As we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, nothing illustrates more vividly the confusions and contradictions of Great Britain and the United Kingdom than the recent coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. Every spectacular moment was devotedly followed by adoring millions at home and abroad, while further millions dismissed, derided or simply ignored the entire event.
So, on one side, there remains, for many, the much-loved pomp and ceremony of a proud nation that once ruled a third of the world, with the King remaining the ceremonial head of a Commonwealth of more than 50 countries. But set against all that, others rage at the anachronistic perpetuation of royalty in the modern world, where a single family ranks above the rest. His Majesty? Her Royal Highness? Bowing? Curtseying? Isn’t it too much like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, with its Lord High Executioner and Lord High Everything Else? And then there is the cost of that coronation. Is it right that upwards of a hundred million should be paid from the public purse, when the king inherited his late mother’s multi-million fortune tax-free, and when more than 13 million of his subjects live in poverty?
In Europe, a mention of Britain is greeted with a shake of the head
The UK also boasts the self-inflicted catastrophe of Brexit, with some who voted for it blaming everyone but themselves for its consequences. Even true believers like Nigel Farage admit that none of the potential benefits they hoped for have been realised. The claim was that Brexit would see us “take back control” of everything from the economy to our borders. The reality is that the economy stubbornly refuses to grow when compared with other G7 countries, and our latest Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, repeatedly pledges to “stop the boats” carrying those who some describe as economic migrants and others as legitimate asylum seekers.
Britain has somehow become dangerously divided in multiple ways, so is it any wonder that the UK may be viewed internationally as something of a puzzle or, perhaps worse, no longer globally significant? Outdated? Living in the past? Too big for its contemporary boots?
Anyone who spends time abroad, particularly in Europe, will have noticed that a mention of England or Britain is frequently greeted with a shake of the head, a shrug of bewilderment, a smile of sympathy, all asking: “What the hell is going on over there?” Three prime ministers in less than a year; continuing scandal and allegations of corruption in Government; teachers, nurses, doctors, railway workers on strike; farmers and fishermen struggling to survive; manufacturing industries on the brink of collapse; households unable to get by and depending on the ever-increasing number of food banks; our once beautiful rivers and beaches swimming in excrement… none of this provides a positive image of the UK.
Does the rest of the world, then, still regard Britain as Premier League, or do we just “talk a good fight” with phrases and slogans that promise much but deliver little? The trade deals achieved since leaving the EU are largely in far-flung corners of the world and amount to next to nothing compared with what we had as members, and our much-vaunted “special relationship” with the USA is proving not so special after all: no new trade agreement, and not much in the way of being best buddies. Indeed, President Biden, after his recent four-day trip to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to celebrate 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, said on his return to America, that he made the trip “to make sure the Brits didn’t screw around and Northern Ireland didn’t walk away from their commitments”. Hardly a ringing endorsement of UK Government policy, particularly as, in the 10-minute photo-op meeting grabbed by Sunak over a quick cup of coffee, Biden gave the distinct impression that he would rather be almost anywhere else.
So, where do we go from here? Do we carry on regardless, with our “better-than-the-rest” boasts? Or do we finally take a more pragmatic view? Do we accept that, politically and economically, Britain has, most likely, reached a modern-day low in terms of global standing, and then start to rebuild more realistically? It would take bravery and honesty, and, sadly, our current crop of leaders are not famed for either.