The Centre Cannot Hold
A haughty British indifference to the world outside the Empire applied as much to Lancashire mill workers as to victims of the Irish potato famine in Connemara. As long as mastery of global wealth and of a rigid social hierarchy applied, Britain could continue to be run by the same, small, English elite through their aura of permanent, unruffled sang froid. The institutions that underpinned this—the Etons & Harrows; Oxbridge Bullingdon-esque and St James gentlemen’s clubs; the shooting estates—continue to the present day. One needed neither masonic handshake, nor membership for identification by fellow nomenklatura: your accent and your attitude were passport enough.
Though still extant, effortless superiority suffered erosion from financial earthquakes of both world wars and voter emancipation giving political powers to workers. Stripped of an accepted social certainty, they found themselves forced to operate out of the tabloid reach of the public eye, to whom they appeared a shadow of their former selves—much like Great Britain itself.
Formerly reserved careers were whittled away—RAF pilots were swamped by massed bomber crews in WW2; cavalry regiments degraded by rude mechanicals; pin-stripe management by business school upstarts. Even the douce “Something in the City” patrons of the Waterloo & City line found themselves jostled by loud Loadsamoneys in bright braces after 1987’s “Big Bang”. Post-Thatcher society in the South (meaning south of the Cambridge and East of the Cotswolds) modernised, finding affluence and social flexibility still exploited by the few, but now in a less obvious, if no less important, way.
But outside the South, elsewhere in England was drifting. Devon and Cornwall were growing ever more resentful of depopulation by holiday home. Eastern village farm worker cottages filled with retirees and commuters. The once-industrial Midlands and North drifted through denial that their great cities had lost their purpose and drive.
What areas of England did share was a wistfulness at their triple loss: empire; industry; influence. Since the 1970s, Britain had been chided as “The Sick Man of Europe”. So, it is unsurprising what came from UKIP—that greatness could be had if we only repelled an invasion of foreigners and threw off shackles forged by the bureaucrats of Brussels. This cheap slogan is as old as politics: garner support by creating a foreign enemy you will deal with. This ploy scared the bejasus out of the Conservatives, whose base in the South was especially vulnerable to such positioning.
So the Tories saw no choice but to out-xenophobe the UKIP xenophobes. It mattered not that the rest of Britain did not share the panic. Not only did Brexit become the obvious counter to outflank UKIP before being outflanked, but the money salted away behind front companies in various tax havens were about to be revealed through EU legislation against such convenient anonymity. An added bonus of northern job losses stirring up resentment to “blame the foreigners” carried Brexit over the line. In turn, this led to the 2019 crumbling of the Red Wall, with Boris Johnson trying to look like John Bull glaring defiantly out over the beetling cliffs of Dover.
It might have looked like unity, but not as we know it. Outside a mile radius from London’s Pall Mall and a few outliers in places like Farnham, Cheltenham and Great Walsingham, it would be hard to gather significant numbers of English people who agreed on what their country wanted to do upon leaving the EU, much less a clear future ambition for itself, or what role in the world. Purposeful Victorian clarity of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” it is not.
Though many couch it in terms of “Britain”, it is, in fact, an English dilemma. What’s more regional cultures that make up England don’t share the same dilemma, ever since ever since the Nazis disintegrated and the Empire went the same way. Though far from achieving the relaxed sense of identity found in Denmark or Norway, the Scots, Welsh and (aside from a dying anachronism called unionism in Ulster) the Irish are all growing comfortable in their own skins. None of them have much interest in this on-going elite-driven Southern English throwback delusion of global greatness. Nor are they likely to hang around to see what happens when realpolitik presents the truth to their benighted English cousins who share these pleasant, but (let’s face it) geographically marginal islands.
Until the elite stop thinking it self-evident that they are and the South stops encouraging them, the decline of the last century will continue, the Celts will adopt the more modest, socially cohesive Scandinavian model. Outlying English regions may get lucky and—for once—London will leave them to forge their own future.