"Johnson’s reluctance to deny us our inalienable right to attend the pub and Hancock’s suggestion that we should summon our ‘Blitz spirit’ prove our government would rather base its politics on a cosy historical narrative."THE TELEGRAPH/YOUTUBE

The delusion that we, the English, have a unique ability conferred at birth to deal with the vagaries and vicissitudes of existence has thwarted our attempts to deal with Covid-19 as successfully as Germany, New Zealand, or indeed Greece and Portugal. As we embrace the new linguistic repertoire, it is perhaps apposite in these ‘unprecedented times’ to accept the harsh reality that the ‘new normal’ means our mythologised combination of island status, imperial past and blitz-spirit chutzpah does not make us the exception – or indeed so different that we can ‘take it on the chin’, as our Prime Minister discovered to his obvious chagrin. Surely our disastrous position as runner up in the global league table of coronavirus fatalities should be taken as an opportunity to retire once and for all the hubris that has plagued our culture for centuries.

"For years, England desired to be the outlier from Europe; unfortunately this has transpired into a record number of deaths. "

Like many aspects of our culture, exceptionalism is in part a result of our country’s history and topography. We’ve experienced war, uprisings and instability, but never the border-redefining experiences that some of our European neighbours have endured. The protective body of water surrounding us has instilled in our national psyche the idea that we will not face the same external threats as other Western countries. This island mentality might have brought us success against Napoleon and reduced our vulnerability to foreign invasion, but separating ourselves from ‘the Continent’ in a period that requires international cooperation shows national vanity on a scale comparable only with the United States. For years, England desired to be the outlier from Europe; unfortunately this has transpired into a record number of deaths.  

Exceptionalism is not uniquely English, even if we have made it our national sport, inducing the rest of the world to stop, gape, then look away, embarrassed by our blatant self-delusion. Many other countries suffer periodical outbursts of self-defined superiority, but in England, meaningless mottos have trumped scientific substance. We must stop the spread of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mantra. Squashing the sombrero of self-love won’t suffice. It’s time for a full lockdown of our national foible. The necessary rehab will be arduous and uncomfortable, but ultimately cathartic. 

As a nation, we indulge ourselves with television documentaries about our rich and glorious history, in which David Starkey makes fusty claims about Henry VIII being ‘the first Eurosceptic’(in his ‘Henry VIII: The First Brexiteer’ lecture) after his sexual incontinence-motivated fallout  with the Catholic church in the 16thcentury. The U.K. version of the History Channel mainlines Winston worship into our homes, laced with an implicit suggestion that, with Churchill’s oratory ringing in our ears, we single-handedly defeated Germany in two World Wars, a narrative any historian knows to be inaccurate. In some areas, we have weaned ourselves from exceptionalism’s teat. Calls to decolonise  university curriculums have been given some airtime and received some response, albeit limited. Nevertheless, with more of us knowing every word to ‘Rule Britannia’ at school, but largely ignorant of Boer concentration camps, India’s partitioning, or the Mau Mau uprising, there is still vast scope for improvement. 

  "[...] our government would rather base its politics on a cosy historical narrative than confront the terrifying seriousness of a pandemic."

Our failure to confront our own history – warts and all – shields us from the consequences of our past inactions and indiscretions, leading to insouciance about our future challenges. No country or leader can afford to greet the threat of a pandemic with blasé exceptionalism, yet Boris Johnson’s boast that he was ‘shaking hands with everybody’ on a coronavirus ward on the day his scientific advisers warned us to do it with no-one, and his absence at five vital Cobra meetings, epitomise the contempt for expertise that has infested the upper echelons of British politics for generations. 

British bluster and a faith in Anglo-Saxon privilege have become a trope, trickling down from our establishment to infect our wider national psyche resulting in a superiority complex visible as much in jumped-up Parliamentarian reservists as in our self-appointed right to demand to be spoken in English to at foreign holiday resorts. Johnson’s reluctance to deny us our inalienable right to attend the pub and Hancock’s suggestion that we should summon our ‘Blitz spirit’ prove our government would rather base its politics on a cosy historical narrative than confront the terrifying seriousness of a pandemic. 

England must now face up to the reality that its limping, stumbling passage from post-colonialist arrogance to the isolationism of Brexit in a globalised twenty-first century world exposes psychological and physical weaknesses. The underlying chauvinism evident in the assumption that Brussels would roll over simply to accommodate British interests exemplifies how English exceptionalism stymies political crisis management.

As a History student of English, German and Irish heritage growing up in Cornwall, I’ve never quite been able to connect with the jingoistic veneration of Britain that seems more common in England than in most parts of our increasingly disunited kingdom. My family, many of whom live elsewhere in Europe, have found their neighbours have more respect for their governments than many of us do for ours, but they do not assume their leaders will navigate them to safety from storms simply by virtue of being German, Spanish, Swiss or French.

 


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If anything good is to be salvaged from this pandemic it will be the end of English exceptionalism. Our initial pursuit of herd immunity and the government’s decision not to take up the offer of EU schemes to purchase PPE and ventilators  signified the end of a disastrous and dangerous belief that England has a predefined destiny guaranteeing success through struggle. It will take decades to recover from all aspects of the pandemic - the loss of life first and foremost. We must  recognise the scale of evidence that our national talent for hubristic self-delusion has repeatedly made bad situations worse and – without exception – that we need to recover from this cultural disease faster and more fully than we realise or know.

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