The UK’s identity crisis: a midlife crisis?

, by Chloé Fabre

The UK's identity crisis: a midlife crisis?

The debate about the continued membership of the UK within the European Union occurs in the middle of the economic crisis synonym of recession and massive cuts in Britain. Margaret Thatcher who died last month will be remembered for her overseas war in the Falklands, the destruction of industrial activities in the North of the country and her opposition to European integration. Her death happened in a moment of doubt for the country and led to important disagreement among the population about how to commemorate her. This and the on-going debate about the UK’s relationship with the EU reveal a profound identity crisis.

Feeling the constraints of being married

In 1973, the UK firmed its wedding contract with the European Union, after many attempts and harsh negotiations. Forty years after, the marriage does not seem to be satisfying anymore for the UK. Indeed, many voices rise criticising the EU. The major argument is that the EU is costly, since Thatcher’s ‘I want my money back’, the UK developed a strong feeling of paying more than what they receive, and view this redistribution as unfair. In addition, the EU is perceived as being over-regulating and imposing its rules over the UK economy and society. The directives and regulations set up in Brussels are, for some, foreign to British tradition of liberalism and laissez-faire. Finally, the EU is viewed as time consuming and the ‘eurocrats’ are criticised to be inefficient and expensive – especially compared to the little public administration existing in the country. Thus, Britain seems to get bored of its marriage and looking elsewhere.

Losing the love of the mistress

The special relationship with the former colony, the US, has been for a long time very important in UK’s position in the world and self-pride. However, even with Blair’s support to Bush for the Iraq war, the British’s special relationship with the US seems to be overrun. Obama’s first speech in Europe was in Prague, not in London. The US develops relations with the BRICs, not only in terms of foreign affairs but also in terms of trade and business partnership. Furthermore, the US is interested in the UK as long as they remain within the EU. It was the sense of their intervention in January 2013 to push Britain not to leave. What is the weight of a 60 million inhabitant country for a 350 million inhabitant and world-power one? And indeed, it is with the EU that the US negotiates a free-trade agreement, not individually with each member state.

Seeing the increasing gap with the grown-up children

The UK has been once the most important country, the biggest Empire in the world, the royal Family was ruling over a territory where there was no sunset. But all this is gone; the Falklands War might have been the last move of the imperialist pride. But the UK maintains a lively desire of being an important power in the world. A certain nostalgia of the Empire transpires in discourse against the EU membership; the Empire as the moment when the UK were a strong and listened voice in the world, when Sterling was equal to Dollars, when the Navy could fight and defend British interest. Again, one of the reproaches toward the EU is that it is a dwarf in its external relations. To answer that, some in Britain claim that the UK should take the lead in developing the EU as a world power.

Feeling the effect of ageing

In addition to those worries, the UK is also in pain internally. The promise referendum on the independence of Scotland opens up the risk of a break-up of the Union Jack symbol: gathering within the same state different nations. The independence of Scotland would be a major blow to UK self-confidence and historical collective memory.

Moreover, the consequences of the economic crisis and cuts increase inequalities between regions. While the region of London does not seem to feel the crisis, construction continuing to change the landscape, other faced major anxiety vis-à-vis unemployment and impoverishment, leading to extreme discourse such as ‘British jobs for British workers’. Those disadvantaged regions are the first victims of the cuts in public spending which organised a reallocation of resources. What will come after austerity seems to further every day.

Debating about divorcing his wife

The debate about the continued membership of the UK within the EU is fed with those anxieties: constraints of marriage, loss of love from the mistress, no children to take care of anymore, and weaknesses of the body. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) provides one answer to those anxieties: ‘Divorce! Start life anew! Be young again!’. This answer attracts many voters in the UK. Moderate parties, on the contrary, are incapable of making a reasonable discourse being heard such as: ‘Your wife provides you with security and stability, and even if life together has not been easy, you always managed to overcome difficulties through discussion’.

Stuck in its midlife crisis, the UK is even incapable of expressing its feeling and to tell its wife: ‘I don’t feel well currently, I lose my self-confidence, I need to be reassured’.

Is there any psycho-analyst for States in the room? We need one, we get worried for the UK!

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