England is Anxious

By Tarek Osman, March 15, 2018

A village cricket match

A village cricket match

Rather than comfort ourselves with nostalgia for monarchy, empire, church, and the ‘special relationship’, it’s time to embrace confusion - and optimism? - about what ‘England’ could mean in the modern world.

England has been anxious for some time.

Economically, England has done well for itself in the last two decades. But London’s disproportionate wealth relative to the rest of England, combined with the fact that London has effectively become an international, as opposed to an English, city, make many in the country feel that even if they do benefit from this wealth creation, they do not relate to it.

Other conditions exacerbate the apathy. The City of London (the concentration of most financial actors in England) wields immense power. A shockingly small number of people control most private media. The gap between England’s rich south and the rest has been widening. Even legacy features of the political system – for example that English matters are decided upon by English and non-English members of parliament (unlike in Scotland, where MSPs decide on many key matters) – have become quite antagonistic for some.

Many retreated to memories of older, gentler times – irrespective of whether those memories are real or flights to fancy. The nostalgia for these times is evinced by a tsunami of period movies and TV series, where England is primarily a beautiful countryside, dotted with mansions ruled by lords and ladies, and the world is a distant ‘other’ whose main role in the storylines is to make England rich. Here England is serene, predictable, free from threats, and from immigrants, derivatives traders, or professional politicians parroting politically correct phrases.

England’s anxiousness is merited. All of the key pillars upon which England stood over the past five centuries, have been facing slow erosion.

The ‘Empire’ is gone. And the notion that England could wield significant influence in world affairs through its “special relationship” with America is now being acutely tested – especially as America itself is facing several daunting challenges. The problem is compounded because, since Tony Blair left office over a decade ago, no British Prime Minister has defined what that ‘special relationship’ actually means in today’s world. This leaves England with aspirations for influence and clout (normal for a country that, until a century ago, ruled almost half the planet) but limited means.

The monarchy is another reason behind England’s anxiousness. Queen Elizabeth II has perfectly personified the unique role that the monarch plays in English socio-politics. But Prince Charles has adopted a view of the role of the heir to the throne that many in the political class do not share. Some say that Prince William and Princess Kate are the faces of a new monarchical model. Perhaps. But, so far, that model has not exhibited that special command over the imagination that successful modern monarchs must master. All of this does not pose any risk to the monarchy. But it raises questions about the ability of that institution, in the coming few years, to calm an anxious England.

For the Anglican Church, another pillar of England and Englishness, the situation is more difficult. The Church is, arguably, the most progressive in Christendom. Some of the Church’s leaders have forged new understandings of theology that correspond to the values of today’s ultra-liberal Britain and to what is now considered scientific certainties. But this theological flexibility has antagonised many social groups as well as lessened the Church’s influence in the Anglican world. The Church of England might have found the way to relevance in a future that will become even more secular. But relevance is vastly different from being a pillar of the society’s view of itself.

And then there is Brexit. England was the real decider of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. And given that it is the heart and engine of the Kingdom, England realises that it bears the responsibility of forging, for the whole Kingdom, a credible path to the future. Since the 2016 referendum, many scenarios of doom and gloom, as well as delusions of imperial grandeur, have appeared in England. Some elements of these scenarios entail value – for example, creative ideas that could be helpful in trade agreements. But a grounded narrative about England – and Britain’s – place in the world remains missing.

Brexit has revealed an acute division within the country, between, on one side, the cosmopolitan young who believe in the European identity, are comfortable in mixed cultural settings, and who want the state to provide them with European-style economic protections, and on the other, the older generations who lament, what they see as, the loss of serene, homogeneous England. It does not help that many in that older generation are now retiring with the benefits of decades of favourable economic conditions (notably manifested in the market prices of their real estate and equity portfolio assets), while most of the young struggle to find stable jobs, let alone save for any serious asset-purchases. Generational differences are hardly new. But the feeling of many young English (and British) that, by voting to leave the EU, the older generation has imposed on them major economic challenges, does not bode well for social harmony.

Anxiousness has given rise to activism. We are seeing a major surge in interest in politics, by old and young, and across different social classes.

This could lead to changes in England’s political economy. There could be a weakening of the City’s political power, more diversification of media ownership, and a serious discussion of the impact of immigration on England, without political correctness or stoking fears.

But, beyond all of that, England needs a new mental model. The previous two in living memory – Churchill’s view of England’s iron-will that leads it to victory and Thatcher’s view of a rising mercantile England that restores elements of the old imperial grandeur – have now long retired to history. The last model, advanced by Tony Blair in the late 1990s, had an effective marketing campaign, the energy of a highly talented politician, and the momentum of buoyant international economic conditions. But in the end, it proved confusing for many voters – perhaps because the project itself was confused between the opposing visions of its two architects: Blair and Gordon Brown.

One prominent English journalist has recently told me that the problem in today’s English politics is that neither the Conservatives nor Labour really wants to rule. Deep down both think they need time, in the shadow, to reflect.

This might mean few years of confusion. Perhaps Britain and England will miss few opportunities. Perhaps the cost of Brexit will climb higher. But these might prove an acceptable price to pay for a viable new project for this country. England needs to think – not merely about trade agreements, the relationships with the US and Europe, immigration, but crucially about the meaning and future of Englishness, which is salient for the meaning and future of Britain.

Many observers, including in England, envisage the country declining slowly in the coming years. Several social groups will suffer, no doubt. But an overall and prolonged decline is highly unlikely. England has three advantages that are crucial in today’s global economy.

First, it has some of the world’s most advanced and creative centres of knowledge in industries that will shape the future: artificial intelligence, particle physics, and bio-engineering. Also, for decades, it has been the world’s second most successful centre (after the US) of producing entertainment formats. (England is, arguably, maximising the leverage of ‘owning’ the world’s lingua franca.) These industries will continue to be major engines of growth and wealth creation for years to come. And if England manages to secure for its financial services industry operating conditions in Europe that are quite similar to those of the past few decades, then the impact of Brexit will be significantly curtailed.

Second, Britain is one of the few places in the world where all leading global powers (the US, China, and Russia) and some of the key rising ones (for example, India) want to invest in research and development, have access, and build trading hubs. Brexit will lessen that. But trends in 2017 do not indicate dramatic changes.

And third, relative to many countries that are considered its peers, England’s socio-politics are attractive. Demographics are not overly skewed towards the old, checks on executive power and respect for the rule of law are almost unrivalled, competitiveness is quite high, corruption is very low, work ethic is excellent, and despite all of the talk about immigration, England has been much more successful than any European country in integrating waves after waves of immigrants.

Politics is the main problem. Politics should provide the thread that connects all of these advantages together. Politics should engage the voters in honest and serious discussions about their concerns, from inequality to immigration. Politics should forge a path for the country’s old institutions to evolve and continue being pillars of support for the society. Politics should reflect on the experience of England and Britain in the last three decades and what they mean for the future. But politics has not been doing much of that.

England has reasons to be anxious. Fog surrounds the ship, the captains are not the sea masters of old, and the existing charts do not cover the waters England is sailing towards. But the ship is both: solid and agile. And for the past five hundred years, anyone who bet on the ship being lost in sea, was proven wrong.

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Tarek Osman is the author of “Islamism: A History of Political Islam” (Yale, 2017) and the international bestselling book “Egypt on the Brink” (Yale, 2010). He wrote and presented several BBC documentaries including the Radio-4 series “The Making of the Modern Arab World”, “Sands of Time”, and “Islam Divided”. He writes at tarekosman.com

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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