It's a time of uncertainty in England: the fallout from Brexit, a sputtering economy, political wrangling and a series of public scandals have combined to cause a sense of unease in the English public. There's change in the air and no-one seems sure of what the future has in store. So what to do? Keep calm and carry on, of course.
The Brexit Conundrum
The fallout from the seismic decision to withdraw from the EU rumbles on across the UK. Decided by a narrow 52% to 48% vote in favour during the 2016 referendum, Britain’s exit from the EU (colloquially known as Brexit) looms large wherever you care to look or listen: on every news bulletin, talk show and phone-in, and the prevailing topic of conversation in pubs, parks and workplaces up and down the land. With negotiations ongoing, so much remains up in the air: heavyweight questions over immigration, trade, investment and the hot-button topic of the Northern Irish border have yet, at the time of writing, to be decided. After the March 2019 deadline (when the UK ceased to be a voting member of the EU), a two-year transition period has been agreed that will smooth the separation, at least for a while – but politicians can only dodge the difficult questions for so long. In the meantime, supporters of Brexit (or Brexiteers, as they're dubbed in the press) maintain the nation can look forward to a bright new global future, while opponents point out a swathe of negative economic forecasts – but in truth, no one can really say with certainty how the long-term story will play out.
What's most surprising about the Brexit issue is that so far, no one has addressed the fact that of Britain's four constituent nations, the vote was split precisely down the middle, with 54% of English voters and 53% of Welsh voters returning a vote to leave, and 62% of Scots and 56% of Northern Irish voting to remain. The split raises a tricky question: can it really be democratically legitimate for the will of English and Welsh voters to supersede that of their neighbours in Scotland and Northern Ireland? So far, it's a question that remains unanswered – and if nothing else, paints an unhappy picture of a nation more divided than ever. It also underlines the peculiar truth that England and Britain, and notions of Englishness and Britishness, are two very different (and not necessarily compatible) things.
So where does all this leave England, and Britain, and Europe? All we know for sure is that on Friday, 29 March 2019, Britain ceased being a voting member of the EU for the first time since 1973. What that means for the future of England and the UK is still anyone's guess.
Brexit ties in with England's shifting political scene. Following her misguided decision to call a snap general election in 2017, which resulted in a hung parliament, Theresa May and her Conservative Party continue to wobble in the House of Commons, in power only thanks to the support of MPs from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). On the opposite side, support for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour still seems on the rise, although divisions within his own party have meant he has failed to pull away conclusively in the polls – his opponents remain sceptical over his old-school socialist policy agenda, which includes the renationalisation of rail, mail and water industries, the abolition of student tuition fees, and increased taxes on the wealthy and big business. It's an old English argument that's been had countless times before – socialism versus conservatism, state versus society, left versus right – and, true to form, neither side seems any closer to winning the argument.
And that's without factoring in the complications of devolution, which gave the national parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the power to make decisions over matters such as health spending, education, local government and welfare – leaving England to decide its own affairs, often with strikingly different outcomes. Throw in the age-old division between England's south and north (so far, the Conservatives' 'northern powerhouse' project to address the north–south divide hasn't amounted to much), and newly elected mayors in London (Sadiq Khan) and Greater Manchester (Andy Burnham, the city's first directly elected mayor), both from the opposite side of the political divide to the prime minister, and it all adds up to a very uncertain political landscape indeed.
A Series of Scandals
The winds of change are blowing through other corners of England, too. A slew of scandals have hit the headlines – most notably the gender pay gap, which has revealed that many businesses and organisations, including the national broadcaster, the BBC, are still paying male employees substantially more than their female colleagues.
Several high-profile charities have also come under fire – such as Oxfam, whose aid workers were revealed to have used the services of prostitutes during the earthquake relief effort in Haiti in 2011. Then there's the Skripal affair, in which an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in broad daylight in Salisbury, allegedly by a Russian-made nerve agent, and the controversy over Cambridge Analytica, the London-based IT firm that used the data of Facebook users to influence the outcomes of both the Brexit and US election votes, perhaps in illegal ways.
Most affecting of all, however, was the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 71 residents of a London high-rise were killed in a fire fuelled by faulty cladding – installed, allege campaigners, as a cost-cutting measure by the local council. It's all meant a field day for the tabloid red-tops, reminding us that – all other things aside – if there's one thing England knows how to do, it's create a good old-fashioned scandal.