Britain is celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. But the occasion calls for celebration as well as reflection, for Britain currently undergoes a moment unprecedented in its history.
Apart from the pandemic, the consequences of the Ukraine crisis, and Brexit, that combined have exacted a serious impact on the British economy, there exist deep challenges that Britain (and the United Kingdom as a whole) cannot but confront in the immediate future.
The first challenge relates to the institution at the core of the Jubilee celebrations: the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth has been a symbol of solidity and continuity in a country that witnessed acute changes in the past seven decades. Yet the monarchy was not immune from change.
Many commentators focus on the scandals. Some repeatedly talk about the Princess Diana effect: the bridge she created between the royalty and the middle and lower segments of the British society – which indeed has had a major impact on how the family has come to see its positioning in society.
But the change has been much deeper. Perhaps as a result of the explosion of communications, and the major weakening of controlled mass media in favour of niche fragmented social media, the royalty has come under glaring lights and scrutiny. The exposure revealed what typically (few decades ago) would have been hidden. The important change, however, was that the exposure stripped the institution of the monarchy of the mystique that had surrounded it for centuries.
Queen Elizabeth’s intuitive wisdom has proven extremely valuable in retaining for herself immense respect and a warm place in the hearts of the vast majority of Britons. Yet herein lies the major challenge facing the next British monarch: how to retain for the monarchy traces of that mystique that has been gradually diluted, at a time when the ways that had built and sustained that mystique have almost disappeared.
The second challenge concerns another major institution, the Church. The Anglican Church is arguably one of the most progressive religious institutions in the world. Its ability to evolve its theology to suit modern times, and particularly modern Britain’s ultra-liberal values, has demonstrated creativity and flexibility.
However, this flexibility has strongly antagonised some social groups – which are demographically old and increasingly small, but that are economically powerful. Importantly, this flexibility has diluted the Church’s traditionally prime position in the Anglican world.
Within Britain, the Church’s evolution has secured for her relevance in modern Britain, but relevance is different from the Church’s old position as a pillar of the society. And so, we are seeing several British institutions gradually losing their traditional soft power and their ability to inspire and influence. This goes to the heart of the idea of Britishness.
The third challenge lies in Britain’s global position. With its special relationship with the US, Britain is fully aligned with America in its unfolding strategic confrontation with China. But whereas this alignment with America was largely cost-free in the past decade, it will now entail serious costs as both the US and China are acting increasingly assertively vis a vis the other. The cost will not only be in terms of trade with China, but also in terms of the military, political, and economic burdens that come with challenging a dragon.
The dragon’s memories of Britain are particularly problematic. Whether because of trade capitulations in the nineteenth century, the Opium war that followed that, or what China conceives to be the breaking of its Mandate of Heaven (China’s view of itself as an elevated, almost celestial civilisation), China sees the British empire as the prime player that had started what China calls its age of humiliation. This might seem old history - but history is key to understanding China, and that history puts Britain under the dragon’s gaze.
The fourth challenge facing Britain stems from its socio-economic success in the past four decades. Irrespective of the views about the policies of Margret Thatcher and New Labour (under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), the fact is that Britain in that period has enjoyed an upward economic trajectory. Quality of life across most of the UK has risen in the past forty years. Britain has moved from being a country with repeated financial crises (that once led her to resort to the International Monetary Fund) to one of the most powerful, successful, and crucially competitive economies in the world. Importantly, the British economy competes at the forefront of the industries that are shaping the future, such as bio-engineering, advanced physics, and artificial intelligence. Britain has also successfully leveraged on the preeminence of the English language globally – and on a highly dynamic creative sector, particularly in England – to have a share of the international information and entertainment market, that is disproportionate to the size of the British economy.
Yet, that success has generated a corresponding set of problems. We are increasingly seeing both decadence in certain parts of Britain compared to rising dependency on the state in many other parts. There are shocking levels of underdevelopment in different regions, which relate to major inequality between the south-east and pockets of richness in the midlands versus the rest of the country. Notably, the major differences and inequality contribute to an increasingly notable sense of distrust that goes beyond a select of politicians.
This leads us to the fifth challenge. Britain has, for over four centuries (since the reign of Elizabeth I), always operated in the world from a standpoint of extreme confidence, almost a conviction that Britain will always ultimately prevail. The traditional subtlety of the English upper classes and Victorian mannerisms have usually veiled that deep-seated conviction. But observers of Britain, and particularly of England, know that the belief in British values, institutions, system of government, quality of governance, and way of living, have, over centuries, endowed Britain with the ability to take on mighty challenges and pursue grand objectives.
The challenge here is that all of these factors have been dealt repeated blows in the past two decades. Britain-watchers now look with bewilderment at several elements and features of British politics. Yet, the key point here is not what outsiders think. It is that distrust, combined with a sense of skepticism and self-doubt, that are all increasingly discernible in Britain, and within the institutions that have for centuries formed the backbone of British power.
Self-doubt is the last thing Britain needs after she had decided to be on her own, out and away from the European Union. Internally, self-doubt could encourage voices in Scotland and Ireland that are raising questions about the rationale of their existence within the United Kingdom.
History teaches that no one must underestimate Britain. After all, Britain was never defeated in the past 1000 years. She is the inheritor of arguably the most remarkable empire in human history. The British civil service is amongst the very best in the world. And deep within the British psyche there are rich wells of creativity.
However, as Britain rightly celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee this year, lovers of Britain ought to highlight the serious challenges that the country must confront, such that the future becomes just as worthy of celebration as the past.