How a dangerous belief in British exceptionalism led the UK to ruin

At a moment of national crisis we are ruled by an unprincipled prime minister obsessed with slogans over substance.   

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Of Boris Johnson’s various announcements last week – his pledge to save Winston Churchill’s statue from a non-existent threat, his creation of yet another review of racial inequality as a substitute for action, his involuntary U-turn on free school meals courtesy of the football player Marcus Rashford, his widely criticised merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (Dfid) – I found one particularly nauseating: his plan to spend £900,000 painting the RAF plane that the prime minister and royal family use for official business red, white and blue.

It was not just the colossal waste of money at a time of economic crisis, or the utter irrelevance of the plan in the midst of a uniquely severe national health emergency. It was the tawdry jingoism, the faux-patriotism, the cynical use of the flag to exploit the people’s belief in “British exceptionalism”. 

It was that belief which Johnson and his fellow right-wing populists exploited to win the 2016 EU referendum. Freed of Brussels’ oppressive bureaucracy, our once-proud country would regain its greatness, they argued. Liberated from the EU’s stifling regulations we could “unleash the full potential of this brilliant country”, Johnson declared. 

Theresa May’s compromise withdrawal agreement was a “surrender act” that fell far short of taking back control. “We are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can do,” Johnson proclaimed after winning the contest to replace her as Conservative leader. “Like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”

So what happened when we pinged off the guy ropes? The tent collapsed. Britain’s economy stalled. Its global stature plummeted. It was plunged into bitter social strife. The union with Scotland was strained to breaking point. We may have got our blue passports back, but the country now faces the very real possibility of crashing out of the European single market without a trade agreement this December – piling chaos on chaos.

That same belief in British exceptionalism was responsible for the government’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic. As wiser countries – South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany – rushed to build their defences, the UK sat on its hands throughout January and February, thinking it knew better. “We are a great country. We have a fantastic NHS. We have fantastic doctors. People have every reason to be confident and calm,” Johnson assured us during a 12-day “working holiday” with his fiancée.

As a result we had a system capable of tracing the contacts of just five – five! – Covid-19 cases a day when the onslaught began in late February. We were still staging racing meetings and football matches while the rest of Europe locked down in early March. To save our grossly underfunded hospitals, we discharged untested patients into care homes full of the old and infirm. We had a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment for our health workers, but we still refused to join an EU procurement scheme.

Johnson subsequently promised to create a “world-beating” test-and-trace system by 1 June, but produced an all-too-predictable mess, with the UK’s home-grown mobile phone app deemed unworkable and subsequently abandoned. 

In two important respects, however, Britain is top of the league. We have the highest excess death rate of any country, and are forecast to suffer the worst economic recession in the developed world. How is it that we can look across the Atlantic and see how Donald Trump, far from making America great again, has reduced it to a laughing stock, yet not see how Johnson and his ilk have done the same to this country?

There was a time when a British prime minister might have stood up to Trump as he coddles dictators and undermines the multilateral institutions that have kept the peace since the Second World War. Or fought to reform the EU and mould it in our image instead of cutting and running. Or taken a lead on pressing global issues such as the climate crisis, or the search for peace in Syria and the wider Middle East. Or coordinated a worldwide response of Covid-19. Or, for that matter, retained Dfid as a highly effective means of projecting British influence.

Now we are almost an irrelevance, governed by a callow, unprincipled prime minister obsessed with slogans over substance, headline-grabbing gimmicks over grown-up policy, and pandering to his base rather than addressing the country’s real needs.

It will not happen, of course, but now would be a good time for less arrogance and a bit more humility. It would be a good moment for a revival of those virtues for which the British used to be celebrated – duty, self-effacement, modesty, understatement. The values, dare I say it, of a 94-year-old monarch who will now be forced to fly in the aerial equivalent of bling.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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