It was a grey cold day in April and the clocks were not striking at all. Another bloody power outage, cursed Winston Singh as he groped his way along the Whitehall pavement in the smog. So much for the cheap-energy bonanza that the Patriotic Union government had promised once the EU “green crap” had been cleared away. President-for-Life Putin had guaranteed plentiful low-cost fuel to his most faithful ally. That would join with dirt-cheap American coal diverted from a frack-happy home market to stoke Fortress England – as it was since the second referendum of 2020 had seen Scotland depart – for ever after.
In reality, Uncle Vlad had problems enough fighting off rebel raids on his gas and oil plants throughout the Caucasus and in the still-restive province of Ukraine. Regularly, the vital pipelines from Greater Russia simply shut down. Meanwhile, the filthy Yank nuggets had brought back the smogs that oldies remembered from the 1950s. Under the PU, all home-grown efforts to clean up emissions had collapsed. How ironic, mused Winston. Exactly a decade ago, people were hailing the breakthrough TV victory of the Leader. In that very week – he had checked it on Anglopedia – the air over England had thickened with a global cocktail of pollutants that no armed border post could ever halt.
Listening for traffic rather than looking for it, Winston stepped gingerly across the road. Approaching through the grey haze was a cheerful group of Young England volunteers, clad in smart purple shirts and golden scarves. They had started out as a community-service corps – scrubbing public buildings, driving pensioners to hospital – not long after the Patriots had come to power. The weekly stipend they received did make a big dent in the youth unemployment figures. But many of them had come to enjoy the uniform a bit too much, Winston reflected. And when the Voluntary Repatriation Act had passed into law in 2022, with every foreign-born resident offered a plane ticket and resettlement grant, the purple shirts had gone from house to house to inform citizens about it.
Yes, the sprinkling of non-white faces in the Patriots’ cabinet had made it clear that the law applied equally to everyone. No prizes, thought Winston bitterly, for guessing which families the teenage zealots had been especially keen to enrol. Winston was a besuited bureaucrat who edited website propaganda for the Department of English Labour and its job-creation schemes – next up, the Alfred the Great Stadium and Anglo-Saxon Culture Hall in Winchester. Yet he still felt anxious enough to cross the street.
The changes had begun in 2018. In that year, the Leader’s own UK People’s Army triumphantly swept up both Tory right and Labour left into the “patriotic union”. How well Winston remembered those heady days. A minority Labour government had narrowly lost the vote on EU membership in 2017, with 48.2 per cent in favour of staying in, but 51.8 for the “Brexit”. The result unleashed a wave of euphoria. It split both the main old parties and simply drowned the long-forgotten third. DemLibs, were they called? A tipsy exhilaration had gripped the land. As Tories and Labour fragmented, so the Patriots carved a substantial slice from each and won a fresh election with a landslide.
Gruelling months of negotiation in Brussels followed, with the British side much enfeebled by the mass resignation of senior civil servants. From farming and fishing to airlines and taxes, hundreds of discrete deals had to be struck at speed to replace the Single Market. At last, formal separation from the EU had come into effect on 1 July 2019.
The PU had refused to join the wider European Economic Area, as membership would mean Norwegian-style subjection to every EU norm without a seat at the table. So, piecemeal, trade and co-operation pacts were hammered out on every front with EU mandarins who – in spite of their public commitment to neutrality – could not resist the odd twist of the fiscal knife in revenge. Many people had at first cheered the departure from England of Lidl, Ikea, Ryanair and so on, even if they hated the long queues at consulates for a visa before an over-priced Greek or Spanish getaway. The Patriots pretended to love the vogue for “heartland holidays”, as Margate and Blackpool boomed again. Yet the patricians among them regretted having to flog their villas on the Med once the punitive taxes kicked in.
Other job sectors had flourished. How many people who voted for the Patriots, wondered Winston, had imagined that the new government would need to recruit vast numbers of desk jockeys to perform public-sector tasks that the detested European Commission had once run? Moreover, the flight of the European migrant workers after 2017 – most of whom jumped before anyone pushed – had opened up lots of low-wage employment. But those jobs had abounded in areas such as agriculture, which had lost the safety net of EU subsidy.
Commonwealth Free Trade – that electoral panacea for the Patriots, which ensured their re-election in 2023 – may have filled supermarket shelves with a narrow range of cheaper goods. It also bankrupted hundreds of local producers. Meanwhile, overseas corporations were one by one losing the boardroom battle to stay in risky, rocky England. Every month, a German, Japanese or Indian-owned factory would announce that the goodwill towards their loyal workforce that had carried them through five years of endless turbulence had been exhausted. They were quitting for calmer waters within the EU. To add insult to injury, many simply hopped across the border into independent Scotland – its EU accession fast-tracked by a vengeful Brussels. True, protectionist tariffs had not yet begun to bite: too many firms on both sides of the Channel still had too much to lose. Yet the knowledge that no one could prevent a tariff war itself deterred foreign investors.
As for the City, the bank-by-bank leakage of headquarters from London to Frankfurt and Paris soon began in earnest. Frantic to stem the outflow of capital and expertise, the PU government had ignited a bonfire of regulations to attract footloose cash from anywhere and everywhere. Winston strolled past the gaudy signage for a bar-casino-love hotel. Its neon flickered back into life as the power cut ended.
Cut loose from all EU oversight, and given a fiscal sweetener by the tax-lite Open Zone system, some parts of British cities had come to resemble a damper blend of Macau, Las Vegas and Grand Cayman. Unregulated hot money rained on London – and elsewhere, as satisfied customers of the world-famous designer-drug raves in Cheltenham and the red-light district in Harrogate reported.
People who had voted for the Patriots to get rid of dodgy foreigners found that any globetrotting spiv with a suitcase of cash for a business visa could set up any kind of shop in their backyard. For a short while, this Weimar Republic side of the new dispensation thrilled even the global cosmopolitans. They packed trains and planes to visit the flaky rogue state across the Channel, despite the eye-watering cost of an Approved Tourist visa. The Leader must have been perplexed to find that he presided over a world centre of underground club culture.
Soon enough, the novelty of this madcap offshore oddity wore off. At the same time, the brain drain from “Free England” – as the on-message media called it – got seriously under way. From software engineers to medical scientists, games designers to film producers, enterprising people quietly left the PU state. The Leader joked that every prize-winning novelist could quit for Berlin or Barcelona and no one would ever notice. (By then, most of them had.) But it rattled the regime.
From Stockholm to San Francisco, the English high-flyer in voluntary exile became a familiar figure. No one had explicitly driven them away. Yet a generation of movers and doers had voted with their feet. The PU knew only too well that, from mandarins to manufacturers, some of them sat in Brussels with ample research grants. There they plotted the machinery and timetable for a rapid return to the EU.
Sleazy playground, money launderers’ paradise, all-round basket case: Winston sighed at the plight of “Free England” as he picked up his copy of Patriot Tonite from outside the newly franchised Rosneft Westminster Tube station. “Uncle Vlad welcomes Kazakhstan back into the Eurasian Alliance,” shouted the headline. In a photo, the Leader of England smirked as he stood in the third row while Russian tanks rolled through the streets of Astana. “On National Broadcast this evening: a Full English Fry-Off celebrity special as minister of culture Clarkson gets a go on the griddle.”
As for his country’s international allies, Winston knew very well that both Russia and the US despised the shared semi-colony that had fallen into their laps. Moscow used it as a pliant diplomatic counterweight against the ever-more confident EU. To Washington, it served as a control-free laboratory for high-risk experiments in security and surveillance. Winston’s smartphone beeped. A text message told him that his blood pressure was too high. In Free England, you were never quite alone. He walked out of the chemical soup, placed his hand on the NSA-monitored fingerprint machine and took the escalator down to the platform of the 1 July Liberation Line.