A Queen, a Church, an Island within an Island
When I first arrived in London, I was very suspicious. I had a great life in Italy, and I thought that this new country was going to be largely cold, wet, grey and filled with unfriendly people. I would have stayed there some time to build the foundations of my career, and then come back to Italy as a winner.
A lot of what I expected was of course true. And even if the weather wasn’t always miserable in London, I was working so hard and such long hours that I wouldn’t have seen the sun anyway. The redeeming features of my life were a good income, the pub culture, and some wild nights during the weekend. London had plenty to offer in that department, and my aggressive Italian friends and I made the most of it.
I always found it interesting how the Brits have managed to maintain a monarchy within a democracy. In my mind, the two things were not really compatible. A democracy would be consistent with a republic – res publica – where the people, demos, exercise their power in the public sphere.
In a monarchy, in principle, the monarch should have absolute or at least real power. That is not the case here anymore – while of course the Queen is the head of state, and has some institutional form of power, the government of the country is completely democratic and you wouldn’t quite know the difference between a king or queen, and the president of any European republic. The main and stark difference is the history, and the fact that the Queen can point to a relatively uninterrupted line of monarchs, creating consistency through time. I definitely see that as a positive thing, in that it is a unifying element for the country, as well as a way of providing some kind of vision for the people. I’m sure not all kings and queens were great in the history of the UK, but of course Queen Elizabeth has done a great job by all historical standards throughout her life.
The other thing that I found a bit odd, and looked with scepticism, was the Church of England. As a Catholic, i know that Henry VIII yanked the country out of the Western Catholic Church because the church would not grant him divorce. The Church of England is somewhat an old Protestant/quasi Catholic church, in that they haven’t progressively accepted the increasingly odd ideas of what is currently mainstream Protestantism (with respect to Eucharist, Saints and Mary especially). Also, the fact that they were a schism from Rome, protected them somewhat by the Counter-Reformation, where the Catholic Church cracked down even harder on certain aspects of the faith (including priest celibacy, among others). Therefore, the Church of England has appeared to me somewhat suspended in time, with both reformed and pre-reformation features.
It was in London that I first learned about anti-Catholic sentiment, often prevalent in other Christian denominations and rooted in the local history. Catholics faced great persecutions in the past, in England – they were often considered spies and enemies, and many priests were publicly executed. Some of these sentiments are probably still part of the culture of older generations and of some hard-core CoE believers, but they are vastly fading with the new generations.
And with respect to London – it’s really a unique feature within the UK. London is truly no man’s land. It has become a completely cosmopolitan city, and it’s so expensive that most English residents have moved out. There are still boroughs that have a higher concentration of natives, especially in zone 2 and 3, but central London is truly something else – and to some extent that’s a pity, because so much of what must have been the local culture has disappeared, and has been substituted by touristic window dressing. On the other hand, it’s a vibrant, lively and interesting city – very self-referential, truly a city-state.
Brexit has been a very odd thing to live through, and it’s not really over yet. Since London is largely inhabited by foreigners, who are scarcely focused on what goes on in the rest of the country, the brexit vote came as a shock. I still remember those days. The message was quite clear – we don’t want to be part of Europe, we don’t like the direction the country is on, and we don’t like an endless influx of cheap workers that are destroying the local little guy.
It took me some time to understand that perspective, and I still think that brexit is a horrible idea, especially as we move towards a world fragmented in large clusters – North America, Europe, Russia, China and India, each with their sphere of influence. A strong Europe and a strong US should be a good thing for the world overall. And it would be even better if Europe could make room for Russia, and incorporate it, as opposed to let it gravitate towards China.
All that said, my criticism is the same with the UK as with Italy – the problems we all live have been caused by decades of bad policies, bad politicians, short-term oriented and with no vision, who have privileged large corporate growth and globalisation at the expense of the local social texture. If you don’t think about your country first, and all your citizens, eventually your country will pay the price for it. But our political systems are designed in a way that nobody is really accountable for bad decisions, and it’s a flaw that democratic societies should fix.
Over the years, I have learned to love London as a beautiful and welcoming place. I will definitely share tips in the future for anyone interested.