Steady stream of tragedy, political upheaval creates 'time of immense insecurities' for U.K.

From delicate Brexit talks, to a fatal fire, to four attacks in four months, a steady stream of unfortunate events in the U.K. is all adding to a year of uncertainty for the British.

Post-election uncertainty, a horrific fire and 4 fatal attacks all add to Britain's very bad year

A police officer stands next to a display of flowers near the Finsbury Park mosque in London's north end, where a man drove a van into a crowd early Monday. It was the fourth fatal attack in Britain in as many months. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

In the early hours of the morning, a man drives a van into a group of Muslim worshippers in North London.

It is the fourth attack in the United Kingdom in as many months and clearly aimed at the Muslim community, coming just days before the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Some fear it is part of an anti-Muslim backlash, in the wake of the previous attacks attributed to Islamist extremists.

A new mound of sympathy flowers grows in yet another London neighbourhood.

Then just after 11 a.m. local time, London comes to a standstill for a moment's silence in memory of the 79 victims of Grenfell Tower, the residential highrise that burnt with such shocking intensity last week. The fire horrified the nation and led to allegations of gross negligence on the part of the local council.

People at the site of the mosque attack bow their heads in silence and sympathy, too.

Across the English Channel, in Brussels, government ministers begin exit talks with the European Union, just 11 days after British voters delivered a hung Parliament.

A note on a bouquet of flowers left at the scene of Monday's van attack reads, 'We shall not be divided.' (Jared Thomas/CBC)

This has not been a good year for Britain. Just ask the Queen.

"Today is traditionally a day of celebration," she said Saturday in her annual birthday message. "This year, however, it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood."

She was referring, of course, to the separate attacks on the Westminster and London Bridges, the Manchester bombing, and the Grenfell fire.

'Nobody knows what to expect'

But the political uncertainty created by the results of the recent election and the schism within Britain caused by last year's vote to leave the European Union have made people feel particularly unmoored — and just when they crave clear leadership the most.

"It's a time of immense insecurities when nobody knows what to expect next," says Polly Toynbee, a British commentator who recently authored a book called Dismembered, about the dismantling of the British welfare state.

"It feels peculiarly rudderless and shapeless," she says of Britain today, calling Brexit a "kamikaze mission, all of our own invention."

"Because there've been these consistent incidents in London, and … the other one in Manchester, across the country, there is a mood of uncertainty and most people want to be led with strong leadership and people want answers," adds Saba Zaman, another British journalist who writes about religion and ethics.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has been criticized for cutting police numbers when she was home secretary and for reaction in the days after the Grenfell Tower fire. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

Zaman believes the attacks, coupled with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, might cause people to question the wisdom of Brexit just as the negotiations get underway.

"Once we do go out of the EU, what will happen?" she says. "Are we going to be protected? Do we have our neighbouring counterparts to protect us?

"You know, nobody really knows. The future is quite uncertain."

And, according to some, so is the future of Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.

May has clearly been trying to do what T-shirts and coffee mugs all over the city shout at passersby: "Keep calm and carry on." But many pundits say May's days in office may well be numbered in the wake of the June 8 vote that saw her lose her Conservative majority in Parliament.

"I don't think she can ever be strong and stable again," says Toynbee. "That's gone forever."

Tough time for Theresa May

For now, Toynbee says, the Conservative party may need her to remain in place given the potential difficulties of organizing a leadership contest amid the Brexit talks.

But May is struggling to form an agreement to win support from the Democratic Unionist Party, a fundamentalist Christian party from Northern Ireland.

Former Conservative prime minister John Major has warned that if she does, it could signal the end of the Northern Ireland peace deal by sacrificing Britain's role as an objective party.

May has also been pilloried for cutting police numbers when she was home secretary and for her perceived coldness toward the victims of Grenfell Tower in the days after the fire.

Emergency services members work inside the charred remains of the Grenfell Tower block in London, where 79 people are believed to have died. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

While the prime minister visited the site, she initially failed to speak with any of the victims. That's in stark contrast to British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was pictured hugging volunteers and survivors.

May has announced a five-million pound ($8.4 million) emergency fund for surviving Grenfell residents. But anger continues to burn in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood surrounding the block, which is situated in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London.

Protesters on Friday broke through the closed doors of the Kensington and Chelsea council responsible for the area. Some marched on Downing Street demanding May's resignation.

The Grenfell fire "lifted the stone" to expose what Toynbee describes as the "gross inequality" that exists in the country.

Spike in hate crimes

After Monday's attack in North London, not far from the Finsbury Park mosque, May echoed the mantra of the police and other political and community leaders, saying that an attack on any faith is an attack on all Londoners.

But the steady spike in hate crimes recorded after the recent attacks presents an added layer of uncertainty for British Muslims.

Earlier this month, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, released figures showing a spike in Islamophobic incidents after the June 3 attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. Overall, racist incidents were up 40 per cent compared to the daily average.

Two girls pause near the Finsbury Park mosque in London's north end. A 47-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and the 'commission, preparation or instigation' of terrorism. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Zaman, a Muslim, says it's just one more thing to worry about. 

"I will admit, overnight, I did send a message to my friends to say I'm actually feeling a bit nervous. And it's not a nice feeling. But I'm extra cautious when something like this happens."

Most Brits, Zaman included, take some comfort in their reputation for stoicism during times of difficulty. There have been many acts of solidarity and unity, too, in these uncertain times.

As the Queen put it: "Put to the test, the United Kingdom has been resolute in the face of adversity. United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favour, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss."

But these days are particularly trying for this country. And they could be forgiven for feeling so uncertain.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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