Britain Just Got Pulled Back From the Edge

The country has reasserted its foundational stability, and in doing so made real change more likely once this is all over.

The Queen addresses the nation from Windsor Castle.
Handout / Reuters

Perhaps a testament to how close Britain has come to losing its way is the fact that it took a pandemic, an emergency of foggy complexity, for the country to get back on its path. This was a weekend that felt defining, not just for the immediate story, the coronavirus, but for British politics—and for Britain itself.

It was not a good weekend. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized, and Britain’s death toll jumped as another 621 people died over 24 hours. The gravity of the situation moved the Queen to deliver an emergency address to the nation, something she has done only a handful of times in her 68-year reign. This was not a weekend in which Britain reached, or even caught a glimpse of, the peak of the coronavirus outbreak—never mind found a route back down from it and off the mountain.

Instead, the weekend was momentous because of the reemergence of something fundamental to the country, how it functions and sees itself—its core, institutional strength. These were 48 hours in which Britain reasserted its foundational stability, and in doing so made real change more likely once this is all over.

The weekend was defined by three profoundly important moments. The first came on Saturday morning, when the Labour Party elected Keir Starmer its new leader, replacing Jeremy Corbyn as the official head of the opposition. The second and third are more obvious but no less profound, and came in disorientingly quick succession on Sunday night as the Queen attempted to reassure the nation at 8 p.m.—an hour before news broke that her 14th prime minister had been taken to the hospital.

As long as Johnson recovers fully and quickly, Starmer’s election has the potential to be more consequential than either of the other two events, even if those are more immediately defining. Starmer’s elevation is of deep importance on a number of levels. First, after years of appalling ineptitude and moral vacuity under Corbyn’s catastrophic leadership, Britain’s opposition will be led by a credible alternative prime minister whose competence, professionalism, and patriotism are unquestioned. The government can now be held to account.

Corbyn’s replacement is important not just for the Labour Party, but for the country. The former leader’s politics meant that effective collaboration with Johnson’s Conservative Party was impossible, even in areas where the parties shared consensus. Corbyn’s refusal to appear alongside then–Prime Minister David Cameron in the campaign against Brexit was emblematic of this, as was his subsequent refusal to play ball with Theresa May as she sought to introduce a “soft” form of Brexit with Labour’s support. That then paved the way for Johnson’s emergence as prime minister—and Labour’s crushing defeat at a general election in December.

But the importance of this moment is rooted in more than effective opposition. Starmer is left-wing, perhaps radically so on the American spectrum, but he is not a teenage revolutionary. Taxes would go up under his leadership, foreign policy would be more idealistic, Britain would tilt more toward Europe. But he would be recognizable. It is hard to overstate how unrecognizable Corbyn was. For much of his life, until being catapulted into the position of Labour leader, he was a fringe figure even on the political fringes, driven by the moral anti-imperialism of the Cold War radical left, which saw him line up with every enemy of the West—and Britain—imaginable. He was a question mark over Britain. Take one small example: Corbyn had, to his eternal shame, allowed anti-Semitism to raise its head in the British left. Starmer’s first act as leader was to apologize on behalf of the Labour Party. By Sunday morning, the return to institutional normality was clear. Starmer, appearing on the BBC’s flagship political program, The Andrew Marr Show, broke with the Corbynite position, offering “constructive engagement” with the government. “We’ve all got a duty here to save lives and protect our country,” he said. A boring statement, but almost revolutionary after the Corbyn years.

The leader of the opposition is a pillar of the British establishment, a role that is required for the system to work. Starmer holds special privileges, is allowed to keep state secrets, is awarded particular prestige, and gets additional funding. It is a staging post to become prime minister, though many, even most, don’t make it. It sits alongside other individual positions instrumental to the functioning of the British state: the speaker of the House of Commons, the archbishop of Canterbury, the chief of the defense staff, the prime minister, and the monarch. On Sunday, the final two came to the fore.

Longevity, the simple fact of time, gives the Queen an unmatched presence in British life. The way she has personally sought to carry out the role has added power and solemnity to the position. Because she rarely intervenes—and never politically—each time she does carries weight. Last night, she made a special address to the nation for the first time since her diamond jubilee in 2012, itself the first time she had formally spoken out since her mother’s death in 2002. Before that, 1997 was the last time she had done so, because of an event so grave it was deemed necessary—the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. That she chose to again during this pandemic had the perverse effect of making the situation feel even more solemn.

In hindsight, the two weeks of national lockdown preceding the Queen’s address were marked by an unnerving void. The prime minister, even before last night’s news, had been in self-isolation for more than a week after contracting COVID-19. The health secretary had also caught it, along with the chief medical officer—the principal adviser informing the prime minister on his strategy. Meanwhile, the Labour Party was waiting for its interminable leadership process to reach its conclusion. All the while, the death toll was climbing ever closer to the hidden peak. The timing of the Queen’s intervention was crucial.

Dressed in green and speaking from an ornate study inside Windsor Castle, the Queen set the crisis alongside the national struggle during the Second World War. She said she wanted to offer reassurance that if the country remained “united and resolute,” it would overcome this latest obstacle. “I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she said. It was an old-fashioned call to arms. She finished, though, with hope. Although we will have more to endure in the coming weeks, she said, better days will return: “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” The payoff was a conscious nod to what had become the anthem of the Second World War, “We’ll Meet Again,” by Vera Lynn: “Don’t know where / Don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

The Queen is the only public figure able to personally link the current fight against the pandemic to the Second World War, the prior struggle that still defines the country, at least in its own perception. The message was well pitched, nodding to the young and old, frontline and staying-at-home. It cast her as a spiritual leader, more than merely figurative.

The message would soon be overshadowed by the news of the prime minister’s hospitalization, a question mark placed at the very heart of the state’s response to the crisis. Yet, as true as that is, this weekend nevertheless offered a tentative sense that the institutions and positions of state were not jamming, but clicking into gear, even if they remain old, grinding, and archaic. The National Health Service appears to be rising to the task, the military has been deployed, the BBC has found its voice after years of unease, and the political institutions—torn apart by the financial crash, Brexit, and Corbynism—have refound something of a common set of rules and purpose.

The establishment is back. And British politics has some measure of its old self back. Both will be needed again soon, for once this immediate medical crisis is over, an economic one will emerge. Real change may soon follow.