion, race, age or disability, among other conditions stipulated in the law.
To prove that workplace bullying amounts to unlawful harassment is thus not straightforward, hence it took the UK authorities several months of painstaking investigation to complete their report on Raab.
COVID-19, the Ukraine war, industrial action and the resultant economic stagnation have not made it easy.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
While Raab’s exit from the Cabinet promises to limit the damage to the government’s reputation, the case has shed light on the serious problem of workplace bullying, not only in Britain but around the world. It should lead to a healthy discussion and raise awareness about this common phenomenon — where senior officials feel, as Raab has maintained, that exacting pressure and candid criticisms are needed to get tasks done properly and in a timely manner.
Labor laws around the world, including in GCC countries, are catching up by banning some harmful conduct in the workplace. Harassment, including sexual harassment, was until recently tolerated in the workplace, but no longer, thanks largely to the many victims who have risked their careers and reputations to call it out. Much progress has been made on the legislative side of things, but more work needs to be done to eradicate harassment in the workplace.
However, bullying still occupies a legal gray area and some hope that the Raab case will serve to clarify. While his alleged bullying has damaged many of its victims, as well the reputation of the UK government and of course Raab’s career and social standing, there may be a silver lining. The very public affair could be the spark that ignites the movement to banish bullying from the workplace. Until legislation and legal enforcement catch up, social awareness and public pressure could help reduce its prevalence.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1