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What happened to Great Britain?

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.

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