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Great Britain’s Identity Crisis

Guest: Jon Sopel, host of The News Agents, Britain’s leading podcast, and former award-winning BBC journalist

While the country celebrates the Coronation of King Charles III, the United Kingdom faces an identity – and economic – crisis. Where does Britain go from here?

Several years into Brexit, the country has not found its footing, politically, economically, and in its very soul. The UK is working to rebuild relationships with Europe while dealing with renewed calls for independence from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The economy has fared better than expected, despite double-digit inflation and a deep cost-of-living crisis. Rising economic inequality and anti-immigration sentiments add to the uncertainty. Jon Sopel, host of The News Agents, Britain’s leading podcast, and former award-winning BBC journalist, joins us for a wide-ranging discussion.

We started by asking about the recent royal event that drew world attention. Amidst domestic uncertainty, was the coronation a massive contradiction? Sopel said, “I’m kind of happy to quietly go along with [the monarchy], but I’m not going to swear my allegiance to the king and to his successors, whoever they may be, because I will take a view on this depending on how they do in the job. You’ve now got a monarchy that is very heavily dependent on public opinion. There is no divine right to rule anymore. That is the contradiction that I saw….”

Two leaders dominate British politics – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labor Party leader Keir Starmer. How does the public see them? Sopel said, “[Sunak is] seen as a safe pair of hands, evidence-driven. It’s almost as if – and I know this is a strange thing to say, particularly in the context of American politics – it’s almost as if he is trying to make politics boring. Keir Starmer on the other side of it, is a lawyer, prosecutor, someone who has been around in public life a long time but hasn’t been around in politics for a long time. His first job was to detoxify the labor brand.”

Britain seems to be suffering multiple identity crises: Brexit, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Immigration, elections, and a weak economy. Can they resolve these issues? Sopel said, “I think that Brexit is the great unresolved question in British politics because the British people voted for Brexit 52-48 back in 2016. And Brexit has not yet delivered. But Labor party Keir Starmer who opposed Brexit doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t want to open that hornet’s nest and find that he gets stung by it. So, you’ve got nobody talking about an issue, which I think is fundamental to Britain’s future. We were the only G7 country whose economy has not grown back to the size it was pre-pandemic. And what is the unique feature of Britain compared to the other members of G7? It’s Brexit.”

What about the likelihood of independence movements? Will Scotland and Northern Ireland break away from the union? Sopel said, “The real worry is Scotland if you are someone who supports the union. If you look at the generational attitudes toward Scottish independence, there is a huge majority among 18 to 34-year-olds who support it. The people who believe in the union are older, and as demographics work, are dying. And so, I think you are heading towards a stage where it’s almost inevitable that if there were to be a vote soon or in the next 10 years for Scottish independence, there is a very high likelihood that people will vote for it.”

Britain is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, double-digit inflation, and slow growth. What does our guest make of all of this? Sopel said, “Britain’s economy is exposed [because of fuel prices] and it’s also exposed because of food prices and labor costs. Of course, you’ve still got inflation and you’ve still got people’s mortgages coming up for renewal where they’re going to have to suddenly pay an awful lot more. So, we are talking about very clearly a drop in living standards. And the great idea of your democracy of British democracy is transgenerational mobility. And if that sounds, you know, a bit complicated, we want our kids to be richer than we were. And that isn’t happening now.”

Brexit changed many things for the Brits, and it transformed Britain’s relationships with other countries. That is particularly true vis-à-vis Europe. How is Britain fairing? Sopel said, “I think Britain is finding it a bumpy ride establishing itself outside of the EU. I think that that is something that was underplayed during the referendum and is now actually biting Britain pretty hard as we’re trying to find our way in this post-EU world where we are supposed to be this great sovereign individual nation freed from something.”

(How) can Great Britain resolve its identity crises? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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