Few would dispute that a sense of exceptionalism pervades much of British politics. This is most conspicuous on the right, of course, increasingly so over the last five years. Whereas a decade ago the twin pillars of the Conservative party were a slavish adherence to free market orthodoxy and unflinching commitment to a ‘rules based international order’, these have been replaced by chintzy nostalgia and the idea that Britain is unique, its people possessed of an unchanging national character.
The primary cause, and effect, of such rhetoric has been Brexit. This is a cause whose impetus, for some, was born of the humiliation that Britain was merely one European country among many. Whereas nations in the EU’s east and southern peripheries generally favour membership because it allows them to be ‘normal’ – understandable given member-status is synonymous with democratic government – it is precisely this impulse, of being like the rest, which revolts Brexit’s most zealous cheerleaders.
Emblematic of this was a speech by Boris Johnson made in February at Greenwich’s Old Naval College. There the prime minister spoke of Britain becoming the superman of free trade, explaining how such a commitment meant refusing to even join the customs union. Despite being a nation of 65 million people, with an economy that represents just 2% of global GDP, this outsized notion of Britain’s role in the world remains key in understanding its sense of self.
For any other failings as a politician, the prime minister knows his audience. This explains why when making announcements he defaults to claiming “world class” consequences. When he spoke of a coronavirus track and trace system in May, he boasted it would be “world beating”. A month later, when promising £1bn in extra funding for schools, Johnson said it would ensure “that every child gets a world class education”. In the weeks preceding last December’s general election, the Tories spoke of “world class public services”, “world class healthcare” and “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. Gone is the stereotype of British understatement – in its place is hubris and pseudo-euphoric puffery.
While such rhetoric shattered on impact with the coronavirus – not even Downing Street can spin 60,000 excess deaths as an accomplishment – such ersatz nostalgia is not the exclusive preserve of the right. Indeed in many ways the liberal centre, partially revivified by the campaign for a second referendum last year, is also prone to constructing similarly unhelpful myths. As with the Brexiteers, these myths are based on misreadings of the country’s history with little basis in fact. Most importantly, they provide no foundation for contemporary politics, offering little on climate change, the need for democratic reform, or an economic model which has failed to deliver rising living standards for more than a decade.
There are many expressions of the genre. One is the claim that Brexit Britain is no longer the open, tolerant country it once was – even though it operated detention camps in Malaya and Kenya, and dropped napalm on Greek partisans who helped defeat the Wehrmacht. Another is how Britain no longer stands for decency, democracy and the rule of law – despite the widely-documented fact it has removed and helped undermine numerous elected governments – from Iran’s Mossadegh to Cheddi Jagan in Guyana. Then there is the comforting self-deception about the country’s historic openness to refugees – here the Kindertransport is frequently gestured to as emblematic of British kindness. And yet it is rarely mentioned that this policy took place in the context of immense hostility from the media, while many of the parents of the 10,000 children permitted to enter the country were allowed to die in the worst genocide of the twentieth century. Given that the policy was only agreed after the targeted devastation of Kristalnacht in 1938, the numbers should have been far higher. Yet this tragic choice, with fatal consequences, is upheld as a moment of moral singularity.
This re-writing of Britain’s history – as a progressive power which only recently departed from its true nature – is even applied to the British Empire. The World Wars reflected modern Britain, we are told, with millions of Commonwealth soldiers fighting in both conflicts. Rarely mentioned is that these nations didn’t voluntarily choose to fight – indeed, the leading figures in India’s Congress party were imprisoned during WW2 including Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba (who died in detention in 1944 aged 74). Despite recent efforts at re-casting the role of South Asian and African soldiers as prefigurative of today’s multicultural Britain, India’s reward for gathering the largest volunteer army in history was a policy of enforced famine in Bengal that killed millions.
Furthermore, when many Commonwealth soldiers returned home, particularly in Africa, and proceeded to become involved in movements for national independence, they were frequently subject to war, internment and even torture. Observing the detention camps used against the Mau Mau in Kenya, Labour’s Barbara Castle noted their similarity to the concentration camps of the Third Reich – a point also made by Kenyan detainees who had fought against fascism. As The Observer wrote in 1956: “If we tolerate such practices in British territories, on what grounds do we criticise Russian prison camps?” It is almost unthinkable that a major British paper would pose a similar question today when it comes to the country’s double standards on issues like surveillance and the right to privacy.
For Brexiteers, Britain’s imperial past offers a level of technological and economic leadership which should once more be aspired to. Implausible as that may be, it remains more coherent than appealing to a mythical past where Britain was a sensible, liberal country that pursued progressive ends rather than the perceived national interest. Despite the fever dreams of the centrist punditocracy, such a place never existed. While they might accuse the right of a politics fuelled by nostalgia and exceptionalism, in this respect the two sides aren’t all that different.
And the supposed radicals who want constitutional reform and a re-balancing of power towards Britain’s working class? Despite the scurrilous attacks presenting them as relentless fanatics, they just want to be an ordinary country.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.