Photos of the U.K. in the Shadow of Brexit
Britain is dragging itself through its fifth major election in five years: a third general election, even though Parliaments are supposed to last for five years; and two referendums, one on Scottish independence, which lost, and the other on Brexit, which won.
The Leave victory in June 2016 has defined and marred British politics ever since, creating havoc within the traditional parties and bringing a nastiness and cruelty to public life that still seems very un-British, even to the British themselves.
It has fed new divisions in the society and a harsh English nationalism that threatens the future of the kingdom, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland deeply troubled about leaving the European Union and doubtful about the bright radiant future the Brexiteers blithely prophesy.
What is most bizarre, perhaps, is that a majority of Britons now think it would be better to remain in the European Union. But most Britons, according to the same polls, also believe that the results of the Brexit referendum must be respected. Having spoken once, three and a half years ago, they want politicians to respect their vote, even if they now believe it was mistaken.
So as they trudge to the polls once again, this time in winter, the British are exhausted. They have what many consider an unappetizing choice between Boris Johnson, an upper-class Conservative with a long reputation for mendacity, and Jeremy Corbyn, an aging socialist who is nearly as unpopular as Prince Andrew, whose youthful nickname of “Randy Andy” no longer seems so amusing.
Britain feels anxious, traditional loyalties cracking, on the cusp of a transition to the unknown. Queen Elizabeth II soldiers on at 95 and her heir, Charles, the Prince of Wales, is just beginning to grow into the job for which he was born at an age, 71, when most people have retired.
So the clever slogan of Mr. Johnson and his Brexit adviser, Dominic Cummings, fits the mood: “Get Brexit done.” Put an end to stalemate and squabble so many years after the referendum. Put lipstick on the pig that was his predecessor Theresa May’s deal with Brussels.
Of course, that will start another round of tedious negotiations on trade, but “Brexit” will be done, figuratively, anyway.
What happens then? Just now, few seem to care.
Andrew Testa, who took these photographs on a long tour through Britain, summarizes the mood he found as precisely as his eye captured the country. “It’s all about the referendum,” he said. “People say, ‘We voted, so it has to happen, no matter the consequences.’”
Those who voted for Brexit had many reasons: British sovereignty, English nationalism, European bureaucracy, annoyance at German and French influence in Brussels, and the fear that too many foreign immigrants would dilute or alter national and regional identities built up over centuries.
The Somerset Carnival is one of the ancient traditions that some in England worry are being undermined by a changing demography, with large-scale immigration of workers from poorer parts of the European Union.
The creation of significant Polish-speaking neighborhoods, with strains on local schools and health services, led to a big vote for Brexit in Lincolnshire. But the immigrants also created competition for work, and even in areas with few immigrants, British workers who have lost their industrial jobs often blame foreigners for their troubles.
After Brexit, new immigration controls may sharply limit the number of people allowed to work and live in the country. That has some businesses, especially farms, coffee shops, hotels and restaurants, worrying about a labor shortage.
Some who voted for Brexit have since had a change of heart, seeing some of the consequences, especially for trade with the Continent, Britain’s largest market. Many products will be subject to higher tariffs and shipping delays, and some European Union subsidies, especially for farming, will eventually disappear.
John Gray, an organic farmer who took over from his parents, thinks that his daughter, Rebecca, now 14, might take over from him in time. But he worries about leaving the European single market and what that will mean for his beef and lamb.
Others in Northumberland, like shepherds, also regret their Brexit vote. Angry about the paperwork required for European subsidies, they now face the possibility of losing those subsidies altogether. And then there will be the paperwork for customs and health regulations if they want to continue to export their products.
Ties to Europe inevitably damaged earlier ties to the post-colonial Commonwealth. Brexiters forecast new ties of trade with the former colonies, including the United States, that would make up for loss of European trade.
Some British people of Indian and Pakistani descent voted for Brexit to limit the number of Europeans who could come here to work and live, thinking that there would then be more room for immigrants from South Asia.
One of the key sticking points to getting Brexit “done” has been the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. “No hard border on the island of Ireland” was one of the great accomplishments of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought a large measure of peace to the island.
It created a devolved government in Northern Ireland and led to the decommissioning of most arms by paramilitary groups on both sides — Republicans calling for reunification with the Republic of Ireland and loyalists fighting to remain in the United Kingdom.
The pact opened the way to unification by consent, but more tangibly it removed the border posts between north and south, allowing freedom of movement and trade, akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But now, Mr. Johnson’s Brexit plan threatens that peace by keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the European Union’s economic orbit, separating it from the rest of the United Kingdom — something that the unionists regard as a historic “betrayal.”
These photos show life along the border; no one wants to reconstruct that border, at least, with all the tensions and violence that might result. People here are weary of the games that have been played since the 2016 referendum and many are fed up with being at the mercy of distant politicians in Westminster, many of whom regard Northern Ireland as a backward nuisance.
The passions, anger and toxicity evoked by Brexit have been most visible in the regular demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament, where the most vocal of both sides gather with their flags, loudspeakers and placards. This is where the television cameras show up, too. It is a form of democracy in the televisual age, but it hardly improves the quality of the debate.
The London bubble is also sacred, and can revolve too often around England, trade and the financial interests of the City of London. These things matter — the British economy is about 80 percent dependent on the service sector, not on industry or agriculture.
But the debate within the London bubble often misses the fatigue and anger of the kingdom’s three other nations — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Only Wales voted for Brexit. But Brexit has inspired independence movements of varying strengths in each of them.
England makes up about 84 percent of the population of the United Kingdom, and has most of the wealth. So there is resentment from the other nations, who have their own histories and devolved assemblies, but who often feel patronized by England, by London and by the news media.
That feeling is especially strong in Scotland, with about 8 percent of the population, and which is governed by an openly separatist party, the Scottish National Party. Even in Wales, which has been much more closely tied to England and has only about 5 percent of the population, there are stirrings of independence.
History matters. Every country lives by its tribes and its myths and its past glories. Britain is no different. One of the prime movers of Brexit has been Britain’s long sense of separateness from the Continent, cut off for centuries by the English Channel, only 21 miles across at its narrowest point.
The Channel Tunnel, after all, has only just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Britain’s Empire was also largely non-European, and Britain, of course, was on the winning side of World War II. Britons bravely fought off the Nazis and were never occupied, and hung on long enough for the United States to enter the war and for the Soviet Union to defeat Germany in the east.
The shore batteries and radar stations may be crumbling now along the British coastline, but the pride in that victory over German and Italian fascism, especially in the face of a conquered and occupied Continental Europe, remains a vital thread in the British identity.
The postwar French president, Charles de Gaulle, saw Britain as different, as a seafaring island nation, and vetoed its application for membership in what was then known as the European Economic Community, in both 1963 and 1967.
Britain finally joined on Jan. 1, 1973, after De Gaulle’s death. Now, 47 years later, it is preparing to leave. A new chapter opens in the island story.
Produced by Mona Boshnaq and Gaia Tripoli.
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