The United Kingdom is one of the most recognisable and admired countries in the world. For centuries, it has been on the front lines of history, and to this day, its politics are among the most-discussed in the world. It is easy to assume, as most of us have, that it will always be around. But for a myriad of extremely complex reasons, it is possible that the United Kingdom is approaching its final days. To understand why, brace yourselves for what may very well be the longest post in the history of Listverse.
10 The Queen’s Death
Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne for 67 years. For over 80% of the British population, she is the only monarch they have ever known. Transitioning after such a long reign would be difficult under any circumstances, but in comparison with other kingdoms, the British have spent the better part of a century ensuring that Queen Elizabeth II is directly linked to the British identity. When most people in the world hear “the Queen”, they think “of England”. When they hear “England”, they think “the Queen”. And while it may not be nice to acknowledge, the Queen is 93. Pretty soon, that connection will be gone, and people will be left trying to convince themselves and others that Charles is just as cool.
The emotional devastation that will ensue absolutely should not be underestimated. Remember that when Diana passed, the public were so heartbroken that it nearly toppled the monarchy, and very well may have had Tony Blair not been around. Not only will it be harder for the public to say goodbye to a much larger figure, but the plans in place for the period after Elizabeth’s passing won’t make it any easier. There will be at least 12 days of mourning (which will most likely be extended), during which time the BBC will play no comedy, the stock market will close, and the public will be allowed to attend a wake in Westminster. Whenever it happens, it will be one of the biggest moments in the history of the UK, and will raise many questions about the national identity.
9 The Line of Succession
In most countries, it is relatively unusual for a head of state to die in office, but when the head of state is a lifelong position, doing so is pretty much expected. In theory, this should make it much easier to transition from one leader to the next. Not only has everyone been expecting it, but the replacement has been training for their entire life. Charles was literally born for this. So it’s a pity that everyone hates him.
“Hate” might be a strong word, but anyone who tells you that Charles will be received as anything other than a disappointment is either lying or wasn’t paying attention to your question. As mentioned earlier, many experts claim the royal response to Diana’s death was almost their undoing, but as often as that is cited as turbulent times for the Windsors, it wasn’t even their low-point. Their recent popularity was actually at its lowest when Charles married his true love, Camilla. Basically cast as the public’s evil stepmother, Camilla has done nothing but drag down the popularity of the future king, a trend that has only grown stronger as he draws closer to his coronation.
A poll in 2015 found that 60% of Britons thought he had “been good for the royal family”. A 2016 poll found that only 48% of people had a positive view of him. In 2019, only 36% of people think Charles has been good for the royals, far less than his son’s 78%, which may explain why Charles ranks 7th in public opinion for replacing the Queen. In fact, 46% of his future subjects would be okay with him just skipping being King altogether, and letting William have a go instead. All this would be bad enough on its own, but add to that the fact that he will be replacing possibly the most beloved icon in British history, and it’s hard to see how he can move forward. This contrast will be underscored by the fact that the next three people in line are men, meaning no Briton alive today will ever see another Queen in charge.
8 Democratic Chaos
Anyone following the British media will understand that democracy and sovereignty are two of the main talking points. Phrases like “unelected officials in Brussels”, “sovereign democratic nation”, and “take back control” are used to paint the EU as a fundamentally anti-democratic institution. Ignoring the irony of the fact that these arguments helped people like Nigel Farage to win the most votes in the European elections, you could still argue that there are “unelected officials” in the EU commission. Unfortunately, this is only the case because the EU system is based on that of the UK: while the lower house is elected by direct democracy, the upper house is not. The key difference is that, while the Lords in the UK are mainly appointed by the monarch, EU commissioners are voted in by the directly elected parliament.
There’s no point in even trying to lay out all the different ways UK politicians of all stripes have been accused of trying to subvert democracy, from prorogation to amendments, the bottom line is that whatever side you’re on, the other is subverting democracy. This has caused a lot of concern regarding the UK’s “unwritten constitution”, which people from outside the UK might see as “lack of constitution”. While it may be hard for outsiders to understand, the British take immense pride in this arrangement. The prevailing mentality is that a written constitution is unnecessary; they’re British, and Britsh people are far too polite and composed to need actual written rules. They understand the importance of following tradition. Even the role of the Prime Minister is technically nothing more than a time-honoured tradition.
The many flaws in this belief have been highlighted over the last few months in particular, but the most important point is that, with a real constitution, only direct democracy can alter fundamental rights. In the UK, there is no way for the public to decide themselves whether or not something is a fundamental right, they simply have to hope that Parliament, and all subsequent Parliaments, agree.
Devolved Parliaments have made democracy in the UK even more confusing, as you can win an election or referendum by huge margins, but it’s still considered a loss because another country disagreed. That is unfortunate because the devolved Parliaments don’t have the ability to hold votes without the permission of Westminster. While the UK voted to join the EU, voted to leave, and can have literally as many votes on the subject as they want whether the EU likes it or not, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland need permission to hold similar votes on their UK membership. This is because none of them voted to enter the UK, and no PM would ever want to needlessly lay down an escape route. And it explains why, despite being the largest member state, England has no devolved Parliament: because Westminster is all that really matters.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the chaos of UK democracy better than the introduction of abortion and same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. Although the public supported both, they were illegal until October 2019, as the two main parties can veto anything the other side proposes, regardless of its level of support. That law is partly why Northern Ireland has broken the world record for longest time without a government (1,000+ days), after which Westminster just changed the laws themselves.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that a government that is not bound by a charter of fundamental rights or overseen by an independent court of justice will behave better than those that were. But given the fact that the very act of leaving the EU without a deal would mean breaking an international peace treaty that passed by margins of 71% & 94% in Northern Ireland and Ireland respectively, they are in a position where respecting one vote would inherently mean disrespecting others.
One question that the royal family face time and time again is whether or not they remain relevant in the modern world. While the monarch does technically have quite a bit of power, such as the ability to form or dissolve governments, or to declare war, these are essentially ceremonial, and there would be uproar if a King or Queen attempted to exercise these powers outside established norms. Regardless of political power, sentimentality and arguments that the royals boost Britain’s image and bring in more money through tourism than they cost the state have kept them in good favor with the public.
It is true that the royals cost the taxpayer about £300 million a year, but bring in an estimated £1.7 billion, mostly attributed to tourism. This argument overlooks two key facts however, in that most of these tourists would probably visit anyway, and that they certainly wouldn’t care if the royals were not supported by the taxpayer. The cost of the royals was recently highlighted when it was announced that taxpayers would fund Harry and Meghan’s £2.4 million mansion renovation, but that absolutely pales in comparison to the impending cost of switching monarchs, which is estimated to cost at least £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion). It is perfectly possible that the British people will continue to prop this family up for generations to come, but there’s no reason to assume they will. And at a time when an increasing number of Britons on feeling their pounds being stretched to the limit, while the Royals stash theirs abroad, the scrutiny is only going to increase. 
6 Economic Downturn
Predictions about Britain’s economic future are difficult to make, particularly in these uncertain times. But while the exact percentages may be off, the general trends usually aren’t, and in this case, the future doesn’t look bright. Even the most pro-UK experts imaginable admit there is economic damage to come, with Jacob Rees-Mogg saying it could take 50 years to reap the benefits of withdrawing from the EU.
72% of economists polled believe the UK GDP will fall in the next 20 years, compared to just 11% who think it will rise. Similarly, 73% think household incomes will fall, compared to 10% who think they will rise. The UK government’s own research estimates that GDP will fall by 2-10% over 15 years, wiping out £40-100 billion. And these are the aspirational figures, not the “worst case scenarios”, which predict an even bigger hit.
Obviously, most of you are now thinking “But Simon, that represents just one-third of the economic damage dealt to the UK after the 2008 financial crisis”, and you’re correct, you freakishly well-educated readers. But even in a best-case scenario, one difference between then and now is that this will be mainly a British problem, not a global one. Another is that there will be no EU support to alleviate the pressure, and although the damage will be less, the UK will have to bear absolutely all of it alone. The real problem going forward, however, will not be the numbers, but the people.
Consumer confidence measures how well the general population thinks the economy is doing, with a +100 score meaning everyone thinks everything is perfect, and -100 meaning everyone thinks everything is terrible and on fire. In the UK, consumer confidence, which had been rising since 2012, took a sudden hit in 2016, and is now hovering around -10. This is where it was before the recessions of the 1980s and 2008. The main issue here is not that there may be a recession, but that there may be another recession at a time when many Britons are still suffering from the last one, and the idea of 15-50 more years of economic downturn may simply prove too much for a suffering population to tolerate.
5 Northern Ireland
Since its partition in 1921, the question of Irish unification has been boiled down to Catholics vs Protestants, the underlying assumption being that Northern Irish Catholics will vote for unification, and protestants against. As Catholics have a much higher birth rate, it was always assumed they would eventually “outbreed” the protestants, allowing them to vote for unification as stated in the Good Friday Agreement. In reality, the success of that peace deal has created a generation that is far less partisan, and this religious measure is now seen as redundant by most, with an increasing number of Northern Irish citizens basing their preference on what they believe is best for their future.
For various reasons, Northern Ireland is a very expensive place to manage. So expensive that it costs Westminster about £10.8 billion a year—£2.2 billion more than they spend on the other union, which offers a much greater financial return. Not only would many of these costs disappear if the nation were on one island instead of two, but a study by the University of British Columbia found that Irish unification would deliver a €36 billion boost for the new Irish nation. But perhaps the more important point here is how people in both Ireland & Britain feel about the whole situation, and the answer isn’t great for Unionists: people in Britain don’t care. Specifically, 36% don’t care, 36% want them to stay, 18% want them gone, and 9% have no opinion.
Even in the main political parties, only 51% of Conservatives want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, a figure that drops to 35% within Labour, who are very likely to be in power within a few years. Their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long-supported Irish unification. The Irish, on the other hand, are 65% in favor of reunification, 19% against. The economic risks of staying unwanted in a country about to undergo major change, versus being warmly welcomed to maintain the status quo may explain why support for reunification among the Northern Irish has gone from 17% in 2013 to 55% today in the event of no-deal, which is still quite possible.
But the threat of a country leaving the UK doesn’t just exist across the Irish sea, it also waits patiently on the shores of Great Britain itself. You may remember that Scotland already had an independence vote in 2014, voting 55-45 to stay. But Scotland’s 300 year marriage may be on the rocks, as 66% of them also want to maintain their relationship with their much younger European sidepiece. Both of these votes were presented as “once in a generation” decisions, but the clear preference of the Scots, and the fundamental changes that have taken place since have many people calling for a second independence vote.
Of the main issues discussed in 2014, the most ironic was the threat that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU and forced to reapply, which they were told would take decades. That was never true, as the EU is always looking to expand, and as a country that already meets all EU standards, and strongly supports the European project, Scotland will be accepted back almost instantaneously if it reapplies.
Again, if we’re being totally honest, polls do not show a shift in support for an independent Scotland. In fact, a recent poll by a pro-independence group “backfired spectacularly” when it found that 16% of those that supported independence in 2014 have changed their minds. But as only 9% of people in Scotland feel that Westminster followed through on the promises of increased powers to Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament, that were made last time around, a second campaign could reflect horribly on the politicians who made those promises, assuming they would never be brought up again in their lifetime.
The key thing to realise here is how Northern Ireland and Scotland will affect each other. If one gets a vote, the other will demand a vote too. And if one leaves, the UK will be badly damaged, and the other will almost certainly follow. If either Scotland or Northern Ireland votes out, you should consider it officially game over for the UK.
3 Loss of Influence
No matter how hard it may be to predict the UK’s future, one thing we can acknowledge with absolute certainty is the influence it has had on the world throughout history. At its peak, the British Empire covered about 25% of the Earth’s land, including about 23% of the world’s population, making it the largest empire in history. While the Commonwealth is still quite large, encompassing 21% of land and 33% of the world’s population, it is essentially impotent when compared to the British Empire, and the power & authority that came with it.
But the UK has still been a major player on the world stage, thanks to its place in the EU. As the second biggest economy and third most-populous member, the UK had a big voice in the world’s largest market, which includes 1 in every 14 people on Earth. So big in fact, they were able to secure some very sweet sweetheart deals, such as a permanent opt-out for joining the Euro, and the right to maintain control of their borders by not joining the Schengen free-travel area. This meant they had to allow any non-criminal EU citizens in, but could turn anyone else away. Additionally, all other member states would pay for a rebate to the UK, returning 66% of any discrepancies between the money they pay in and get back.
There has been much discussion over who needs who more, but that’s only really relevant as a negotiating tactic. Ultimately, the EU takes 48% of UK exports, compared to the UK taking just 6% of EU exports. Furthermore, 59% of Britain’s non-EU exports are made through EU trade deal mechanisms. In a no-deal scenario, the British would have to choose between accepting tariffs on roughly 75% of their goods, not trading with any neighboring countries at all, or following all of the EU’s rules, without any say in what they are.
If there is no deal, the UK can, of course, negotiate new trade deals. But that will take years, can’t involve their neighbors, will be negotiated by the people who have done oh-so-well in these past 3 years of negotiations, and they will be starting off from a phenomenally weak and clearly desperate position. Beyond having nukes (in Scotland) and being the birthplace of a major world language, the UK may struggle to identify what influence it really has when it has almost no trade deals. And while many may point to a potential Trump trade deal as an EU alternative, the true value of which we could debate ad-nauseum, he would have no reason to offer the UK a good deal if they have nowhere else to go, and have spent years promising their citizens they would secure a deal with the US.
2 The Commonwealth
Some of you may be thinking that a quick and easy way to make Britain a global power again is to take advantage of an already established global network, the Commonwealth. Despite its relative fame, many people have a basic misunderstanding of what the Commonwealth actually is, so let’s clear that up. The Commonwealth is a political organisation with 53 member states, most of which were formerly part of the British Empire. Realizing that empires weren’t “in” anymore, and revolutions are expensive to quash, the Commonwealth was created to allow countries to govern themselves, but without looking like the British had “lost”. Despite being the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II is not queen of all member states, just 16. 32 others are republics, while 5 have their own royal families.
In practice, the Commonwealth has almost no power or authority over its member states, and is mainly used for policy discussion, advice, and maintaining cultural ties through the likes of the Commonwealth games. Its lack of influence is reflected by the fact that two-thirds of members criminalize homosexuality, half of the countries in the world to do so; 52% of adult women in the commonwealth were married before the age of 18; and the fact that the budget for these 53 nations is a not-so-whopping £20 million—about 540 times smaller than the UK’s budget for Northern Ireland (although the £20 million does not come from the UK).
Many hold up the Commonwealth as a possible alternative to EU membership, but there are no procedures in place to facilitate free trade amongst members, an idea that even Nigel Farage described as “drivel”. In order to “re-engage” the Commonwealth, as has been suggested, there would need to be a complete overhaul of the institution. But there could not be a worse time in Commonwealth history to propose such a change. Although Queen Elizabeth II has been head of the Commonwealth for 67 years, it is not a position reserved for the UK’s ruling monarch. In theory, anyone can become the head. But when the Queen suggested her son Charles as the next leader, the decision was made and the conversation was over. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was thrilled that the British royals had decided they were going to keep the top job for a few more decades, with many stating the position is redundant, and suggesting more focus be put on the Secretary-General, an elected, term-limited position. Ultimately, reforming an organisation of 53 barely-linked states is a monumental task, and one that an unwelcome leader coming out of what could be the most high-profile negotiating failure in modern history probably won’t be able to pull off, at least not anytime soon.
1 Political Carnage
With money and freedom dominating the debates over the last 5 years, the UK has accomplished nothing of note in other areas of social policy, and few people have thought ahead to what’s going to happen once normal politics resume. The Tories, Britain’s oldest political party, have damaged their reputation so much that people are seriously asking if this is the end of them. This fear has been supported by their loss of seats in the last general election, and that was back in 2017 when things didn’t look so bad. Labour has avoided being tarred as badly, since they didn’t start the debate. But Jeremy Corbyn’s “Ross & Rachel” relationship with Europe, as well as allegations of institutionalised anti-semitism, have left voters feeling understandably untrusting. And it’s not just the voters that are saying goodbye, as 64 MPs have switched parties in the last 2 years. To put that in context, 56 switched parties between 2001 & 2017.
With new parties springing up left and right (literally), nobody will be able to predict what will happen in the next general election, which will take place in December, but it is unlikely any party will win a majority. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, your politicians probably won’t have delivered their most important promise in a generation. The end result of this going forward will either be a mish-mash of people with opposite goals, or a coalition of extremists. Either way, the end of the road will be that politicians nobody trusts, who have been accused of attempting to subvert democracy, will be left to run a country without considerably less oversight, and tasked with convincing roughly half the country (or two halves) that the outcome they have achieved is the best one possible.
+ Fundamental Divisions
If there’s one thing that all Britons can agree on, it’s that the country is sharply divided. Many commentators have attributed this to the fact that a referendum was held at all. Interestingly, despite being one of the oldest democracies, the UK has only ever had 3 referenda, 2 of which were on EU membership. In contrast, their closest neighbour, Ireland, has had 6 referenda n the last 5 years, including the divisive topics of same-sex marriage and abortion, and has never seen such division. Perhaps the Irish are just better equipped to heal divisions since they do it so often, or perhaps this referendum didn’t create division, but exposed the divisions that were already there.
Any one of the points raised here would not be enough to bring an end to the existence of the UK, but the existential risk is the confluence of these events. If the country is in the depths of a recession caused by something half of the people didn’t want, with 2 of the 4 member states wanting out, at a time when the most iconic figure in British history says goodbye, and Britain is finally forced to confront the reality that it is no longer a superpower on the world stage, there are going to be some very fundamental questions about the national identity and what it means to be British.
Of course, it is possible that if all these worst-case scenarios do come to pass at once, a skilled PM or Royal could leverage the struggle to unite the people. But with such deep-rooted anti-UK sentiment in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, of which there is absolutely no prospect of disappearing anytime soon, it is only a matter of time until all the arguments about sovereignty and the right to self-governance that we have heard in the last few years are copy-and-pasted into new independence referenda. Even if both of these fail, the UK will have spent the better part of a decade (if not more) asking whether or not it should still exist, at the expense of other policy discussions. And ultimately, there’s about a 50% chance the answer will be “no”. But no-one can predict the future, so for now, we should just marvel at the fact that we’ve made it through an entire article on the UK without ever once mentioning the word “Brexit”.
About The Author: Simon is still Irish, still loves Irish stereotypes and potatoes, and can still be found on Twitter: simongireland