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Britain on the Brink – The New York Times

Britain on the Brink - The New York Times
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From “The Daily” newsletter: One big idea on the news, from the team that brings you “The Daily” podcast. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Play word association with “Britain.”

The answers, for many, would suggest a long legacy of empire: palaces, royal guards, the monarchy, the English language itself. And, of course, tea, first imported to England by the East India Company.

This version of British national identity looms large in both the international and domestic imagination of what the country is — and what some want it to remain. It’s this nostalgia for a wartime Britain, glamorized in recent movies like “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour,” that fueled the country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. It’s also the national self-conception that gave rise to Prime Minister Boris Johnson , one of the architects of the Brexit victory.

As you heard last week, Johnson’s premiership is in crisis, thanks to his lies and a series of boozy lockdown violations, which have led to public outrage over his moral hypocrisy. And now, the national identity Johnson represents is in question, too.

“This episode, oddly enough, is the one that I think allowed a lot of people to see that the emperor has no clothes,” Mark Landler, the London bureau chief of The Times said about the scandal currently threatening to cost the prime minister his job. “That Boris Johnson doesn’t have a particular vision, that he’s not someone with principles or ideas that actually can lead Britain not only into a post-Brexit future but into a post-Covid future.”

A post-Brexit, and post-Covid, future poses a test for whomever will lead Britain through it. That prime minister will be forced to clarify Britain’s relationship with a world questioning the country’s global standing (this week, a senior Russian official called Britain’s diplomacy “absolutely worthless”). That prime minister will also face the economic challenges of labor shortages and rising inflation — and be asked to provide a vision for a new national identity, one that can unify a country splintered by crisis.

Should Johnson lose his job, one of his heirs apparent is Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, a wealthy and polished finance chief. He is also the prime-minister-in-waiting that surveys have shown is most likely to appeal to a minority voters, particularly those who identify as part of the South Asian diaspora in Britain.

Sunak, who is of Indian descent, is one of multiple senior government officials with South Asian ancestry, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is also of Indian descent, and Britain’s secretary of health, Sajid Javid, who is of Pakistani descent. Though often the subject of criticism, their visibility at the highest levels of government underscores the fact that in modern Britain, the communities that were once dislocated by British imperial rule are now here to govern — and to stay.

In our new show with Serial, we explore the contradictions, complications and limits of British national identity — investigating the origins of a mysterious letter that transformed both Britain and the lives of many British Pakistanis.

To accompany the show, we asked three British Pakistani writers to reflect on their own relationships with “Britishness,” revealing how British national identity is being rewritten in real time. Below, you can listen to “The Trojan Horse Affair” and read the essays in full.


This week we’re continuing our series in which we ask Daily producers and editors to talk to us about their favorite episode of the show that they’ve worked on. Next up is Sydney Harper, a producer based in Washington, DC, who has been with the team since 2019.

Sydney’s pick is “A Broadway Show Comes Back to Life,” an episode that first aired in September 2021 (you can listen to it here). It was all about the process of bringing “Six,” a new pop musical and a modern reimagining of the lives of King Henry VIII’s wives, to the stage after its debut on Broadway was canceled because of the pandemic.

How did the episode come about?

We were having a meeting where we were like, “Guys we need something happy.” The news can be really difficult and as a team we asked ourselves: What’s a joyful story happening in the world? This story was a perfect blend of a news moment — Broadway reopening — and an editorial craving that we were feeling.

You went to New York for the episode and spent a lot of time with Michael Paulson, a Times theater reporter. What was the reporting process like?

It was great spending all that time with Michael. It was fun to watch him do his thing — navigating the theater world and sticking a microphone in his face while he did it. It was like a backstage view into how a Broadway show is made. We went to the rehearsal space, we saw them do the tech in the theater, I was talking to people in the upstairs of the theater, I saw a full run-through. The Daily is a show that does mini-documentaries, but we really did a mini-documentary in two weeks.

Do you have a favorite scene from the episode?

I loved Daily producer Luke Vander Ploeg’s scene tape where he was talking to people who had come to Broadway the day many of the big shows were reopening and there was the sound of the crowd cheering. Sometimes I think back to the feeling I had when I first listened to it because I feel like generally in life, especially in the last couple of years, you just don’t hear that many people together expressing that strong of an emotion, that in sync. And I think hearing hundreds, maybe thousands, screaming with unbridled excitement and joy, it was just so special to hear that.


Monday: In part two of our look at the state of the pandemic, we asked Dr. Anthony Fauci whether it was time to start thinking about the crisis in a new way.

Tuesday: Did Democratic policy contribute to worsening inflation in the US?

Wednesday: Inside Donald Trump’s plan to seize voting machines in the wake of his 2020 election loss.

Thursday: Is an attack on a prison in Syria a sign that ISIS could be back on the rise?

Friday: How China’s “zero-Covid” strategy will play out during the Beijing Winter Olympics.


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