2014 is now in the history books. The Union Jack is still flying, and most citizens of the United Kingdom enjoyed the sunshine of the warmest year on record, and finally a sense of some increased prosperity. The economic tough medicine of Chancellor George Osborne and the Conservative Government showed evidence of beginning to pay off. Britain enjoys one of the strongest economies in Europe. Even though that amounts more to bragging rights than fiscal health, it’s a start.
2015 promises inevitably to be a historic year. There is a lot going on in Great Britain on the political front. This June, the country faces its first General Election in five years. David Cameron and the Tories are already going to the nation seeking a mandate to form a Government without the coalition with the Liberal Democrats that was forced upon them.
The Conservative party faces a tough challenge on several fronts. Their own rank-and-file, the electoral base (if not the face) of the party, are disillusioned on several fronts. PM Cameron’s promise to limit and control immigration just hasn’t been fulfilled. Many cities, market towns and even smaller communities have been inundated with legal migrants from Eastern Europe that put a huge strain on local resources, the labor market and the patience of local voters.
At the same time, immigration is only one frustration fueling ongoing resentment of the European Union. For years, the Tories have dangled a national referendum on EU membership in front of British voters, but never delivered. And still, David Cameron is vague about the promise of such a vote.
For the first time, the Conservatives face a real challenge from the “popular right.” The United Kingdom Independence Party has won two recent by-elections, defeating Tory candidates and sending UKIP members to Parliament for the first time. The luster seems to have come off UKIP leader Nick Farage lately, largely due to personal antics seen not in broadened its appeal to Scottish voters at the expense of the Scots’ traditional support for Labour. With Labour set to lose most of its parliamentary seats to the SNP, it loses as well any chance of a parliamentary majority.
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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg faces an even bleaker election prospect. The Liberal Democrats have remained a thorn in the side of the controlling Conservatives in the coalition Government, but little else. Unhappily for the Liberal Democrats, the inability of its leaders in the Cabinet to distinguish themselves in any way has had its results in local elections through the years. The Lib Dems lost all meaningful control of County and District Councils throughout their traditional strongholds. Voters have defected because the party has lost any defining voice. They are seen to have little chance of remaining even an effective parliamentary opposition.
All 650 members of the House of Commons face their constituents in the General Election. Parliamentary constituencies change this year, however. Commons membership is decreasing by 50 seats to 600. All over the country traditional constituency boundaries are being redrawn. That angle alone will just add extra complexity for the prognosticators. Actually, MPs could probably be downsized by another 100 at least without any detrimental effect, but, once again, it’s a start.
For British Heritage readers and visitors to our sceptered isle (and all those not focusing on the constant media beat of politics), 2015 offers a full calendar of significant historical anniversaries. Sian Ellis reminded us last issue of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo this June (“Wellington and Waterloo after 200 Year,” p.34). Next issue, we will revisit Magna Carta, celebrating its 800th anniversary in June as well.
Then, it is 600 years since Henry V’s victory on St. Crispin’s Day against the vastly outnumbering French army in the Battle of Agincourt. Nearer our own time, 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, the 70th of VE Day and the 50th year since the passing of Winston Churchill. In fact, English Heritage plans to celebrate 10 key historic anniversaries through the year.
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Together, anniversaries such as these put into perspective the reverberations of Britain’s contemporary political landscape. They remind us how British history has created that landscape, and illustrate that what we are to be, we are now becoming. History provides the context for understanding who we are as a people and defines national identity.
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I have long sung the praises for how Great Britain lives comfortably in its history, preserving its heritage sites and commemorating the seminal events of its past. With Britain’s sense of national identity under siege by new immigrant populations, the internal threat of Islamic fundamentalism and a continuing fear of being swallowed by a generic Europeanism, a great year of historic anniversaries seems to a timely anodyne indeed.
For those of us on this side of the Pond, all these anniversary celebrations bring another year of great exhibitions, openings and ceremonies to observe – and destinations to include on our travel itineraries.