Monday 13 April 2020

On British exceptionalism

Last Saturday Fintan O’Toole wrote a piece for the Irish Times (it was also printed in the Guardian) in which he argued that Johnson’s remarks when the UK lockdown was imposed – ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the UK to go to the pub … I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people’ – evoked ‘a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity’.

Almost exactly a year ago – on 23 April 2019, the 300th anniversary of the first publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – CBe published Good Morning, Mr Crusoe, which looked at the legacy of Defoe’s book in British culture. Wrapped up in this legacy has been the British sense of exceptionalism. From a passage in the book in which I argue there is no essential difference between the mindsets of Tommy Robinson and David Cameron:

The patriotism button pressed by both Cameron and Tommy Robinson is adjacent to the one labelled ‘British values’. Robinson refers to ‘simple patriotism and a respect for our heritage, values and tradition’ without any spelling out – and without feeling any need to spell out, as if those things were just givens and automatically good. In a 2014 article for the Mail on Sunday to mark the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta, Cameron defined ‘British values’ as ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’ – ‘To me they’re as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.’ These values are ‘vital to people in other countries’ too, Cameron concedes, ‘but what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors [sic] them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop’. Ah, ‘traditions and history’ – from which every political party has selectively drawn to bolster their agenda, and mostly from the very long one-bloody-war-after-another strand (‘this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’).

In the Magna Carta speech Cameron declared that his favourite book was Our Island Story, a history of Britain written for children and first published in 1905, at the height of empire.

This exceptionalism has infected every aspect of British culture, not least literature. The first professor of Eng Lit at Oxford University: ‘We have spread ourselves over the surface of the habitable globe, and have established our methods of government in new countries. But the poets are still ahead of us, pointing the way. It was they, and no others, who first conceived the greatness of England’s destinies, and delivered the doctrine that was to inspire her’ – the assumption that ‘our methods of government’ are better than any others, and that our poets are better than yours: the assumption of superiority. And consequently, immunity.

And here is more. From another Guardian article on Saturday, on Johnson’s illness: ‘Friends and others who have known him for many years are well aware that he had always – and certainly in his younger days – been rather dismissive of the idea of getting ill.’ A former Tory MP is quoted: ‘I remember he always seemed to regard being ill as a form of moral weakness.’

There is also the exceptionalism of the still very exclusive pot from which our political leaders are drawn: Johnson: Eton, Oxford, journalism (after acquiring a graduate traineeship at The Times ‘through family connections’); Raab: Oxford, Cambridge, the law; Hancock: Oxford, Cambridge, Bank of England …

As many people across the world have known for two centuries, the consequences of British exceptionalism have been murderous. In its response to Covid-19, the blinkered incompetence of the current Tory government is not an exception.

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