Undesirable rebirth of British exceptionalism

Published by The ipaper (7th August, 2017)

Did you know Britons have agriculture woven into their genetic makeup more than any other people on the planet? This revelation was aired last week by the editor of Country Life during a discussion of post-Brexit farming on Radio Four’s Today show. Sadly, it went unchallenged. After all, it would only take a quick trip across the Channel or to Asia’s rice paddies to disprove such a risible statement.

This throwaway comment in a radio studio highlights how a damaging nationalist discourse, uncorked by last year’s referendum, has sparked a new burst of British exceptionalism. Two days later a normally thoughtful political writer in The Times turned to pop music to fill space in the silly season, attempting to argue this was a Brexit-proof sector. His article – which ignored the realities of publishing and touring, let alone the massive influence of immigration – claimed over the past half century ‘almost nothing of note, apart from the wonders of Abba, has come out of Europe.’

This blinkered view almost made me spit out my coffee. Among artists dismissed as incomparable to Adele and Ed Sheehan are France’s Daft Punk, who have influenced musicians from Arcade Fire to Kanye West. Sweden’s Max Martin, author of more number one hits in the United States than anyone apart from former Beatles. Germany’s electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The brilliant Belgian Stromae, whose songs of alienation strike such a wide chord. Ireland’s U2, who redefined stadium rock. Iceland’s inventive Bjork. And many more.

Prepare for more of this guff as we head towards the European Union exit door. Every nation likes to feel exceptional. In the United States, it has become a pervasive ideology. The French revel in their revolutionary legacy and distinctive cultural claims. I have barely met a Syrian refugee who does not tell me of their country’s unique character, underlining the scale of national tragedy. Perhaps it is natural for people to feel their home is somewhere special, a perspective that helps bind communities together in shared sense of identity and spirit of patriotism.

But the more you travel, the more you see how national exceptionalism, with its sense of superiority, is a spurious concept. Talk to a French farmer while on holiday in Normandy or Provence, then try to argue they have less feel for their land than even a Scottish hill farmer, let alone an agri-businessman in southern England. And as our country stumbles unsteadily into the post-Brexit fog, we must be wary over delusions of grandeur that have already led us to this damaging point.

Much of the Brexiteers’ rhetoric was rooted in exceptionalist myth, often wrapped up in nostalgic longing for the past. Michael Gove argued our armed forces were the world’s best, a case weakened by his government’s cuts. He made similar claims about our creaking health service, despite so much evidence showing comparatively poor patient outcomes from cancer to child mortality. He even insisted Britain was a ‘uniquely inventive nation’ that came up with representative democracy, which might surprise the Romans who got there centuries earlier.

Liam Fox, now flying the world in search of trade deals, went further. He argued the United Kingdom was ‘one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history.’ Yes, we stood strong against the Nazis – but this claim shamefully ignores concentration camps that killed thousands of Boers or grotesque atrocities against Kenyans seeking sovereignty. Given such views, and a desperate post-Brexit focus on certain Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand, it was not surprising to find Whitehall talking about ‘Empire 2.0’.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable rightly says older voters imposed ‘a worldview coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past’ on a younger generation comfortable with modernity. Ironically Britain’s brutal empire was an early manifestation of the globalisation and migration many voters sought to stymie by severing European Union ties.

Yet this myth of control, of sovereignty, of restoring lost powers, is deeply corrosive. Even our armed forces, however world-beating they might be, rely on collaboration with allies to fight conflicts. If Britain is so uniquely inventive, why does the digital revolution emanate from California led by people from around the planet? Now look at the trauma being suffered by our national health service. It undoubtedly needs a life-saving cash injection but its struggles have been worsened by the daft idea that it is sacrosanct and unique, which stopped serious discussion of faults and flaws inherent in any elderly large institution.

Similarly corrosive concepts of exceptionalism may flare up in more areas of public life amid the Brexit shambles. I hope the self-harm of Brexit can be stopped. But if we are to forge a standalone new role, success depends on realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Britons can take pride in many aspects of their nation, from a culture of tolerance and scepticism of authority through to gorgeous geography. We remain a strong global economy. We possess hard power, aided by a seat on the United Nations security council, and immense soft power. But we face big challenges as ambitious new rivals, increasingly well-educated and skilled, grow richer and stronger.

To be born a Brit no longer means winning first prize in the lottery of life. And for all their undeniable strengths our farmers and musicians, our soldiers and scientists, are not bestowed by the Gods with unique talents. As we stagger our way down the uncertain path ahead, one thing is certain: pretensions of national exceptionalism will only damage our cause.

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