LONDON — As the coronavirus rips through Europe and the world, Britain’s response to the pandemic has shown it’s suffering from another dangerous disease: unshakeable belief in its own exceptionalism.
This is not a uniquely British illness, of course. Many countries put themselves at the center of the map and at the hub of history. But while the sickness causes sporadic bouts of chauvinism in others, the British seem to have a terminal case.
When that exceptionalism collides with a virus that knows no borders and steamrolls over the “keep calm and carry on” spirit, the results, as we’re seeing now, can be disastrous.
Britain’s belief that it’s unique — and the collective jingoistic conceit that the British are somehow inimitable — has plagued Britain since the time of Saint Bede the Venerable.
It was the Benedictine monk’s eighth-century “Ecclesiastical History of England” that first forged a narrative of a people united by common bond. But the real havoc was wreaked by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century scribe who wrote one of the maddest books in history.
As Britain limped into the 1970s, it increasingly resembled a jaded rock star — a once-great icon seeking contemporary relevance but forever obliged to fall back on old hits.
In 1136, as Norman England plunged into civil war, Geoffrey took out his quill and knocked off “The History of the Kings of Britain.” The work claimed that Britain had been founded by Brutus of Troy, a descendant of the Greek hero Aeneas, who had captured it from giants.
By 12th-century standards, it was a publishing sensation, with hundreds of copies finding their way into monastic libraries across Europe. It was also overtly political in intent, seeking to create a unifying origin story and a common destiny.
In reality, ancient Britain had been a backwater off the backroads of Europe, but by the time Geoffrey had filed his parchment, the story had been reshaped into a saga of an incomparable people doing phenomenal things.
Monmouth’s clerical contemporaries may have scoffed, but over the next 900 years his fake history became entrenched in mainstream consciousness.
Matters weren’t helped by topography. Island people are naturally suspicious. While the sea acts as a filter and a defense, it can also make islanders tend toward paranoia; they’re shaped by a lingering fear of the horizon, of what might come over it and what the people beyond it are plotting.
As England blinked into the Renaissance, its individualistic tendencies and distrust of other Europeans came of age. Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, and his successors engaged in a series of prolonged wars with the rest of the Continent.
Contemporary propagandists, including William Shakespeare, played up the distinctive and the extraordinary, setting the country apart from the rest of the region, despite our long and intertwined history. The “Sceptered Isle” as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt put it: “This precious stone set in a silver sea.”
In the ensuing centuries, as the empire expanded, so too did Britons’ sense of entitlement. But there was a problem. You can’t convincingly lay claim to world hegemony if you’re descended from a bunch of farmers speaking what is in effect a French-German creole.
So, the British pilfered from the Classical Age and pretended that English grammar and spelling were every bit as orderly as Latin. It was a grand deceit — and it worked. Many people still believe that narrative, and the accompanying idea that Britain and her people are somehow unique and special.
* * *
The half-serious conceit that God and heaven were English, pushed by poets and shored up by politicians, prevailed until long after World War I. But in the painful years following 1945, when Britain’s empire started to wane and America usurped its place in the world, much of that hubris was consigned to the attic. As the country limped into the 1970s, it increasingly resembled a jaded rock star — a once-great icon seeking contemporary relevance but forever obliged to fall back on old hits.
It could have been a turning point, the beginning of an era of humility — if not for the fact that the United Kingdom joined the European Union.
As the country benefited both economically and politically from membership of one of the world’s great trading blocs, fresh blood seeped back into its veins. But with renewed success came an unwelcome return of the old vanity.
Conservative voices began to complain that history wasn’t being taught properly and that Britain’s central role in world events was being overlooked.
In 2005, the think tank Civitas and the Daily Telegraph led a campaign to get an Edwardian era “history” book called “Our Island Story” back into print and, having done so, donated copies to school libraries.
The peculiar book, penned by eccentric Scottish-born author H.E. Marshall, perpetuated the myths first set out by Geoffrey of Monmouth and reinforced the “destiny” narrative of English history. Conservative voices queued up to sing its praises. And by 2010, then Education Secretary Michael Gove was saying he wanted it put back at the heart of the curriculum.
British exceptionalism’s most notable triumph was, of course, Brexit. The notion took root that the country had no need of Europeans, their pernicious “human rights acts” or their outstanding range of fine wines. We had once ruled the world and invented Marmite. They needed us more than we needed them.
The country had been held back by Brussels and would now reclaim its place among the Gods. With an ersatz Churchill — Prime Minister Boris Johnson — at the helm, the country would return to past glory.
* * *
The coronavirus takes a wrecking ball to that conceit — or rather it should.
The country’s initial response to pandemic was, unfortunately, yet another example of Britain’s belief in its own uniqueness and blind confidence in its ability to chart its own path.
Even as the coronavirus spread beyond China and the emergency accelerated, Britain’s political class seemed curiously unconcerned. They were obsessing, instead, about the important stuff: Would Big Ben be able to bong on the night that the U.K. left the EU, and when could we get our hands on those collectable Brexit 50 pence pieces?
On January 31, Brexit Day, Johnson gave a televised speech and recorded bells chimed out across Parliament Square. The news that the U.K. had registered its first two coronavirus cases went practically unnoticed. Johnson then took a two-week holiday in Kent.
Only when Britain breaks free from the chains of make-believe history will the recurring cycle of unwarranted superiority end.
When the prime minister finally made it back to the office, he declared people should go “about their business as usual” — a reflexive nod to the wartime notion of “keep calm and carry on” that was as devoid of sense as it was a reckless waste of precious time.
Outside Britain, his approach was already being condemned as “confused, dangerous and flippant,” but the government, unbothered, ploughed ahead with a uniquely British methodology based on “herd immunity.” A U-turn was only evinced when Imperial College researchers suggested it might claim 250,000 lives and overwhelm the NHS.
This was a global crisis that needed a global response, but Britain’s government, newly reacquainted with its sovereignty, seemed determined to go it alone. The U.K. neglected to join a combined EU ventilator scheme, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Britons to summon up their “Blitz spirit” and rise to the occasion, just as their forebears had done in two World Wars.
By late March, as the death toll mounted and Johnson was admitted into intensive care after catching the virus himself, news of events beyond these shores dried up. British exceptionalism had lulled the nation into believing that our circumstances were unique and that this was now our crisis and ours alone.
The truth, of course, is that Britain’s past is quite at odds with the myth. The country has never triumphed alone. In all recent major wars, we have won thanks to alliances and common endeavor.
Britain has no pre-ordained destiny. It did not spring fully formed from the primordial swamp either: It was forged by waves of migrants arriving here from the fifth century onward. The nation’s identity and all that is good within it comes from the fusion of languages, people, food and culture that followed.
Only when Britain breaks free from the chains of make-believe history will the recurring cycle of unwarranted superiority end. Tragically, the deceit runs so deep that it’s hard to imagine that such a day will ever come.