If you’re trying to coax a country into doing something it may not want to do, it often makes sense to talk about national identity. It’s seductive (not for nothing do some 21 per cent of Brits still read their horoscopes, hoping for someone to tell them who they are and what they want), an opportunity for flattery (you’re so stoical and courageous), and a great coercive tool (but you love putting up with unpleasant things – you can show off your national stoicism and courage!)
British governments were once very good at wielding this tool. During the wars of the 19th century it became useful to persuade the British that they were frugal and had stiff upper lips, the better to encourage them through privations and into the thick of battle. It was highly effective – a whole nation was united around the idea it was good at living on semolina and dying of dysentery without a murmur of complaint.
There was no reason not to continue and ramp up this propaganda campaign throughout the 20th century. The resulting idea – that Britons keep calm and carry on – grew so potent that it is still lodged deep in the psyche of those who only encountered the Second World War through childhood films and stories from their parents. Give us back the Blitz, is their subconscious refrain, and we’ll show you what we’re really made of.
Of course, it’s all a fantasy. There’s no evidence that the people of Britain are more resilient than those living in other nations. In fact, there’s no evidence the various personality traits found in different countries have any link to their so-called “national character” at all – efficiency is not encoded in the German genome any more than stubbornness is encoded in the planetary alignment of a Capricorn.
Odd, then, that this UK government seems to have got things the wrong way round. Rather than try to use national identity for the powerful political instrument it is – finding a fiction to meet the needs of the times – it seems to have started with the wrong fiction and worked backwards: namely, that the Brits are a “freedom-loving” people who would unfortunately resist much-needed pandemic measures.
“There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country… It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary,” Boris Johnson said in the House of Commons in September, rather haplessly. Then, in November, it was Matt Hancock’s turn to make a pronouncement about how unhelpful the national character was to the national effort. As a type, he said, the British are “peculiarly unusual” because we go to work when unwell (even though – please guys – you really, really shouldn’t this time).
As the journalist Ed West laid out in a recent article, the government’s starting position – the freedom-loving Brit – has spent the past year being thoroughly debunked. The government feared to lock down hard and early because it thought people simply would not stand for it. Instead, the public were compliant – in fact, the stricter the measures, the higher the Prime Minister’s personal approval ratings. There is currently public support for continued social distancing into the autumn, and even for a ten-year jail sentence for incoming travellers lying about their country of departure. One survey showed a majority approve of vaccine passports being used in hospitality, social gatherings and returning to the office.
How did our leaders get it so wrong? How did they look at a nation of queue-enforcing shopkeepers and see millions of potential Mel Gibsons? Having swept to power on a particular idea of Britishness, associating the Brexit project with a vision of “liberation” for the UK, did they forget it wasn’t based in reality – and that they had the power to change it if they wished?
True, we are not the only country to make this sort of mistake. The Swedish government, committed to the idea that its people were too “grown-up” for a proper lockdown, came to regret it when their death rate far outstripped those of their neighbours. And watching Australians fight over loo roll, the veteran news anchor Chris Kenny was shocked to see his country had lost its “famed ‘she’ll be right’ attitude”.
But for Britain, like Sweden, the wrong narrative has come at great cost – its legacy in the UK is the disastrous initial policy of herd immunity and a delayed lockdown that led to many more deaths. National fantasies can be useful but they can also be very damaging. The truth – in a pandemic and in general – is that Brits are just like anyone else.