Opinion | Britain's new uncertain era
By Tom Fowdy
The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II yesterday almost certainly formalized the end of an era for Britain, one which, through her reign, spanned 70 years. It is an era which marked a profound social, political and economic shift in Britain, marking the dismantling of an Empire and a change in its place in the world. All of this become an overriding theme of domestic politics in the seven decades that followed, which might be described as a tug of war between “pragmatism” and the lingering of “Imperial identity”, amounting to intense struggles and conflict over where Britain “belongs”, particularly in reference to Europe, swinging from denial, to acceptance, and even outright rejection in the form of Brexit.
It is such that Elizabeth’s passing has come at a time where uncertainties surrounding Britain’s future are, in fact, higher than ever before because these lingering insecurities that have arisen within the country’s identity have become manifold through social and economic pressures, leading to not only Britain’s departure from the European Union but also a foreign policy now based purely on identity and ideology, than pragmatism or common sense. In conjunction with this, domestic politics has swerved sharply to the right. The “post-war consensus,” so to speak, has figuratively passed away with the Monarch, and the future doesn’t seem optimistic.
Britain’s national identity is unique from many other countries (excluding the other Anglosphere states it created) in that was forged in the mantle of Imperialism itself, and has a result, an exclusively universalist character. Britain does not categorize its belonging in very specific ethnic terms, in the way a nation such as Vietnam or Korea might, but through a projection of values on a global scale which, of course, were a legitimation of Empire and capitalism. If you follow the rhetoric of Liz Truss, it is broadly defined in terms of “free markets”, “democracy,” and “the rule of law”. Britain espouses a form of exceptionalism attached to a legacy of global dominance.
But what happens, of course, when that empire no longer exists, or for that matter, Britain becomes increasingly unable to deliver for large portions of its own people? This is the dilemma that the UK faces today. The decline of the Empire in terms of territory and prestige also mirrored economic changes on a global scale which diminished Britain’s competitiveness and eroded its industrial base, leading to the upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s. The solution, however, as embodied by Margaret Thatcher, was to aggressively shoehorn the country onto the pathway of neoliberalism which not only destroyed the remnants of Britain’s Imperial era industrial base but also tore up the fabric of social harmony in the name of pure, unbridled capitalism.
And it is such that the “economic foundations” which underpin a given country’s ruling regime unravel that its political identity and consensus also start to unravel with it. Take, for example, Scotland. For all intents and purposes, Scotland is a separate nation, which for economic practicality, agreed to become a single-state with England in the 18th century. Whilst the Empire boomed, political consent for the union with England was strong. However, as the British Empire declined, and the industrial underpinning which Scotland thrived on also declined, support for Scottish nationalism surged existentially, and especially so given the turning points of the global recession of 2008 and the David Camera era austerity program which followed.
Whilst the initial Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not succeed, support for Scottish Nationalism has nonetheless remained high, and comes in contrast to the polar opposite political current of British Imperial nostalgia and Brexit within England itself, again a product of “left behind” communities who have been on the disadvantageous end of Britain’s Imperial decline and its subsequent economic choices. As Britain’s economy has never truly recovered from the financial crisis, and has made more and more disastrous economic choices since, made of course in the name of identity, which promulgates an aggressive foreign policy, of which includes Brexit, covid-19 mismanagement, and choosing to escalate the war in Ukraine, locking the country in a vicious cycle of more political polarization and destabilization.
Never was this better symbolized by the fact that Liz Truss is now Prime Minister, and Queen Elizabeth II happened to die just days later. It represents the end of one era and the opening of a new one. Queen Elizabeth was a symbol of Britain’s post-war transformation and Imperial decline. Yet, all in all, none of it is for the better. The United Kingdom is a nation that has not come to terms with the decline of the empire and is drastically attempting to compensate for such. It also goes without saying that Elizabeth’s personal popularity, legacy, and soft-power will never be truly fulfilled by her son Charles III, which will entrench a nation who unable to look forwards and has nothing going for it in the present, will continue to dream of past glories.