The United Kingdom is under tremendous strain of late. It may not appear to be at first glance, but considering the following points.
First, there is the long struggle as retrenchment from Empire finally reaches its apotheosis, and the multicultural misfit that has wracked both The Netherlands and France. Legitimacy amounts to different things for each cultural grouping, whether that is the legitimacy of the police service (amidst allegations of institutional racism), or the problem with British Muslim representation.
Second, there is this more general issue of police corruption. The recent ‘plebgate’ incidents are the latest in a series of appalling failures by the police in the United Kingdom over several decades, including collusion in murder in Northern Ireland, framing innocent people like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, the Stephen Lawrence affair, the Hillsborough Disaster cover-up, and thousands and thousands of allegations of police corruption from around the country. I could list more. No policing system is perfect, but this one is creaking at the seams, and it appears from stories like John Kampfner‘s that there is a culture of short cuts that is suffering from a dearth of leadership. While there is a general loss of trust in the police service, and this is lamentable, there are certain sections of society who have no trust left at all. When this happened to an entire community in Northern Ireland, the result was that the police service there was replaced for Catholics by the provisional IRA.
Third, there are increasing cases of human rights abuses abroad, both in terms of complicity with US actions such as extraordinary rendition, and the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its persistent support for the arms trade, particularly to régimes that deny the most fundamental human rights to their citizens, further undermines the authority of the British State in its endorsement of such standards. Its equivocation on human rights abuses in major partners such as China, while condemning less strategically valuable sovereign states like Syria, Iran and North Korea makes a mockery of International Law. Attempting to demonstrate leadership at home in allowing human rights for British citizens is difficult if the standard is fungible abroad.
Fourth, there are general aspects of fairness that are reducing individual respect for the institutions of state. The post-code lottery in the NHS is a case in point, where different regional authorities can choose whether or not to opt for particular treatments, therefore allowing some people to die in some parts of the country, when they would live in other parts. The extraordinary fiasco of MPs expenses (such as claiming expenses to service a duck pond) created an impression that politicians were not representing their constituency, but simply using it as a base upon which to enrich themselves. The favourable (or non-existent!) tax rates available to (usually foreign) big businesses seemed to discriminate against domestic small businesses.
Fifth, and finally, the identity assertions of both Northern Irish Catholics and Scottish Nationalists are consistently and unapologetically advocating secession from the Union. This has a further debilitating impact on the legitimacy of state, though the calm with which the prospect of either eventuality is being considered is evidence not so much of the robustness of the state and its persistent relevance, but its detachment from those elements that would have historically defined it. The British State appears no longer dependent, it would seem, on either its people, or its territory. And that is a very interesting thing indeed.