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Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are bathed in a dull orange sky due to the remnants of Hurricane Orphelia dragging in tropical air and dust from the Sahara. Photo: Frank Augstein / AP

Steven Erlanger, the NY Times' Chief Diplomatic Correspondent and until recently the paper's London Bureau Chief, depicts a country in a "full-blown identity crisis" with a piece headlined, "No one knows what Britain is anymore."

U.K. politics have been dysfunctional to the extreme in recent months — Erlanger writes, quoting experts, "It is a 'hollowed-out country,' 'ill at ease with itself,' 'deeply provincial,' engaged in a 'controlled suicide' — but Erlanger contends that the politics of Brexit, May and Corbyn were decades in the making and are more troubling to Europeans even than the rise of Donald Trump.

Key excerpts
  • "While much poorer in the 1980s, Britain mattered internationally. Now, with Brexit, it seems to be embracing an introverted irrelevance."
  • "Britain — renowned for its pragmatism, its common sense, its political stability and its unabashed devotion to small business ('a nation of shopkeepers') — has become nearly unrecognizable to its European allies."
  • "However politically divided the United States seems now, Europeans have never considered it a touchstone of stability the way they have Britain."
How it happened
  • "Britain became a service economy, the empire disappeared and people stopped identifying with the Church of England. Then Margaret Thatcher arrived, and with her, [Mark] Leonard said, 'there was a last gasp of this old identity — an ethnic, exclusively white and backward-looking version of Englishness.'"
  • "However successful, it also excluded an increasingly large number of Britons — black, Asian and Muslim — who felt disenfranchised from 'the national story.' Tony Blair and New Labour moved toward more inclusiveness and cosmopolitanism and openness to Europe, too."
  • "But those validated by the old identity then felt like strangers in their own land, Mr. Leonard said. 'Their revenge was Brexit.'"

Why it matters: As Erlanger notes, there's a sense in Europe that if U.K. politics can be capsized by populism, it can happen anywhere. Britain has also long had an outsized position in international affairs, and in recent decades used that position to reinforce the U.S.-led world order. Now, both members of the "Special Relationship" are looking inward at a time when that world order is increasingly under siege.

Go deeper

U.S. sounds alarm on Ukraine

Conscripts line up at a Russian railway station yesterday before departing for Army service. Photo: Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images

The Biden administration is "deeply concerned" by new intelligence — detailed for Axios and other outlets — showing Russia stepping up preparations to invade Ukraine as soon as early 2022.

Why it matters: Most of this was known from public sources and satellite imagery, but the administration is sending a stronger signal by releasing specific details from the intelligence community.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

Philanthropy in the age of crypto

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The best charities are increasingly effective. That's the clear message sent by Open Philanthropy, the think tank that doubles as the grant-making vehicle for Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna.

Why it matters: With tech and crypto wealth becoming a fast-growing part of the philanthropic pie, there's more of an emphasis than ever on effectiveness — what the newly-divorced Melinda French Gates, in her recent Giving Pledge update, characterizes as giving as "impactfully as possible."

5 hours ago - Health

Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New data from South Africa suggests the Omicron variant spreads more than twice as quickly as the Delta variant, and that immunity from prior infection doesn't appear to protect a person very well against Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The findings are extremely preliminary, and there are still many open questions about how well vaccines work against the variant. But these initial breadcrumbs of data are helping the world begin to understand what it's up against.