Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of the Ukraine crisis, and Brexit, which combined have exacted serious impacts on the British economy, there are also other deep challenges that the UK 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 II has been a symbol of solidity and continuity in a country that has witnessed acute changes over the past seven decades. Yet, the monarchy, too, has not been immune from change.
Many commentators have focused on the scandals. Some have repeatedly talked about the “princess Diana effect,” meaning the bridge she created between royalty and the middle and lower segments of British society, and this has indeed had a major impact on how the Royal 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 the controlled mass media in favour of niche and fragmented social media, royalty has come under glaring scrutiny. This exposure has revealed what typically (a few decades ago) would have remained hidden. The important change, however, has been that this exposure has stripped the institution of the monarchy of the mystique that has surrounded it for centuries.
Queen Elizabeth’s intuitive wisdom has proven extremely valuable in retaining 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 it have almost disappeared?
The second challenge concerns another major institution, the Anglican Church. This is arguably one of the most progressive religious institutions in the world. Its ability to develop 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, and though these are demographically old and increasingly small, they are economically powerful. Importantly, this flexibility has also diluted the church’s traditional prime position in the Anglican world.
The church’s evolution has secured for it a relevance to modern Britain, but relevance is different from the church’s old position as a pillar of society. As a result, 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. Because of its special relationship with the US, Britain is fully aligned with the US in its unfolding strategic confrontation with China. But whereas this alignment has been largely cost-free over the past decade, it will now entail serious costs as both the US and China are acting increasingly assertively vis-à-vis each 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 the Chinese dragon.
This dragon’s memories of Britain are also particularly problematic. Whether because of trade capitulations in the 19th century, the Opium Wars that followed, or what China conceives to be the breaking of the “Mandate of Heaven” – China’s view of itself as an elevated, almost celestial civilisation – China sees the former British Empire as the prime player that started what it calls its “age of humiliation.” This might seem ancient history today, but history is key to understanding China, and history puts Britain under the dragon’s gaze.
The fourth challenge facing Britain stems from its socio-economic success over the past four decades. Irrespective of different views about the policies of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the New Labour governments under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the fact is that Britain in that period enjoyed an upward economic trajectory.
The quality of life across most of the UK has risen over the past 40 years. Britain has moved from being a country suffering from repeated financial crises, which in the 1970s once led it to resort to the International Monetary Fund, to being one of the most powerful, successful, and 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 grab a share of the international information and entertainment market that is disproportionate to the size of the British economy.
Yet, that success has also generated a corresponding set of problems. We are increasingly seeing decadence in certain parts of Britain accompanied by rising dependency on the state in many other parts. There are shocking levels of underdevelopment in some regions, which relate to major inequalities between the southeast and pockets of wealth in the midlands versus the rest of the country. These major differences and inequalities contribute to an increasingly notable sense of distrust in Britain that goes beyond a select band of politicians.
This leads us to the fifth challenge facing Britain today. For over four centuries and since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, Britain has always operated in the world from a standpoint of extreme confidence, almost having a conviction that Britain will always ultimately prevail. The traditional subtlety of the English upper classes and the Victorian mannerisms that go with it have usually veiled this deep-seated conviction. But observers of Britain, and particularly of England, know that this belief in British values, institutions, system of government, quality of governance, and way of living have, over the 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 over the past two decades. Britain-watchers now look with bewilderment at several elements of British politics. Yet, the key point here is not what outsiders think. It is that distrust, combined with a sense of scepticism and self-doubt, is 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 it decided to leave the European Union. Internally, self-doubt could also encourage voices in Scotland and Northern Ireland that are raising questions about the rationale of their existence within the United Kingdom.
History teaches that no one should underestimate Britain. After all, Britain has not been militarily defeated over the past 1,000 years. It 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.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.