There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has been hard on all aspects of society, not least of all the UK Government’s approval ratings as it has lurched from one crisis to another, many a product of its own making. Then, during the Prime Minister’s address on Tuesday, viewers saw Boris Johnson attempt to emulate Churchill when he said,
“Never before in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour.”
Although his address lacked the comedic traits we normally associate with this Prime Minister, it largely demonstrated a more serious-minded tone, but this one addition was arguably a stretch for his otherwise oafish self. In reality, it was a manifestation of an ailment that pervades the British establishment, namely British Exceptionalism. Reliant on stimulation of memories and legends of WW2 successes that fuel notions of superiority, it’s a technique that has an ever-decreasing demographic followership. National pride is one thing, but in a crisis that has allowed direct comparison between Number 10’s weak performance with that of the devolved governments, it was a predictable route for the Tory party to take in the absence of any other real credibility. In fact, Churchill’s original comment was made at a decisive time to reflect the RAF’s aerial Battle of Britain, but in reality, Boris was more reminiscent of the retreat from Dunkirk.
For those in Northern Ireland that identify as ‘persuadables’, they must have cringed in horror as Boris tried to slope ownership of his failures onto anyone other than himself and his Cabinet. For the more unionist-minded folk out there, Boris’ lamenting a bygone era calling for unity is not just a reminder of how one-sided unionism has been of late, with concession after concession seeing Northern Ireland traded between England and the EU/Ireland as a communal and disposable play-thing (I’ve of course just corrected the First Minister’s original statement to reflect reality). Indeed, it has highlighted just how British Exceptionalism has been used to regulate unionist mindset over the years. It is very simply, a perceived Unique Selling Point (USP) that keeps Brits coming back for more, but the collective memory of greatness is fading. Since WW2, the UK’s deeds of brilliance have been somewhat scanter, failing to give birth to any new mythology. The current Defence Secretary Ben Wallace didn’t read his brief when he single handedly put both the Iraq and Afghan wars out of that reach by branding them ‘illegal’, despite that never actually being done by the judiciary. Margaret Thatcher’s rebate in the 1980s was probably the last meaningful thing that London can cling to, but there’s only so much emotion you can draw out of a getting a refund…
That said, the UK has been exceptional on occasion, namely the establishment of common law, its historical sea-faring prowess and industrial revolution to name a few. However, one can’t help but notice that as of late, it’s been somewhat scant on the generation of legends to reinforce its exceptionalist narrative to the point where for many in the devolved nations, it’s become a bit of a ‘catfish’. It’s no surprise then, that the realities of the system of government that has centralised power and wealth in England for centuries (even to the detriment of their own people in the north) paired with an absence of any real achievement since the 1940s, has contributed to the British Exceptionalism ‘glue’ that once held the UK together, beginning to weaken. Contrary to the Spectator’s call to arms, Churchillian invocations alone won’t save this government now, and it certainly won’t preserve a union of nations that finds this Prime Minister so woefully unexceptional that three out of four withheld consent to his Brexit plans in January.
Maybe just good old-fashioned competency would do the trick?