London, grey, after Brexit

London dances alone. In the days of the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Commonwealth – an association that brings together 54 member states and a total of around 2.6 billion people – here in London, attention is turned to something else entirely. The news of the “fake” photo of Kate Middleton, wife of the future King William, reigns supreme. The media and Her Majesty's subjects practically talk about nothing else and the outcry caused by the “news” – supported by legitimate fears for Kate's health (and, by extension, also for that of King Charles III) – has overshadowed even the celebrations of the international day which were held in the Westminster parliament, where in the meantime digital technology (in the House of Lords) and defense funds (in the House of Commons) were discussed, in a political context between the austere and 'bored, but still solemn in typical British style.

In any case, the general climate that can be felt on the streets of the capital reflects the grayness that has been hanging over the Kingdom for some time, less and less of a point of reference for allies and economic partners, and increasingly withdrawn into itself. Perhaps this is also why the English prefer to look at the tabloids rather than at the horizon. What happened to the English spirit? What happened to the memorable Swinging London? What happened to the optimism and hedonism of the past century?

After Brexit and the death of Queen Elizabeth II, England seems to have lost its soul and it is as if every point of reference had suddenly disappeared: the monarchy appears “sick”, scandals follow one another at the pace of crises of governments, with weak prime ministers who alternate in increasingly narrow windows of time.

Nobody seems to get used to the idea that a certain instability is the sign of the times and politicians poorly hide their inability to hold the country together and accompany it towards this awareness, so that impatience and, in some cases, even frustration is mounting among the population. . Which brings us back to the economy, which not only has been recording a significant slowdown in growth for years, but now signals a persistent discomfort linked to the increasingly widespread difficulties among the population, who are not peacefully reaching the end of the month in ever larger numbers. Which will inevitably be reflected in the upcoming elections: according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the general elections will already be held in the second half of this year. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is officially in a technical recession: after -0.1% in the third quarter of 2023, the fourth quarter of the year closed with a drop in GDP of -0.3%, a decline that indicates a phase of stagnation from which London can no longer recover.

Certainly, following the choice to leave the European Union the country has lost tens of thousands of European professionals and labourers, something that every citizen complains about (“you can no longer find even a plumber or a bricklayer who knows how to do their job profession” they say). Just as prices have skyrocketed and both the public and private sectors are struggling to cope with the reckless increases, which have a negative impact on consumption. Not only is transport increasingly more expensive, but the shopping trolley is emptying and even the pubs – symbol of a certain typically British culture and light-heartedness – are starting to empty of young people, since the price of a pint of beer has risen, to point that now the places choose to serve Italian and Dutch brands (sic!) and even in the center the pubs choose to close a couple of hours earlier than usual to compensate for the shortage of customers, fleeing from a cost of living that has tremendously elevated.

Although the capital remains a continuous construction site with the immense cranes still standing out on the skyline, the real estate market has been at a standstill for too long: in the immense city center almost only wealthy Arabs and Russians buy, who remain among the few who can afford to pay amounts that the English can no longer; and yet these foreign scrooges don't really live in London. Which means that prices do not fall anyway, and therefore London is progressively emptied, becoming less and less attractive and more and more “a game for the rich only”. Even Harrod'sthe mecca of British luxury shopping, has changed: surrounded by Arabic writings, well-bound copies of the Koran are given away in its surroundings and the shopping center now speaks to a narrow and presumptuous Middle Eastern and Asian clientele, who are light years away from style British that has accompanied our imagination for decades.

Even the powerful London Stock Exchange, the City's stock exchange, suffers significant repercussions, with the activity of IPOs (Initial Public Offerings, shares to be offered to investors) which in 2023 decreased by 40% in terms of proceeds and by 49% in number of quotes. And in any case the model remains pyramidal: the wealth expressed by London finance does not fall sufficiently on London and even less on the rest of the country.

Thus, today those who offer some hope for the future of the Island are almost exclusively immigrants, who however perceive themselves as temporary and do not necessarily identify with the English flag. After Brexit, as well as the flight of Europeans, there was a significant increase in foreigners coming from non-EU countries: in particular from India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan and Ukraine, for a total of around 750 thousand units in 2022 and the same number in 2023. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 39% of non-EU citizens arrived here for study reasons, 33% for work, 9% for humanitarian reasons. At this rate, by 2026 the English population will rise to 70 million compared to 67 today, which will most likely have a negative impact on a health and social system that is already well below the level of standards that would be required of an advanced country.

Nonetheless, work is lacking and so is housing: today half of the homes of the last century are being built, so to speak, with the obvious consequence of overcrowding, increased inflation and also the growth of the social gap, which is reflects in the perceived illegality and growth of increasingly widespread crime throughout the country.

Surprisingly, today it is the Italians who liven up the capital and still offer a bit of joy and know-how, who have surpassed the Poles in terms of the number of immigrants and who, unlike in the past, are well received: according to the English Istat they are 280 thousand our compatriots reside in the Kingdom, while the actual number of “temporary” workers is even double. Also thanks to them, London like the smaller cities are a little more cheerful.

We saw this in person by going to the Institute of Italian Culture, the cultural powerhouse which has the task of promoting the culture of our country in English society. It is currently well managed by Francesco Bongarrà, who organizes important events almost every day that populate the otherwise dull Belgrave Square – the elegant square with typical white buildings overlooked by numerous embassies, which surround the private park in the center of the quadrilateral – in contrast with city ​​events that are now based mainly on passing tourism and Soho musicals.

The last noteworthy event of the Institute was the presentation of the book “Operation Satellite” (Paesi Edizioni, 2023), the work of the journalist Frediano Finucci, also translated into English, which brought together international political experts, scientists, diplomats and representatives of prestigious British think tanks. Finucci's essay dedicated to space and satellite technologies was also received with great interest at the Defense Studies Department, which is simultaneously part of King's College and the Joint Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, where world-class professional training is offered on defense and security matters to representatives of the British Armed Forces and to personnel from overseas. Future army, navy and air force officers are trained here, according to “that spirit of collaboration that proved so essential for success on the battlefield during the Second World War”.

The Defense Academy is located in the English countryside around Swindon, a rather depressed and dilapidated-looking area to the west of the capital. Here Indian and Pakistani, Saudi and Emirati, African and European officers meet and study side by side, to learn the art of war according to the British Empire. Obviously, there are also Italians and one of these, Professor Michele Groppi, who deals with defense studies for King's College and directs the ITSS think tank in Verona, is one of the youngest and most brilliant personalities animating the campus.

But, upon closer inspection, this temple of the art of war is also a mirror of today's United Kingdom: a country that still seems to be turned towards the glories of the past, nostalgic for the imperial glory that once was and which experiences the change all over the world as a sort of annoyance. 'around it.

The pride and great qualities that have always distinguished the English remain, of course. But they are as if tarnished, and the political-economic impasse as well as the troubles of the Crown are the cruelest demonstration of this. It is true that in these days, between the Commonwealth events, the highly attended London Book Fair and other global initiatives, London still remains a sought-after destination and maintains its international vocation clear. But just as it is true that no one defends the choice of Brexit anymore (a term now associated with embarrassment, at least in the capital), it is also true that the United Kingdom is unable to put that choice behind it and start again, projecting itself with determination into the challenges that await future of the whole of Europe. The confusion following the end of an era and the separation from the continent still weigh too heavily, perhaps. The motto Keep calm and carry on it has never been more necessary for the English than now.