Fintan O’Toole: Coronavirus has exposed the myth of British exceptionalism
Johnson’s first response was at odds with rest of world but virus does not respect his delusions of national character
There is now the terrible possibility that Britain may match or even overtake Italy and Spain as the country in Europe that suffers most from the coronavirus pandemic Photograph: Peter Morrison/Getty Images.
There is now the terrible possibility that Britain may match or even overtake Italy and Spain as the country in Europe that suffers most from the coronavirus pandemic. This tragedy has a political, as well as a biological, epidemiology. Those seeking to trace its path may look back on a telling moment – paradoxically the one at which the government finally changed course and fell into line with most of the rest of Europe.
On March 20th, Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants. Even as he did so, however, he made it clear that this decision was an assault on the national character.
“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,” he said. “And I can understand how people feel about that.” Lest his anguish be in any doubt, he underscored the point: “To repeat, I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.” The message was – what exactly? You must not go to the pub but your right to do so is “inalienable” (which is to say absolute and irrevocable). You must stay at home but, if you so do, you will be a disgrace to your freedom-loving ancestors.
The Sun reported the prime minister’s remarks rather differently: “Mr Johnson said he realised it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’.” In this version, the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.
And since we are in the terrain of the ludicrous, the Sun’s version actually made more sense. There is, of course, no ancient and absolute right to go to the pub – inns and public houses have been regulated in England at least since the 15th century. But what Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.
That exceptionalism is not, alas, mere rhetorical self-indulgence. It helped to shape official policy towards the Covid-19 crisis. It lies behind both the idea that there should be a distinctive British response to this global challenge, and the assumption that there was something peculiarly unnatural in expecting Brits to obey drastic restrictions. Its legacy is the globally discredited policy of “herd immunity” and the late introduction, squandering Britain’s head start, of the lockdown.
The prime minister himself has long cultivated the notion that he does not just espouse this freedom-loving exceptionalism – he embodies it. In the early stages of the crisis, Johnson’s admirers could see it as his Finest Hour, the moment when his Churchillian posturing would become real and he would save his country. When the prime minister was hospitalised, his overwrought friend and fan Toby Young confessed in the Spectator to “a kind of mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals, who can serve her at critical junctures. I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people – not just suspected it, but known it in my bones.”
Johnson’s Churchill impersonation has always been a way of claiming that his own waywardness is not mere self-indulgence but the mark of a special (and idiosyncratically English) destiny. In his book, The Churchill Factor, he wrote of his idol: “There is a sense in which [Churchill’s] eccentricity and humour helped to express what Britain was fighting for – what it was all about. With his ludicrous hats and rompers and cigars and excess alcohol, he contrived physically to represent the central idea of his own political philosophy: the inalienable right of British people to live their lives in freedom, to do their own thing.” Guess who this was meant to bring to mind for contemporary readers?
Being drunk on freedom is one way for the chosen people to “do their own thing”. Adopting a distinctive national approach to a global pandemic is another. The myth of a unique and defining love of personal freedom as a badge of nationhood underpinned a profound reluctance to impose life-saving restrictions on movement and social gatherings. Other people might put up with that sort of thing, but not the English. On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed.
This innate, genetic resistance to conformity is a myth. This is obvious from the persistence of an equal and opposite cliche of Englishness: the queue. George Orwell could rhapsodise “the gentle-mannered, undemonstrative, law-abiding English” and “the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues”.
The anthropologist Kate Fox wrote: “During the London riots in August 2011, I witnessed looters forming an orderly queue to squeeze, one at a time, through the smashed window of a shop they were looting.” Orderliness is just as prominent as waywardness in the English self-image – which suggests that neither of these truisms is ancient, inalienable or worth a damn when you are making policy in a time of plague.
The exceptionalist “freedom-loving instinct” has little to do with history and much more to do with current politics, specifically the politics of Brexit. Johnson described as “magnificent” a 2014 book by the arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan called How We Invented Freedom – “we” being the Anglo-Saxons. Hannan expressly reclaimed the idea of exceptionalism, the freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons being the exception especially to European slavishness. Brexit, as he argued, was one imperative of this dichotomy. Tragically, a notion that the UK could ignore the World Health Organisation and do its own thing with the virus was another.
Covid-19, as Johnson himself discovered in the most awful way, doesn’t make exceptions. The threat is universal. And the shield against it – the NHS – is cosmopolitan and global. There are 200 different nationalities represented in its ranks by 150,000 doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. One consolation in this disaster is the realisation that Britain is exceptionally lucky to have them. – Guardian