(We managed to be in both Britain and France during each country’s parliamentary elections. There hasn’t been much time to write, but here are some observations from our time in England.)
Gloucester is a pretty little English town near the Welsh border. A riverside redevelopment draws new business while an ancient cathedral anchors its tourist appeal. Unemployment in Britain is below 5%, approaching the lowest levels seen since the early 70’s. Unemployment is even lower in Gloucester. Business is good. People have work. On paper, all is well.
Last summer, Gloucester voted to the leave the EU by a 17-point margin.
Insights into rural unease emerge from a trip down the road to London. A city besieged by construction cranes, London is booming. Like New York, Singapore and many other urban behemoths, London belongs less to its country than to a globalized urban fraternity. Gloucester may be doing well, but it isn’t doing nearly as well as London.
While the British economy surges, the country’s politics has descended into a carnival side-show. Brexit was a monumental political miscalculation, a monster no one knows how to tame. A spate of resignations in the wake of the Brexit vote left the political class hollowed out. Both of the leading major parties are now led by bizarre, erratic, cartoon characters. There is no discernible center in British politics.
Power that was once divided between Labor and Tories is now split among a growing collection of regional sub-parties. An election called by Tory Prime Minister Theresa May to consolidate her power descended into farce as her party lost their majority. Now the future of her leadership hinges on building a coalition with a bizarre, notoriously corrupt party of Northern Irish Loyalists, with links to paramilitary groups. Bringing the loyalists into government threatens to wreck the tenuous peace accord that quieted the IRA terror campaign. It’s a danger that the bungling Prime Minister has declined to even acknowledge, much less work to avoid.
In short, damage from Britain’s increasingly loony politics now threatens to cut into the country’s prosperity. Does any of this sound familiar?
There is a lot of talk in Britain about inequality, but as in the US that theme tends to be misleading. Britain, like the US and the rest of the prosperous western democracies (including places like Sweden and Germany), has experienced a disturbing concentration of wealth. However, it isn’t the British poor who voted for Brexit or placed Theresa May in power. London, which creates the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s wealth, votes for Labor by prohibitive margins. Inequality doesn’t bother the British voters who are dismantling their own political and economic system. They aren’t any more concerned about wealth concentration now than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. The problem in England, as in the US, isn’t that a few people are getting wealthy, it’s which people are getting wealthy that has inspired tensions.
In countryside towns like Gloucester, voters see the growing prosperity and power of London with dismay. London, as a dynamic, multi-cultural model is more than just different. Its power and success threatens to render their lifestyle choices untenable. They see a force emerging that could undermine their future. Nice country homes get bought up by outsiders who made their money in the city. Main street businesses in small towns struggle to remain viable as fewer people earn a living locally. Rural residents find themselves slowly elbowed out (and priced out) of the life they chose for themselves.
Britain is being transformed by immigration, expanding higher education, the growth of a newly enlarged and unprecedented professional class (a group that doesn’t have a place in the traditional class hierarchy), and globalization. London is both the epicenter of that trend, and its chief symbol. The average Londoner contributes twice as much to Britain’s GDP as a citizen in the rest of the country. Thanks in large part to the advantages of EU membership, London in recent years eclipsed New York as the world’s top financial center.
A BBC article places London’s surging economic fortunes in a regional context:
In 2013 it was estimated that in property terms London’s top 10 boroughs were worth more than all of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales combined. London’s housing stock is worth as much as Brazil’s annual GDP, estate agents Savills reported in January 2015.
As the wealth has poured in, access to London means access to a global economy. But getting the chance to work in London isn’t easy. Competition is difficult and access to// a place to live is expensive. Climbing from the countryside into a life in London means often means living in cramped conditions, coping with a difficult pace, and competing with a global talent pool.
Many Britons are willing to experience a slower, less dynamic economy for everyone in exchange for protection of their unique identity and way of life. They are threatening to derail progress toward globalization and potentially even lose Scotland and Northern Ireland in pursuit of some time-travel fantasy, the restoration of a “real England.”
Election results this month suggest the country may already be sobering up. Conservatives called this election to reinforce their Brexit victory, only to be handed a rebuke. With a more flexible, Parliamentary system, there’s a chance that Britain may resolve its political mess before we do. In the meantime, it’s nice to know we are not the only western democracy being torn to shreds by the declining quality of our political talent, suspicion of immigrants, and the frustrations of a rural population who feel culturally abandoned. It might not make anything better, but misery loves company.