When news broke that a coronavirus vaccine was being developed at the University of Oxford, most people living in the United Kingdom probably began dreaming of family reunions, holidays abroad and a return to normal life. Not so for those inside Downing Street’s “Union unit”, a special group assembled to combat the rise of Scottish independence brewing in the north. This band of bolshy Brits couldn’t help but think of national pride.
As first reported by the Huffington Post, a formal request had been made that every injection kit rolled out from Oxford bear the Union Jack flag. This was ultimately rejected. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that there was no intention to carry out this display of overt jingoism. But that such a scheme was thought up, let alone tabled, speaks volumes of this island nation’s response to a global pandemic.
On 3 March, Johnson boasted of shaking hands “with everybody” at a hospital where there were confirmed coronavirus patients. This occurred hours after scientists had urged him to caution citizens against any unnecessary physical contact. He had already skipped five emergency meetings with his cabinet that would have actioned plans for the coming catastrophe, remaining aloof as ordinary Brits began to stockpile on essential grocery items. Rather than listen to experts, the man who has styled himself as the scruffy incarnate of Winston Churchill would stand up to the virus with the same single-minded confidence his hero demonstrated when standing up to Adolf Hitler.
“In the great tapestry of myths informing Britain’s view of its past, none is so richly embroidered as the defeat in 1945 of Nazi Germany,” wrote Philip Stephens in the Financial Times. The fumes of that victory continue to fuel British exceptionalism. It was a driving force behind the Brexit referendum vote and continues to foster a narrative that what is good for the continent, indeed the world, is not necessarily good for the United Kingdom.
“This mindset permeates throughout our society,” says Femi Oluwole, a political commentator and outspoken critic of the government and right-wing groups. “Our history classes are just a list of British achievements. And every story is a story where we are either the hero, we invented something or everyone else is the villain. That is how we learn history. That was the case with World War I, World War II, the history of medicine and the history of the industrial revolution. There’s nothing on how the large part of our economic superiority came from the enslavement and murder of people who we now see as our inferiors.”
Even as Italian hospitals were overrun, Johnson stood firm. Even as all signs pointed to imminent disaster, a stiff upper lip, rather than social distancing, was encouraged. Britain had survived the Blitz and by god it would survive this new enemy, seemed to be the Johnson administration’s mantra.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the virus is not guided by ideology. It does not come screaming over the horizon in the shape of German bombers. It is an unthinking menace and cannot be beaten by willpower alone. The prime minister had already ploughed too far down the path to change tact.
“You can only act like that if you genuinely believe you’re superior,” Oluwole says. “This comes from the idea that other countries are snowflakes and weaker than us. We’ve spent the last four years with the narrative that 27 other countries in Europe need us more than we need them. If you believe that, even knowing that Germany has a larger economy than us, you have to believe that British people are inherently better than people from other countries.”
On 16 March, Johnson finally told the House of Commons that “unnecessary social contact” should be avoided, but said not a word about the government’s position on a lockdown and what it might look like. Official Covid-19 regulations would come on 23 March, 54 days after the first case was reported in the country, when Johnson admitted in a televised address that the “coronavirus is the biggest threat this county has faced for decades, and this country is not alone”.
Unsurprisingly, given all those boisterous hand shakes, Johnson tested positive for Covid-19 on 27 March. There was hope that his own personal struggle with the illness would perhaps recalibrate his thinking. A month later, he proved that little had shifted.
On 27 April, in his first podium speech since leaving intensive care, Johnson described the coronavirus as “an unexpected and invisible mugger”. This language mirrored his earlier combative talk when he likened the crisis to a “fight… in which every one of us is directly enlisted”. He rallied his compatriots to “wrestle [the virus] to the floor”, as if the path to salvation was paved with the same ethos that saw a minuscule spit of land in the North Sea once control a global empire.
“The average person who subscribes to British exceptionalism clings to the wars as part of their identity,” Oluwole says. “It cuts across class. As an example, one of the things with Brexit is it united the upper class and working class on that common ground.
“Upper class people generally feel expectational anyway. The working class have been stepped on by the upper class so much that the only thing they have left to feel proud of is that sense of ‘We are British, this is who we are’, because everything has been taken from them. That is a weird marriage. It’s an abusive marriage between the elites who push that narrative and the average person who is attracted to it.”
This blind loyalty acts as a shield to the truth. Johnson and his acolytes have regularly trumpeted the claim that his government’s response to the pandemic has been “world beating” despite evidence to the contrary.
Lies, ineptitude and double standards
In March, Johnson toyed with the idea of “herd immunity” – allowing people to get sick and develop resistance to the disease – before refusing to acknowledge he had done so. Then, in April, health secretary Matt Hancock set a target of 100 000 tests a day, a target that was claimed to have been achieved. When this was exposed as a lie, the government quietly reported that it was overstating its figures.
The ineptitude continued. Also in April, the government crowed about the procurement of “world-beating” personal protective equipment (PPE) for under-resourced National Health Service (NHS) workers, including 400 000 gowns from Turkey. After a delay in arrival, it later turned out that many of the gowns were faulty and that figures were bolstered by counting a pair of gloves as two items. To address the shortfall, the government also funnelled large amounts of taxpayers’ money to companies with no track record of producing PPE.
A “world-beating” test and trace system costing nearly £12 million proved ineffective. Death statistics remained inaccurate as the loss of life in care homes was not included in initial figures. Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings was embroiled in scandal when he was caught in blatant breach of lockdown restrictions, emphasising the perception that there were different rules for those with their hands on the levers of power. And, at the time of publication, over 62 000 UK citizens had died from the virus, more than any other country in Europe.
The term “world beating” is at the heart of the UK government’s failings. Why is it important for vaccines or PPE rollouts to be described in this way? The “world”, encompassing 194 other sovereign states, is not responsible for this mess. The world doesn’t need beating.
Back in February, Johnson was adamant that the virus would not affect the global economy. In fact, he argued, the UK would emerge better for it. While waxing lyrical on a potential trade deal with the European Union – one that has yet to be reached just weeks away from the official start of Brexit – the prime minister was harrumphing in typically bullish fashion:
“Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange. Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with his cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
This is how Johnson views his country. Not as a member of a global village but as a superhero from a comic book. A force to enact change, not one that is changed by external forces.
Of course, the UK is not alone in this regard. Exceptionalism is ubiquitous in politics. Leaders who appear weak very rarely get elected to office. However, if Johnson insists that his country is exceptional then we must judge his actions in isolation. There is no question. His response to the coronavirus has been a disaster.