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.
Guardians of the Drawbridge
The road passes through rapeseed and asparagus fields, before reaching the country house of Victoria Ayling, where she lives with her partner Kevin Couling and their three sons. Ayling is a local politician and a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a party of patriots and opponents of Europe, which has already made considerable progress in its effort to drive Great Britain out of the EU. UKIP captured 23 percent of the vote in local elections in early May. Ayling's fellow party members are nipping at the heels of Prime Minister David Cameron's Tories. About a third of Tory lawmakers now favor withdrawing from the EU, and in 2017 the British people will vote on the issue in a referendum. Many Britons see Europe as the cause of their country's crisis.
The last few meters to Ayling's house are a trip back in time to the days of the British Empire. The stables are not far from the garage. Ayling is wearing a light summer dress, even though it's just beginning to rain. She joined the Young Conservatives at 14 and later embarked on a career with the Tories. In the 2010 general election, she narrowly lost a bid to enter the House of Commons by 714 votes.
Ayling is now a district and county councillor in Lincolnshire. She sees herself as a rebel, and in March she joined the UKIP. "I defected," she says, as if the country were in a civil war. There is a clear political divide in Britain, with a majority of the traditional parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals, on one side and Ayling and her UKIP friends on the other. They are still a minority, but a vocal one nonetheless. UKIP Chairman Nigel Farage has appeared frequently on television in recent months, berating politicians in Brussels and London as incompetent, cowardly and corrupt. It's a message people like to hear. Ayling says that Farage would be a good prime minister.
In Lincolnshire, it becomes clear how public sentiment in parts of the kingdom is gradually slipping from moderate conservatism to bulldog patriotism. From Ayling's standpoint, UKIP's success is merely a symptom of a much larger upheaval, a cultural change.
After coping with the loss of the Empire in the postwar period, Great Britain has been left with something akin to the phantom pain of one who has lost a limb. Ayling's father made his fortune with furniture, and her family had servants. She grew up in a country in which hierarchies that had developed throughout the centuries were still intact, and where life could be very comfortable for those at the top.
But eventually the working class began to talk back, becoming rebellious. Ayling believes that this change roughly coincided with Great Britain's accession to the European Community in 1973, and with a tectonic shift in Europe's political landscape. She hopes that UKIP will help the Empire regain its old strength. What this means is a return to the 1950s and '60s.
"Nowadays, you almost have to be ashamed to be British," says her partner, Kevin Couling. In school, children learn a great deal about the Holocaust and the women's suffrage movement, he says, but not much about the country's history. "They can't even name the British kings." Besides, says Couling, Polish and Latvian immigrants are taking away jobs in the asparagus fields.
Ayling says that the government should crack down on illegal immigrants and criminals, and should "build more prisons." She criticizes Cameron for legalizing same-sex marriage, when in her view it would have been better to block immigration from the new EU countries of Eastern Europe.
But how can he do that, given that Great Britain is a member of the EU?
"He has to declare a state of emergency and close the borders," she says, although she doesn't believe that Cameron, "that coward," has the guts to do it. Ayling glances at the clock. She has a district council meeting to attend, "but it'll be a short one, because they're usually about potholes."
The meeting takes place in a dark building that smells of moist cardboard. Ayling, wearing her summer dress, bursts into a heated debate over gravestones. In the rural east of England, "heated" means that someone stands up, mumbles "sorry" and wraps his critical remarks in polite phrases. After an hour, someone asks if anyone knows where specific graves are located in the local cemetery. The meeting is adjourned.
Later, sitting in a pub, Couling groans and says that the entire country is apathetic, that everyone is so politically correct and that no one has the courage to tell the truth anymore. In a country with such high unemployment and trillions of pounds in public debt, and with cemeteries where no one knows who is buried where, he asks, what else has to happen?
"England was once a free country," says Ayling, "in the 18th century." She wants to regain that freedom. "We are an island nation," says Couling, "and now we want to withdraw to our island."
The problem is that the English aren't the only ones who own that island. There are other patriots -- the Scots, for example, many of whom no longer want to share their wealth. The worse the crisis gets, the clearer do the symptoms of decline in the United Kingdom become.
The Battle of Bannockburn
If Europe ever becomes a museum, it won't take much to set up a department called "Early Industrial Age" in Birmingham or Newcastle. Great Britain is rusting. It has become a sluggish, despondent and anxious country. An article of clothing currently popular among young Britons is the "onesie," a sort of playsuit for adults who like to spend their days lounging in comfort -- assuming they don't have to go to work.
Dennis Canavan, 70, lives in the hills northeast of Glasgow. Canavan is the chairman of the "Yes Scotland" campaign, which is fighting for Scottish independence. Bannockburn, a traumatic place in English history, is merely a stone's throw away. Scottish warriors defeated the army of the English king, Edward II, in a two-day battle at Bannockburn in June 1314. The defeat was so humiliating and devastating for the English that Scotland plans to hold a major festival next year, to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
Canavan is excited about the party, to the extent that "excited" and "party" apply in this case. He is wearing baggy corduroy trousers and a fleece sweater, and he smiles precisely two times during the conversation. One of Canavan's hobbies is running marathons. He has always been an extremely persistent man.
He was elected to the House of Commons for Labour in 1974. After 33 years in the British and Scottish parliaments, he retired as one of the country's longest-serving members of parliament. He had intended to start hiking again, but then Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond asked him if he was interested in a new project. After a bit of grumbling, Canavan agreed.
The Scots have never been happy about their union with England, which has existed for 306 years. But the divisions have rarely been as great as they are today. Canavan says that Scotland would be better off without England. It would be a richer country, because it would control its own oil and gas production. It would be a more peaceful country, because it would no longer be forced to tolerate nuclear warheads on its soil or participate in the wars of the English. And it would be a fair and equitable country, because it could reverse the British government's cuts to social benefits. It would be a free country filled with proud people. "The lakes, mountains and rivers are our national heritage," says Canavan. "Scotland is the envy of the world." So why shouldn't the Scots hazard the step to independence?
'Caught in a Straitjacket'
As a Labour MP, Canavan battled with Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a shopkeeper, who shut down mines. At the time, he was already thinking of ways to counter the power of the British government. In 1997, London incrementally granted the Scots more rights, but it wasn't enough for Canavan. He believes that Scotland is oppressed. "We are caught in a straitjacket," he says. If Canavan had his way, he would introduce the euro in Scotland tomorrow. "We need a new beginning," he says. A Second Bannockburn.
There have already been a few skirmishes. Recently Nigel Farage, the English head of UKIP, had to hide in a pub in Edinburgh because an angry mob had gathered outside. Most Scots are disgusted by Farage's crude England patriotism. He eventually left the pub with a police escort.
In the late summer of 2014, the Scots will vote in a referendum over whether they still want to be part of Great Britain. Anyone who believes that the proximity of the 700-year celebration is coincidental isn't familiar with the Scottish penchant for perfidious tactics.
The English are opposed to Scottish independence. For months, the government in London has fired off study after study on the risks of independence. Polls show that a third of Scots support independence. "We have a mountain to climb," says Canavan. But things didn't look good for the Scots 700 years ago, either -- and in the end, they defeated the enemies from the south. Canavan smiles for the third time.
In a Different Country
Great Britain is currently undergoing a shift. There is a growing distance between the periphery and the center, among the individual parts of the kingdom and between the top and the bottom of society. It has never taken as much money as it does today to make it onto the Times list of the 100 wealthiest Britons. Irvine Sellar's cocktail skewer and all the other towers in London seem even taller and more imposing in the eyes of those who stand at the bottom, those who lost a great deal when England was betting on the financial industry and neglecting everything else. Society is becoming unravelled at its fringes.
The information age has been slow to arrive in Bangor, in northern Wales. "They say we'll be getting faster Internet soon," says Bryn Lewis. "But they've been promising us that for a long time." Lewis is 23 and unemployed, one of about a million Britons between 16 and 24 who are out of work. He writes about his life in North Wales, a remote corner of the country, on blogs and in Internet forums. Like many of his generation, he would rather do without running water than the Internet.
Nevertheless, the Internet is sometimes down for days, he says while sitting in a café in Bangor. Local public transport isn't in much better shape. Lewis doesn't have a driver's license, and there is only limited bus service into the city after 6 p.m.
Lewis is one of many who are too clever for the provinces and too lazy for London. His native Wales has seen better days. Its mines stopped supplying fuel for England's industrial revolution long ago. Nowadays, a young person in Wales has two choices: to be unemployed or to move away. Two businesses that still work are health clubs and the illegal amphetamine and steroid trade.
For years, Lewis has been stumbling between a mentoring program and courses for young entrepreneurs. He was studying chemistry until a year ago, when he dropped out because he could no longer afford the tuition. He is paid a small fee for his blog posts, and he occasionally writes articles for the local newspaper. He earns the equivalent of €230 ($310) a month. He saves rent by living alternately with his father and his girlfriend.
People who grow up in Bangor waste their youth on the steps of the Costa Coffee Shop or on a bench at the beach. The theater was torn down years ago, and the movie theaters have been closed for a long time. You figure out how to get booze without an ID card at an early age, says Lewis. He and a teacher recently founded the Bangor Youth Group, which hosts movie nights and lectures. But the group lacks money and a space of its own. They are now hoping to receive funding from Prince Charles' foundation.
In the meantime, Lewis and his friends get together at Skerries, where a pint of beer costs 1.80. Like in every pub on the entire island, the air smells like urinal cake. Johnny and Gaz, who are playing a round of billiards, cook burgers in a fast-food restaurant during the day. Huw is studying creative writing. Arwel is 21 and stocks supermarket shelves. He has had the words "born free" tattooed onto his knuckles. His daughter Summer has just turned three, but he is no longer with her mother. She is now Lewis's girlfriend.
"It's all pretty complicated here," says Lewis. He has just started writing his first novel, which takes place in a desert. Lewis doesn't want to move to a big city, London included. It's much too far away, he says. Sometimes it seems to him that London is the capital of a different country.