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The end of English Exceptionalism?

May 9, 2020 1:37 PM

mmbv (Photo by Arthur Osipyan on Unsplash)The inevitable temptation during the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day to draw parallels between WW2 and the current battle against Coronavirus may be lazy journalism which appeals to our current Prime Minister who likes to imagine himself as the new Churchill but it also hints at a wider belief set of the Right in politics who push the view that England is somehow better or more effective when it operates alone. The worlds biggest empire, little ships at Dunkirk, the "Few" in the Battle of Britain, standing alone against the Nazis are all powerful symbols deployed to underpin this view

It is very much an English thing but has underpinned the Conservative Brexiteers and their media supporters through the long campaign to leave the EU. Sovereignty and the feeling Johnny Foreigner was taking advantage of us underpinned much of their rhetoric

As Liberal Democrats we always thought this world view was nonsense although its strong emotional appeal meant over Brexit we lost the argument

The advent of Coronavirus has seen this view of English exceptionalism tested and we would argue found wanting

At its outbreak we were assured our Health Service was the envy of the world, our virologists, clinicians , modellers were the best in the world. And yet despite having time to see what was happening in China and Italy and react accordingly ,we are now on course to have more cases and deaths from the virus than anywhere other than the United States and maybe Russia. The heavily redacted publishing of the scientific advice from SAGE suggests that the scientists may indeed be world class but if that is the case then clearly our politicians are not given the way they then acted on the advice

A Cabinet chosen on their enthusiasm for Brexit rather than competence and a belief Britain should plough its own path through the crises has seen us

* Initially follow a herd immunity strategy of allowing the disease to spread until it was realised this was likely to overwhelm our hospitals

* We were late to lock-down because it was assumed it would be impossible to get compliance

* Ignore a joint initiative from the EU to buy medical equipment

* Fail to meet testing targets way below what is achieved in Germany or South Korea

* Create our own initiative to build ventilators which led to lots of upbeat media coverage of Dyson and others who created ideas . None of these led to any new ventilators being built although fortunately the forecast numbers required turned out to be an over-estimate

* Buy PPE from Turkey at a time of great shortage which after embarrassing delays in delivery turned out to be unusable anyway

* Create our own track and trace app being trialled on the Isle of Wight rather than follow most European countries who plan to use a joint Apple/Google app which better protects personal privacy

* With the erosion of domestic manufacturing and the absence of any strong economic alliances we have found ourselves at the back of the queue for supplies. Even our special relationship with the US didn't stop Trump banning export of certain PPE at the peak of the crisis

We have paid a high price for our exceptionalism. Just maybe people will see that and rethink.


Our comparative failure to address the virus crisis alone was well illustrated this week as we joined with the EU in launching a joint programme to find a vaccine. Despite some politicians illusions we are not so different and in todays world working closely in partnership with like minded democracies makes great sense. This is not the time to completely turn our backs on a close relationship with the EU. Trusting President Trump to look after our back instead is a scary thought. At present he does not seem interested even in saving the lives of vulnerable Americans

In 1946 Churchill said "We must recreate the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe," Five years later, he was warning of the "disadvantages and even dangers to us in standing aloof" from a more united Europe. His pro - European views are well summarised in this article https://theconversation.com/what-churchill-really-thought-about-britains-place-in-europe-36613