“How often do you go to the mainland?” asked the Christian Aid Partner from India, on a visit to the UK. It took a moment to realise what he meant. After all, we rarely think of Britain as a small offshore island. More common is the (alleged) 1940s newspaper headline: “Fog in Channel- Continent cut off”.
When the Roman legions left 1610 years ago, Britain’s political links with Europe were broken for many years. Britain had no part in Charlemagne’s “Holy Roman Empire” at the beginning of the 9th century, nor at its parcelling-out between his sons in the Treaty of Verdun (843), which created the long-lasting division between France and Germany. Cnut’s plan two centuries later to weld Britain into a Scandinavian Empire with Denmark and Norway was short-lived, and in the later Middle Ages the Normans tried and failed to make a cross-Channel empire of Britain and France (though George III still called himself “King….. of France” until 1801).
So in 1533, Henry VIII’s “Statute in Restraint of Appeals” pronounced: “Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and hath so been accepted in the world….. to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience”.
With no earthly power between God and Henry’s successors, this “realm of England” set out to build for itself a world-wide empire, taking advantage of the divided and often warring state of Europe, and opposing any power- Spain, France or Germany- which tried to impose a unity able to challenge Britain’s freedom on the high seas. Thus by the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And one of the most unequal, with (according to Thomas Piketty in his 2019 “Capital and Ideology”) the richest ten percent of its people owning more than 90 percent of the nation’s property and wealth, and receiving more than half its total income- disparities inherited from feudalism and persisting through 150 years of industrial development. But talk of rebellion and change was in the air- trades unions organising strikes, not only among skilled workers anxious to protect their privileges, but also among ordinary factory and farm labourers, a Labour Party growing, and Karl Marx’s ideas about an inevitable revolution to overthrow capitalism capturing people’s imaginations.
In 1914 this was all put on hold, as workers joined in the patriotic rush to the trenches. The war cost Britain dear in lives and treasure, and by 1919 the national debt was double its annual income (compared with “only” about 100 percent today). Something had to be done. Death duties, which in 1894 stood at 8 percent on estates worth more than £3 million were increased to 40 percent by 1930. But the failure of the General Strike in 1926 and the collapse of the world economy after the 1929 Wall Street Crash guaranteed that the gulf between rich and poor would remain as wide as ever.
During World War Two, however, political attitudes began to shift. The sense that victory depended on working together as one people led by the government, gave a new vision for peacetime, when it came. A welfare state, guaranteeing full employment, with taxation on the largest estates raised to 75 percent and the highest bands of income to 90 percent, held out hope for a more just and equal society. But equally with that lesson the war years had imprinted on British minds the conviction that national sovereignty and independence was a cause worth making any sacrifice to achieve.
By contrast, Europe had arrived at a different conclusion- that decades (indeed centuries) of destructive conflict proved that the absolute freedom of national states must be curbed and restrained. Churchill agreed that a “United States of Europe” was the only hope for the future, but that Britain would opt instead “for the Atlantic”. So, while Europe began to build the economic co-operation that would lead eventually to the European Union, Britain trod its own path, relying on the Empire and its global links.
For a couple of decades that worked well enough- prosperity even reduced inequality, until by the 1980s the richest ten percent owned less than half the property and wealth, and received a quarter of national income. But problems were emerging long before that point was reached. Foreign competition began to undermine Britain’s economic security. What was happening, of course, was that economies devastated by the war, in particular Germany and Japan, had been rebuilt, with modern equipment and often with more consultative and flexible management structures. Meanwhile Britain held on to its old machinery and old-style division between workers and management, guaranteeing that any modernisation plan would be met with stiff resistance if it appeared to threaten job security.
The loss of Empire added to this crisis, and to a growing conviction for some that the future lay, not in “the Atlantic”, but with Europe. In 1973 Britain finally joined the European Economic Community, and in 1975 voted two to one to remain a member. But there was also a parallel reaction to the industrial problems, that trades union power, bolstered as it was by the government’s policy of full employment (since unions were always strong when unemployment was low) must be broken. So the state was an equal culprit in Britain’s industrial decline- taxation was far too high, and by 1988 the top rate of income tax had been brought down to 40 percent. People should no longer rely on the state to protect their well-being, they must “stand on their own feet” and earn their way by their own merit.
In his book “The Tyranny of Merit: what’s become of the Common Good” (Penguin, Random House, 2020), Michael Sandel comments on this change of political mood: “Six decades ago, a British sociologist named Michael Young……. in a book called “The Rise of Meritocracy” (1958) ….. asked what would happen if, one day, class barriers were overcome, so that everyone had a truly equal opportunity to rise based solely on his or her own merit. In one respect, this would be something to celebrate, the children of the working class would at last compete fairly, side by side with the children of the privileged. But it would not, Young thought, be an unmitigated triumph, for it was bound to foster hubris in the winners and humiliation among the losers. The winners would consider their success a ‘just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, for their own undeniable achievements’, and would therefore look down on those less successful than themselves. Those who failed to rise would feel they had no one to blame but themselves.”
Except, of course, there was now something else to blame- a European Union, seen as increasingly dictatorial, to which Britain had sold out its treasured national independence. Disillusion grew with the political parties who all seemed wedded to EU membership- the Labour vote, for example, fell consistently over four General Elections, from 13.5 million in 1997 for Tony Blair to 8.6 million for Gordon Brown in 2010. Many of those the votes reemerged in June 2016 to build a 52 percent vote to Leave.
But will “Leave” solve the underlying divisions? It seems unlikely. Michael Sandel again: “For Young, meritocracy was not an ideal to aim at but a recipe for social discord. He glimpsed, decades ago, the harsh meritocratic logic that now poisons our politics and animates populist anger.”
Sandel is describing the United States, and the last four years of Donald Trump’s Presidency, leading to the events in Washington of January 6th this year, certainly confirm his words. But the same questions exist here, buried perhaps for the moment by concerns about Covid-19, but certain to re-emerge. And what resources will we find, of politics, community or even of faith, to will help us deal creatively with those questions?