Tuesday, 9 July 2013

GREAT-BRITAIN: The Disunited Kingdom

The economic crisis has caused the United Kingdom to drift apart, creating ever-widening rifts between rich and poor, native and immigrant, English and Scot. With the anti-Europe UKIP party on the rise, Great Britain stands at a crossroads.

The view of the rooftops of the British capital shows how quickly and radically the country has changed. London's silhouette is a reflection of two decades of growth, decadence and hubris.
The frenzy began in the 1980s, when Great Britain was prosperous and London became a global financial center where brokers, traders and speculators were responsible for billions changing hands every day. Gone were the days of factories and trade, or so it seemed. The act of trading with money was dubbed the financial industry, and together with the real estate sector, it grew to become one of the most important industries in the kingdom, almost a new religion.

Then the crisis erupted in 2008, and things have been going downhill ever since. Unemployment is now at almost 8 percent, and 27 percent of children in Britain live in relative poverty. In late March, the University of Bristol published the most comprehensive study to date on the state of British society. It concludes that a third of the population lives in precarious conditions. Millions of Britons don't have enough to eat and are unable to adequately heat their homes in the winter. And the situation will get even worse because social services are shrinking and real wages continue to decline.

The country is suffering from the consequences of the crisis. The gap between rich and poor is growing, the conflicts between left and right are becoming more heated, and a new party has taken shape to the right of the Tories, the anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Friends and foes of Europe argue heatedly over whether remaining a member of the European Union or withdrawing from it is more likely to help the country emerge from the crisis. And in 2014, the Scots will hold a referendum over whether they want to establish an independent country, one that would no longer have to share profits from the North Sea oil and gas fields with the English.

UKIP captured 23 percent of the vote in local elections in early May. Since then UKIP members are nipping at the heels of Prime Minister David Cameron's Tories. About a third of Tory lawmakers now favor withdrawing from the EU, and in 2017 the British people will vote on the issue in a referendum. Many Britons see Europe as the cause of their country's crisis.

There is a clear political divide in Britain, with a majority of the traditional parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals, on one side and UKIP on the other. They are still a minority, but a vocal one nonetheless. UKIP Chairman Nigel Farage has appeared frequently on television in recent months, berating politicians in Brussels and London as incompetent, cowardly and corrupt. It's a message people like to hear.

It becomes clear how public sentiment in parts of the kingdom is gradually slipping from moderate conservatism to bulldog patriotism. UKIP's success is merely a symptom of a much larger upheaval, a cultural change.

After coping with the loss of the Empire in the postwar period, Great Britain has been left with something akin to the phantom pain of one who has lost a limb. The majority of UKIP members, like many Britons, grew up in a country in which hierarchies that had developed throughout the centuries were still intact, and where life could be very comfortable for those at the top.

But eventually the working class began to talk back, becoming rebellious. They believe that this change roughly coincided with Great Britain's accession to the European Community in 1973, and with a tectonic shift in Europe's political landscape. And they hope that UKIP will help the Empire regain its old strength. What this means is a return to the 1950s and '60s.

UKIP members say the government should crack down on illegal immigrants and criminals, and should build more prisons. They criticize Cameron for legalizing same-sex marriage, and want to block immigration from the new EU countries of Eastern Europe to come in United-Kingdom, by declaring ''a state of emergency and close the borders''.

The problem is that the English aren't the only ones who own that island. There are other patriots -- the Scots, for example, many of whom no longer want to share their wealth. The worse the crisis gets, the clearer do the symptoms of decline in the United Kingdom become.

If Europe ever becomes a museum, it won't take much to set up a department called "Early Industrial Age" in Birmingham or Newcastle. Great Britain is rusting. It has become a sluggish, despondent and anxious country. An article of clothing currently popular among young Britons is the "onesie," a sort of playsuit for adults who like to spend their days lounging in comfort -- assuming they don't have to go to work.

The Scots have never been happy about their union with England, which has existed for 306 years. But the divisions have rarely been as great as they are today. Scots say that Scotland would be better off without England. It would be a richer country, because it would control its own oil and gas production. It would be a more peaceful country, because it would no longer be forced to tolerate nuclear warheads on its soil or participate in the wars of the English. And it would be a fair and equitable country, because it could reverse the British government's cuts to social benefits. It would be a free country filled with proud people.

There have already been a few skirmishes. Recently Nigel Farage, the English head of UKIP, had to hide in a pub in Edinburgh because an angry mob had gathered outside. Most Scots are disgusted by Farage's crude England patriotism. He eventually left the pub with a police escort.

In the late summer of 2014, the Scots will vote in a referendum over whether they still want to be part of Great Britain. Anyone who believes that the proximity of the 700-year celebration is coincidental isn't familiar with the Scottish penchant for perfidious tactics.

The English are opposed to Scottish independence. For months, the government in London has fired off study after study on the risks of independence. Polls show that a third of Scots support independence.

Great Britain is currently undergoing a shift. There is a growing distance between the periphery and the center, among the individual parts of the kingdom and between the top and the bottom of society. It has never taken as much money as it does today to make it onto the Times list of the 100 wealthiest Britons.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AP: British Flag