Britain is slowly learning to live with a new reality about itself. The country this year has undergone a number of stress tests and has struggled with almost all of them. Now it understands that its divisions go much deeper than any of its citizens had thought or admitted.
The one-year anniversary of the fateful referendum to leave the European Union, what has become universally known as “Brexit,” is the root of much of the national divisiveness. The ongoing Brexit turmoil revealed splits that people in the United Kingdom had previously managed to disguise, even ignore. Meanwhile, the shambolic general election on June 8 changed the U.K. political map in unanticipated ways. Then the awful Grenfell Tower inferno in London, occurring soon after several terrorist attacks, even as it evoked a sustained demonstration of solidarity, unleashed a new fury, exposing deep public anger and a profound leadership deficit.
The United Kingdom experienced terrorist attacks that were intended to divide and create fear. But Britons say—via hashtags, stickers and T-shirts—that they are not afraid. What many of them are just now is angry.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the five million Catholics of England and Wales, spoke of this anger at a special Mass in St. Pius X Church, not far from the burned-out hulk where at least 80 people died and hundreds were left homeless. Linking this anger to the danger of division, Cardinal Nichols told the congregation: “Anger is energy. And the energy has to be directed in the right way. Anger can be a force for good or it can be a force that separates us and divides us. Some people want to see that. But we must be so clear that the anger becomes a source of determination, that we hold together [and] slowly build a society [that displays] deep respect for each other and each other’s beliefs.”
There have been positive notes. Episodes of violence in 2017 in London and Manchester were met with strong and heartfelt responses of solidarity and unity. The national conversation focused on how terrorism would fail in its effort to divide Britons, and London remained resolutely open for business even during a brief period of the highest security alert level. A horrific suicide bombing outside a pop concert in Manchester united faith leaders and communities in defiance of the bombers.
That the Grenfell Tower fire happened in a poverty-stricken enclave of the richest of London’s boroughs quickly became an unavoidable symbol of how divided the united kingdoms have become. And it was not the terrorists who divided us.
An attack on people gathered for Ramadan prayers at a north London mosque, like the Westminster Bridge attack the work of a single actor, produced the impressive image of the assailant being protected from an angry crowd by one of the imams until London’s Metropolitan Police arrived to make an arrest.
But the terrible tower-block fire quickly became another expression of a hitherto concealed discontent in London and, arguably, across at least the English part of this country. That the fire happened in a poverty-stricken enclave of the richest of London’s boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea, quickly became an unavoidable symbol of how divided the united kingdoms have become. And it was not the terrorists who divided us.
Word spread almost as quickly as the fire had raced across the housing tower that its residents had long been campaigning to improve fire safety but had been ignored by the management company that held the local council’s maintenance contract for the block. Some residents had even been threatened with eviction for protesting too loudly. Most of the residents were poor—mostly immigrants and some refugees. In a moment of almost unbearable irony, the first fatality to be named was 23-year-old Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who had fled to London from mortal danger in his home country.
In the days immediately after the disaster, many of the victims had nowhere to sleep; local sports centers and halls were used while some slept on the lawn outside the devastated building. Members of the housing council were castigated by almost everyone for their failure to act.
When a proposal emerged that empty luxury flats—there are hundreds across London held as investments by absent owners—should be requisitioned for people made homeless by the fire, howls of protest from the more fortunate parts of the city became deafening. It was former Tory Chancellor George Osborne’s daily blatt, the London Evening Standard, that led the way with a banner headline that screamed: “Outrage as luxury flat residents complain rehomed Grenfell Tower families will lower house prices.”
There is a deep irony in that the Brexit vote to leave the European Union is now generally accepted to have stemmed from division—not within the nation but within the Conservative Party. Currently barely clinging to power, the Tories have for at least four decades endured their “Euroskeptic” caucus, a divisive thorn in the side of the party’s leadership and an obstacle to party unity.
The national referendum and its preceding, now forgotten negotiations about reformed terms of European Union membership, were not based on any principled philosophy or deep thinking about constructing a new Europe. Most of Britain has never understood that dimension of the European project anyway. The whole episode was about repairing, for good, those splits in the Tory Party.
Party interest preceded national interest. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron expected the vote to fail and thus to vanquish the Euroskeptic rump from the party; they would finally be silenced. That plan failed. The current Tory prime minister, Theresa May, now tries hard to have Britons forget that she was a “Remain” campaigner.
Now the unanticipated repercussions of the never-intended Brexit are leaving the United Kingdom diminished and divided. London’s status as a leading, world-class financial center is slipping; investment bank executives are whispering ominously about moving facilities and jobs to Paris or Frankfurt. There are signs that unemployment could rise; the Sterling is weakening and inflation nudging upward.
Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party came close to winning the general election on June 8. He is winning its aftermath. He and his strategists identified some of the fault lines and divisions in U.K. society, not just economic but also generational, and focused energy there. Not enough people voted for Mrs. May and her party to give the prime minister the strong majority she thought was hers for the asking, which she hoped she could take in her Thatcher-like handbag to Brussels.
For her, the election was about Brexit negotiations, but not all the voters agreed. Since the election, she has performed woefully. Her response to the tower-block disaster was tone deaf, contrasted with Mr. Corbyn's, which was warm and empathetic. Mrs. May’s people arranged a photo opportunity by the ruined tower with uniformed senior police and firefighting officers in an attempt to show that she was still that “strong and stable” leader presented by her failed campaign. But she spoke with no survivors.
We have known for years, in Britain as elsewhere in the democratic world, of the power of the mediated image, which may well be at odds with reality but which can virtually come to replace it—especially in voters’ minds. Mr. Corbyn appears to have got this much better than his opponent. He spent much more time at the scene of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. He listened to and hugged survivors; at one point, he might have shed a tear on camera. Even Queen Elizabeth, showing up the next day with a junior Royal, William, connected better with London’s average people than Mrs. May had managed.
What’s next? It is hard to see how another general election could not happen, probably in the autumn. The Conservatives are closing in on some kind of deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (founded by the late Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley) to prop up their numbers in Parliament. The price of the deal, at £1 billion in extra grants and expenditures 16 times as much funding as that offered to the U.K.’s North East, will infuriate many voters.
Do not be surprised if Mrs. May is challenged from within her own party. Labour’s Corbyn is whipping up enthusiastic support, especially among the young. He looks confident and calm as befits a man who not only spent a lifetime as an activist and left-wing politician but also as one who has survived divisions in his own party.
It is not long since he faced down his own leadership challenge. This warm summer he has the air of one who can do no wrong. There is more than a passing resemblance to “feel the Bern” style campaigning by Mr. Corbyn. Attending the world-famous Glastonbury music festival, he got to address the crowd between sets.
One could never imagine Mrs. May doing this, even if she had been invited. The speech was impassioned, and Mr. Corbyn even used, without attribution, the words Pope Francis explicitly addressed to U.S. President Donald Trump: “Build bridges, not walls.” Perhaps the atheist Mr. Corbyn, like so many of his youthful, whooping audience, has become spiritual but not religious.