The British Exceptionalism Delusion

Sorry for the longest post in awhile. I don’t know when I’ll next be able to post again, so I thought I would give this one a good shot. 

Last year I wrote on American Exceptionalism, and why I believe it is wrong. While America has accomplished an exceptional amount, it is not inherently exceptional; being run by flawed human beings, it is just as prone to crisis as everywhere else. You can read the full article here,

America isn’t the only country that has a prominent exceptionalism myth. Britain does too, even if it isn’t often explicitly acknowledged. The British Empire, and the memory of it, has given the British the idea that our country is special. After all, if a small island with few natural resources can conquer a quarter of the world, it must be unique. More recently, Britain’s victories in both world wars lends to the idea that we are on the right side of history. Britain hasn’t suffered a full scale land invasion since 1066. This has given the nation a degree of overconfidence. We often assume that we are the best at everything, and we will accomplish anything we set out to do.

The popularity of exceptionalism has ebbed and flowed since the demise of the Empire. It reached a peak in WW2, where Britain faced a Nazi-occupied Europe and the formidable Wehrmacht. Following the war, it reached a low during the Suez Crisis, where we were humiliated by Nasser and the Egyptians. Exceptionalism peaked again following Britain’s victory in the Falklands War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, Britain (and America) bought into the ‘end of history’ myth, that ours was the greatest civilisation ever known, and with the fall of Communism, had no serious contenders. Then exceptionalism largely disappeared in the late 2000s, with the failures of the Iraq War becoming apparent, and the 2008 financial crash dealing a severe blow to Western capitalism’s defenders.

In early 2016, I believed that British exceptionalism was a thing of the past. There was no mood for foreign adventurism, even as Assad was committing horrible atrocities in Syria, and ISIS’s clout rapidly grew. Despite Britain’s relatively low unemployment and low inflation, wage stagnation and the effects of six years of government spending cuts (relative to GDP) had dampened popular confidence in Britain’s economy. The recession had exposed the country’s post-industrial economic weakness, with the former manufacturing towns and coal mining areas being hit hardest by both private and public sector contractions.

But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 has given the exceptionalism myth a new lease of life. Partly because the Leave campaign appropriated nationalistic rhetoric to enthuse voters of their cause. The idea of plucky Britain going it alone in the world resonated, particularly with elderly voters frustrated with the country’s relative decline. Free from adhering to foreign dictums and paying into the EU’s budget, the country would be free to set its own rules and finance British institutions properly, especially the NHS. For fiscally conservative voters, Brexit was a chance to break with the European social democratic model and complete the Thatcherite experiment; loosening regulations would give Britain the edge in negotiating its own free trade deals with countries like America and China.

Now it’s worth noting that British exceptionalism does not enjoy majority support, even if its salience has increased post-referendum. Many Leave voters remain cynical about politics, believing that the country’s future is glum, even if Brexit was the right thing to do. Some are critical of politics and politicians generally. Virtually no Remain voters regret their choice, and are critical of the government’s hubris and overconfidence in the Brexit negotiations. A large proportion of young people regard Brexit as the preserve of the elderly, who voted to restore a country that never existed and/or can’t be brought back. That isn’t entirely true, but it remains a popular perception regardless.

Nevertheless, there is an astonishing trend for many government ministers and some Leave voters to believe that nothing can go wrong. For the more extreme Brexiteers, Britain will be better off regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. We will have just as good access to the EU’s markets after Brexit as we do now, even if we crash out of the Single Market. We can enjoy the benefits of frictionless trade with the EU while being outside the customs union. We can reduce immigration without making the already severe labour shortages in heath and social care worse. Britain can negotiate far more comprehensive free trade deals with the rest of the world far quicker than the EU, despite not having the heft of 27 other economies and an experienced and well-funded civil service. And ‘taking back control’ can be accomplished while maintaining an open border with the EU, a la Ireland.

Of course, all of that is utterly delusional, much of it obviously so. Any neutral observer has to only look at Britain’s relatively poor GDP growth and high inflation to realise the country is in no position to be cavalier. As the larger body, the EU holds the upper hand in the negotiations. Of course, disaster hasn’t struck, but the main threat is long-term demise, not any sudden crash. The EU has repeatedly made it plain it won’t offer the ‘bespoke’ deal our government wants. Most importantly, the ‘economic competitiveness’ the Eurosceptic Tory Right believes is necessary for a successful post-Brexit Britain does not enjoy majority support, both in Parliament and amongst the public. Many of the Leave elite believe Britain must be much more free market orientated to take advantage of Brexit. They accept that leaving the EU while adhering to EU-equivalent regulations and social welfare provision is futile. But after eight years of cuts, hostility to further economic liberalisation is great, so it won’t happen.

As a Brit, I want the country to have a bright future regardless of the choices of its politicians or its people. But at the moment, I simply can’t buy into any notions of British exceptionalism. Like it or not, the more Britain differs from the EU, the less we will be able to trade with them. I don’t believe our ability to negotiate our own trade deals is high, certainly no higher than the EU’s. The EU will offer us a deal that makes us worse off. And Britain will accept it, because the government has realised the consequences of ‘no deal’ means Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. British exceptionalism has done us a disservice in the past. There is every chance it will fail us yet again.