Disunited Kingdom: Crisis Leaves Britain Deeply Fractured
The economic crisis has caused the United Kingdom to drift apart, creating ever-widening rifts between rich and poor, native and immigrant, English and Scot. With the anti-Europe UKIP party on the rise, Great Britain stands at a crossroads.
From this vantage point, London seems almost innocent. Irvine Sellar, a real estate developer, points to a gray dome down near the Thames River.
It is St. Paul's Cathedral, which was the tallest structure in the city for a quarter of a millennium, until other, taller buildings were erected in the late 20th century. First there was Tower 42 (formerly NatWest Tower), straight ahead, and later, off to the right, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, London's defiant answer to Wall Street. And now Sellar is gazing at the city from his tower, which looks like the 310-meter (1,017-foot) tip of a cocktail skewer, and which he named "The Shard." From there, St. Paul's is nothing but a gray spot in the midst of a view for which Sellar expects his tenants to pay a lot of money.
Sellar didn't want to build an ordinary office tower, he says: "I gave the city a sculpture," the tallest building in Western Europe. The island stretches into the distance below his feet, and above him is nothing but the sky.
The view of the rooftops of the British capital shows how quickly and radically the country has changed. London's silhouette is a reflection of two decades of growth, decadence and hubris.
The frenzy began in the 1980s, when Great Britain was prosperous and London became a global financial center where brokers, traders and speculators were responsible for billions changing hands every day. Gone were the days of factories and trade, or so it seemed. The act of trading with money was dubbed the financial industry, and together with the real estate sector, it grew to become one of the most important industries in the kingdom, almost a new religion.
Then the crisis erupted in 2008, and things have been going downhill ever since. Unemployment is now at almost 8 percent, and 27 percent of children in Britain live in relative poverty. In late March, the University of Bristol published the most comprehensive study to date on the state of British society. It concludes that a third of the population lives in precarious conditions. Millions of Britons don't have enough to eat and are unable to adequately heat their homes in the winter. "And the situation will get even worse," says David Gordon, an expert on poverty at the university, "because social services are shrinking and real wages continue to decline."
The country is suffering from the consequences of the crisis. The gap between rich and poor is growing, the conflicts between left and right are becoming more heated, and a new party has taken shape to the right of the Tories, the anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP). Friends and foes of Europe argue heatedly over whether remaining a member of the European Union or withdrawing from it is more likely to help the country emerge from the crisis. And in 2014, the Scots will hold a referendum over whether they want to establish an independent country, one that would no longer have to share profits from the North Sea oil and gas fields with the English.
An Era of Virility
From the highest point in London, the kingdom seems limp. Many of the construction cranes towering over the city are idle. Waiting at the elevator of his skyscraper is Sellar, a short, restless man with curly hair, who sold gloves in Petticoat Lane in the 1960s and later built a fashion chain. He got into the real estate business in the 1980s. Like many others, he surfed on the avalanche that then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had unleashed: more power for business owners and bankers, less for union officials and politicians -- and real estate for all.
If a city's virility is measured by the number of cranes, and of buildings shooting up from the ground, then the 20 years leading up to the collapse of London's financial markets can be seen as a phase driven by testosterone, a time of bulls, when people could make millions without leaving their desks.
Sellar hit upon the idea for the tower in the most euphoric phase of Britain's construction frenzy: the late 1990s. He met with Italian architect Renzo Piano and described the project to him. Sellar drew his inspiration from Hong Kong and Shanghai. It was a time when men like him derided the Continent for its sluggishness.
Then came the crash, and a consortium from Qatar invested in Sellar's project. The sheikhs who now own the lion's share of his tower are desperately looking for tenants. A hotel and three restaurants have already signed leases, but 60,000 square meters (646,000 square feet) are still empty.
The elevator speeds down to ground level at six meters per second. When the doors open, a woman in a light-colored outfit asks Sellar if he would like coffee or tea. He smiles uncomfortably. He is now 74 and a multimillionaire, and he could have retired long ago. But he wanted to build the Continent's tallest building. "You build tall because it makes more money," he says. And now Sellar, the former glove salesman, is stirring his coffee in a tower filled with empty offices.
He thought that money would continue to flood into the city. Everyone thought so. London was Europe's alpha male, an urban promise that the old world could constantly reinvent itself and become cool again.
It's a three-hour drive northward from London to Stickford, near the east coast. But the real distance is much greater to the village where a woman lives who never believed in the promise of coolness.
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