The 12 Months In Which Britain Turned From A Seemingly Confident Leader Into A Stretched Nation
LONDON — The glory days of the Empire are long over. But in some ways, Britain still seemed like it was punching far above its weight a year ago.
Although less populous than France or Germany, Britain remained a political and economic world leader, and was the dream destination for Europeans in awe of London, its vibrant capital.
But a lot has changed, at least in terms of perception, since Britain voted to leave the European Union exactly one year ago.
Last year’s referendum on leaving the European Union has created an identity crisis, worsened by Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to announce a general election in which her party unexpectedly lost its majority in Parliament. Four terrorist attacks in three months have troubled a nation that once prided itself on its security services, and a disastrous high-rise fire last week brought Britain’s neglect of some of its poorer communities back on the agenda.
Whenever there is Breaking News coming out of Britain these days, there is a high likelihood it is bad news. The Queen recently stated that it is difficult to escape the “very somber mood.”
How did the great Britain get to where it is today?
There were celebrations in pro-Brexit strongholds, and tears in pubs around London where continental European workers feared for their future.
But soon after, even some supporters of Brexit wondered: What now?
There remains significant support for leaving the E.U. in Britain, according to polls. But even in some Brexit strongholds, few seemed to believe that their vote would actually matter. Many wanted to send a signal to London that things needed to change, but they are now unsure that leaving the union will result in improvements.
Many who voted in favor of Brexit work in professions and for companies that could suffer under uncertainty over trade deals, such as car manufacturers. And they predominantly live in poorer regions — those that have received significant subsidies from the E.U.
She initially rose in the polls despite first indications that the Brexit experiment could easily go wrong. In October, May attempted to reaffirm the public’s confidence in her government by stating that Britain remained the world’s fifth-largest economy in the world. But in an ironic twist, that argument soon turned into an embarrassment, as markets reacted to her speech. The British sterling lost so much value against the euro that Britain’s economy almost immediately dropped to the sixth spot in international rankings, based on market exchange rates. Britain fell behind its European archrival France — of all countries — where a staunchly pro-European candidate Emmanuel Macron would become president only months later.
But May had become prime minister by winning a contest within her party, not a general election. In contrast to her Labour Party contender Jeremy Corbyn, May soon looked surprisingly unprepared and at times robotic — earning her the not-so-flattering nickname Maybot.
As the campaign progressed, the prime minister came under growing criticism for showing a lack of empathy as the nation faced some of its darkest hours in years.
It was the first large-scale attack on British soil in years, but other and even worse incidents would follow — to which the British reacted with extraordinary kindness, level-headedness and empathy. Days before the June 8 election, a suicide bomber killed 22 people in a Manchester stadium at an Ariana Grande concert. Days later, authorities acknowledged that the worst terrorist attack in Britain in more than 10 years might have been committed by a young man who had been reported to authorities years before he committed the attack. And he might have acted without the need for a large-scale network.
May suddenly faced mounting pressure: Why did she lay off thousands of police officer when she was home secretary? And why did she not reform security services who seemingly ignored early warning signs?
On June 8, the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority as frustrated young people turned out in large numbers.
Despite calls to resign, May vowed to stay on. “I’m the person who got us into this mess, and I’m the one who will get us out of it,” she reportedly told her cabinet. May now relies on the controversial Northern Irish DUP party to pass Brexit legislation. It is a fragile combination at best.
Another catastrophe soon rattled the country. At least 79 people died on June 14 when a fire consumed the Grenfell Tower apartment building in west London. The publicly subsidized housing block prioritized low-income and disabled residents, and critics soon blamed a lack of funding for crucial fire safety lapses.
Authorities were still working to identify victims of the fire when terror struck again. Early Monday morning, a driver plowed into a crowd of Muslims leaving a mosque at Finsbury Park in London, injuring several people.
The driver was heard shouting that he wanted to kill Muslims, according to witnesses in the Finsbury Park neighborhood. Many Muslims who live in the area now fear that they could be targeted in tit-for-tat attacks.
Critics have questioned whether May has done enough to prevent tensions. Earlier this month, she promised a tougher counterterrorism approach and pledged to test the limits of legislation, which critics fear will further alienate Muslim communities.
In Britain 2017, it is one pressing challenge among many.
Universities complain that they lose top talents to competitors abroad because of the looming exit from the European Union, some banks are announcing to relocate units to continental Europe, and much-needed nurses from the E.U. are now avoiding a country where they now feel unwelcome.
As the first negative repercussions of the exit from the European Union become apparent, May is under mounting pressure to make good on promises others made at a time when she was still advocating for the opposite.
“Brexit means Brexit,” May’s been saying since last July, one of her most memorable comments on the subject so far, and nobody knows how long she will be able to hold onto her office, anyway.