A day did not go by on social media in 2021 without some high-profile performative outrage about Boris Johnson and the hell hole he has bequeathed us. Britain is a ‘banana republic’ apparently. We live in a ‘tinpot dictatorship’ and are an ‘international embarrassment’. This sort of thing is most often touted by talk radio hosts, former Labour spin doctors, actors and anyone who’s ever appeared on Live At The Apollo. The consequences of this language, both for the health of the nation and for those wishing for some especially humiliating deposition in Number Ten, is that it achieves nothing. It merely legitimises the idea of reverse exceptionalism: that Britain’s historic mission is to be irredeemably awful.
There is a clear distinction between justified criticism of the government – sometimes on issues of life and death – and the assumption that Britain is a basket case doomed to deserved decline. This fatalism is poor politics, ceding this ground to opponents who need no encouragement to weaponise patriotism.
Keir Starmer does appear to get this. It’s too early to say whether putting a union jack behind a desk will make any difference, but he is rightly suspicious of the immature posturing that characterises so much anti-government sentiment among public figures, particularly on Twitter.
Starmer’s stance was initially a reaction against the ‘Anyone but the West’ brigade of his predecessor, for whom the UK would always come a poor second to whatever teenage crush on Syria/Iran/Venezuela/Russia/China happened to be doing the rounds (see Richard Burgon’s textbook attack on the US and UK during a recent LBC radio debate about China).
Now Starmer has a more damaging Britain-bashing lobby to confront, namely a bloc of the media-class who have conflated their distaste for the government with distaste for what they see as a nation too stupid and blind to see the world as they do. Reverse exceptionalism is snobbery bequeathed by Brexit, disguising a tut at the lower orders with purported moral righteousness. ‘I don’t like Tories’ has been replaced with ‘I don’t like Britain because some British people voted for the Tories’. It’s not exactly visionary.
Old fashioned British/English exceptionalism certainly exists (fetishising the Second World War, for example) and is exploited in all sorts of crass and phoney ways. There is a joke at the expense of Bunterish Tory MPs that asks dissenting voices in the style of a Daily Mail headline, ‘Why do you hate Britain so much?’ It’s a good joke because it’s ironic aim is true, but there is a perverse literal truth to it as well. Talking down Britain has effects beyond warranted criticism of our elites. National self-loathing has become a rhetorical default-setting for much of the liberal centre-left, which exposes all those who oppose the government to claims of incurable pessimism. I argue this as somewhat of a reformed character myself. It’s much easier to channel righteous anger at an indefinable sense of national decay than it is to focus on what needs to be done and how to do it.
It helps that Emmanuel Macron shares this disdain, since the French are always considered inherently superior to the English by English metropolitans. Everybody knows there are absolutely no problems at all with the economy, race relations, welfare, Covid response or national identity in France. You could throw a dart at a map of Europe and most likely hit a country that had messed up something worse than the UK. And that’s just the other democracies.
The lazy assumption that Britain is a Mad Max bin fire is not a coherent way to understand our problems or how we fix them. The Chicken Licken posture is also historically illiterate. How can anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge believe that Britain’s particular problems make it an inherently worse place to live now than it was in the past? Each age presents its own challenges, so the notion that Britain’s manifest destiny is to be the Cursed Earth doesn’t really get anyone anywhere, least of all the liberal left. OK, Britain may not be Norway, but then not even Sweden is Norway.
What the last few weeks have shown is that even an extremely powerful Prime Minister is not the Roman god emperor his enemies would have us believe. The press did hold Johnson to account with devastating consequences. The government may try to introduce legislation to crimp the power of judges, but they may also fail and they can be voted out and replaced by another which would do the opposite. So many public figures continually confuse the back and forth of British politics with some inexorable slide into dictatorship on the basis that they themselves didn’t vote for the bloke in Downing Street.
Liberal rhetoric is too defeatist and that is one of primary reasons for their continual defeat. Why do you hate Britain so much? Perhaps we need a new narrative, something like ‘Things can only get better’. OK, maybe not that one.
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