London calling: ‘People seem more nervous now. … Maybe it’s the perilous state of democracy

May 20, 2022 7:00 am

Queen Elizabeth II participates in her Official Platinum Jubilee celebrations on May 15, 2022, in Windsor, England. Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

LONDON — I first came to the U.K. in 1981 as a student and have lived here on and off (more off of late) for the last 40 years. I have never seen people more anxious than now.

The 1980s were an extravagant, greed-is-good era kicked off by the “fairy-tale” wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer.

We all know how that worked out.

President Ronald Reagan with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Dec. 22, 1984. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Back then, you either loved or hated Margaret Thatcher, the hard-line conservative who made Reagan look like Bernie Sanders. She attacked education and social services and destroyed the lives of thousands of miners in the North of England when she shut down “unproductive” collieries. Unemployment rose to nearly 12 percent.

Over the next decades, there were dozens of IRA bombings, protests (often called riots) mostly over police brutality toward people of color, and the disastrous invasion of Iraq, championed by the supposedly leftist Prime Minister Tony Blair.

There were Islamic terrorist attacks: 52 people were killed in bombings in 2005; the Russians poisoned a defector with radioactive polonium in broad daylight; and, in 2015, a narrow majority voted to leave the European Union, longing to return to a Never-Never England of white folks and Empire.

Yet the country mostly got on with being who they are for the last four decades — generally stoic, constantly ironic, fretting over why they haven’t won the football World Cup since 1966.

But people seem more nervous now. Maybe it’s a natural effect of the pandemic. Maybe it’s the perilous state of democracy.

A clown in charge

The British worry about having a clown in charge. Boris Johnson has survived for the past three years mostly by being Not Labour. Though some still find him “hilarious” and “charming,” only 27 percent think he’s a good prime minister, even though he claims credit for Britain’s fast deployment of COVID-19 vaccines (that socialized medicine works, y’all).

Boris Johnson. Credit: Office of U.S. National Security Adviser

Despite Johnson’s attempt to cast himself as the western savior of Ukraine, making Churchill-lite speeches in London and Kyiv, he is losing his grip on the Tory Party and his government is acting like Donald Trump on a bender, slow-walking visas for desperate Ukrainians and threatening asylum seekers with deportation to Rwanda, that well-known paradise of social justice.

The British worry about the cost of living: Homelessness is up; inflation is 9 percent, and the Governor of the Bank of England warns the war in Ukraine will cause “apocalyptic” price rises and food shortages.

One well-off Conservative M.P. announced plans to shut food banks and that the undeserving poor should learn to cook properly. He claimed they could make meals for 30 pence (40 cents), so stop whining.

They worry about Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin, who favor rejoining the Republic of Ireland, has just won an election, theoretically making its leader Michelle O’Neill First Minister. But under the power-sharing agreement, the second-largest party, the Democratic Unionists — who want to stay in the U.K. — must nominate a deputy First Minister. The DUP refuses, so Northern Ireland’s government is at a standstill.

Adding insult to injury, this mess imperils the Good Friday Agreement, which has kept the peace (mostly) in Northern Ireland for the past 24 years. Boris Johnson is piling on, threatening to scrap his own Brexit-driven agreement with the E.U. over how goods, services, and people get from the Republic of Ireland, the E.U., and the U.K. to Northern Ireland.

Ailing queen

The British are even worried about the queen, who, in common with most 96 year-olds, is experiencing what the Palace delicately calls “mobility issues.”

She didn’t appear at the State Opening of Parliament the other week, sending Princes Charles and William instead. She’s been doing virtual meetings with her ministers.

What if she dies before June 2, when the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of her 70 years on the throne kick off?

Prince Charles. Credit: Mark Jones/Wikimedia Commons

It’s not as if everybody in the U.K. supports the monarchy (though most people do), but even those who take a dim view of all the pomp and circumstance think Elizabeth II has been a hell of a public servant, from volunteering during World War II to hosting a state dinner for the irredeemably vulgar Trump family in 2019.

Her kinfolk, well, some of them ain’t so impressive. The disgraced Prince Andrew, friend of pedophile rapist Jeffrey Epstein, now deceased, has been relieved of his perks and sent into internal exile.

The emotionally incontinent Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Oprah’s best pals, have been invited to everything but the iconic palace balcony appearance, which H.M. has cleverly decided would be for “working royals” only. The nation wonders just how they’ll find a way to grab attention.

Even the popular Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Harry’s bro and sister-in-law, screwed up a royal tour of the Commonwealth’s Caribbean nations, clueless that the descendants of the stolen Africans who cut the sugarcane and picked the coffee beans and chopped the cotton that made the British Empire the largest and richest in the world, didn’t want a parade with a couple of rich white folks waving as they rode down the street in fancy clothes; they wanted an apology for slavery.

Ukraine jitters

Then there’s the Ukraine war.

For Americans, other countries always feel far, far away, never terribly interesting unless they’re a source of poor brown people trying to immigrate. But here, Europe is so close, a mere 20 miles across the Strait of Dover — and Ukraine is in Europe.

The whole world lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War but, for Britain, this small island with its own nukes, the prospect of destruction always loomed larger than in the U.S.

Unlike most Americans, the British are good at historical memory, from the devastation of World War I, when 880,000 men died, to the privations of the Depression to the Blitzkrieg and the Irish Troubles. They don’t insist that the past is dead, gone, doesn’t matter, has no effect on the present day. They know better.

If the Platinum Jubilee goes as planned with street parties and flags and bells and bonfires and food (there’s a special Jubilee dessert — a very fancy citrus trifle) and a public sighting of the queen, herself, then maybe the mood will lift.

But after they sweep the confetti off the sidewalks and roll up the Union Jack bunting, the fear and the war and the inequality and the idiot politicians will, unfortunately, still be here.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.