Covid 19 and British Exceptionalism

12th May 2020

When we talk about British exceptionalism, we usually mean the chauvinistic, jingoistic sense of British specialness that says because we are so brave, and clever, and jolly decent, destiny will always be kind to us, and to hell with facts, logic, evidence and all such stuff and nonsense – we shall prevail because we’re British. “Stop talking Britain down!”

It’s an appalling mindset that has got us into all sorts of trouble that scarcely needs detailing here.

There is another form of British exceptionalism: the kind that believes we are, as a nation, awful and incompetent and wretched. That we will always do worse than everybody else. It’s the kind that says, for example, that Britain’s response to the coronavirus has been the worst in Europe. Not so far, it hasn’t. We have the highest number of deaths overall, but three other countries have a worse per capita death rate, and if all the other countries were counting deaths as we are, it would likely be be more. Healthcare systems in Spain and in Italy have buckled or broken under under the strain; ours has not, as yet.

We could be doing, could have done, a whole lot better, thus far. I suspect, and it can only be a suspicion at this point, that a great deal of suffering and death will prove attributable to issues that were reasonably foreseeable and preventable even at the point where the outbreak was first identified, rather than those (and there will be many of these too) that only prescience could have averted.

We could also have done a whole lot worse. As I keep stressing, a true reckoning will be impossible until after the fact. But if you insist on making a judgement now, as many people do, then at least judge like against like, and admit all the evidence into consideration.

Just as the first kind of British exceptionalism is invariably tied in with a certain kind of right-wing thinking, so this other kind is tied in with a certain kind of left-wing attitude. It implies that we will be dreadful until the correct people are in charge.

Well, I dunno. I too want what I consider the “correct” people in charge – who doesn’t? – and that certainly isn’t the current shower of bluffers, bullshitters and malignant oddballs (although, again, if you think that rather than blundering and arse-covering, they are actively conspiring to, say, sacrifice the poor to “billionaires” – the scare quotes are because this word frequently implies more than it states – that in itself is a pretty crankish viewpoint.) It does our country some credit that its systems and structures have held up appreciably if far from perfectly after years of severe government mismanagement and underfunding.

Either you’re with the evidence or you’re not. Britain has many and varied faults. It is not, as yet, for the majority of its people, a catastrophically inadequate hellhole. Most people do not experience it as such, and if you tell them it is, they think you’re weird.

And I know I keep banging on about this, but if you are on the Left, and your attitude is that your country is shit, then the people who share your country but not your attitude, which is most of them, are really not going to be very inclined to trust you, or those you advocate, with the governing of it.

So no, this isn’t me joining the “Stop talking Britain down!” mob. Nor is it me proposing anyone move to the political centre. I haven’t, so why should I urge anybody else to? This is me saying, stop making the mirror-image error of those people you despise.