There is now the terrible possibility that Britain will even equal or surpass Italy and Spain as the European country suffering the most from the coronavirus pandemic. This tragedy has a political but also a biological epidemiology. Those looking to chart their course can remember a revealing moment – paradoxically when the government finally changed course and aligned itself with most other European countries.
On March 20, Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants. However, while doing so, he made it clear that this decision constituted a breach of national character.
“We are removing the old inalienable right of people born free from the UK to go to the pub,” he said. “And I can understand what people think about this. Lest his anxiety be questioned, he stressed the point: “To repeat, I know how difficult it is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people. “The message was – what exactly? You don’t have to go to the pub but your right to do so is “inalienable” (that is, absolute and irrevocable). You have to stay at home, but if you do, you will be a shame for your freedom-loving ancestors.
The Sun reported the Prime Minister’s words quite differently: “Mr. Johnson said he realized it was against what he called” the inalienable right of free birth of people born in England to go to the pub. ” In this version, the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not “the people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but “the people born in England”. It does not apply to the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the United Kingdom who were born abroad. It is a special Anglo-Saxon privilege.
And since we are on the ground of ridicule, the version of the Sun actually made more sense. There is, of course, no ancient and absolute right to go to pubs and public houses have been regulated in England at least since the 15th century. But what Johnson was really talking about was a very special sense of English exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.
This exceptionalism is not, alas, a simple rhetorical complacency. He helped shape the official policy for the Covid-19 crisis. It lies both behind the idea that there should be a separate British response to this global challenge, and the assumption that there was something particularly unnatural in expecting the British to obey to drastic restrictions. Its legacy is the globally discredited policy of “collective immunity” and the belated, squandering introduction of Britain’s lockdown.
The Prime Minister himself has long cultivated the idea that he is not content to marry this freedom-loving exceptionalism – he embodies it. At the beginning of the crisis, Johnson’s admirers could see it as his best hour, the moment when his Churchillian posture would become real and he would save his country. When the Prime Minister was hospitalized, his overworked friend and fan, Toby Young, confessed to the Spectator “a kind of mystical belief in the greatness of Great Britain and its ability to occasionally bring up remarkable individuals, who can serve at critical times. I always thought Boris was one of those people – not only did I suspect him, but I knew him in my bones. ”
Churchill’s impersonation of Johnson has always been a way of pretending that his own indiscipline is not just complacency, but the mark of a special (and idiosyncratically English) destiny. In his book, The Churchill Factor, he wrote about his idol: “There is a sense in which [Churchill’s] eccentricity and humor helped to express what Britain was fighting for – what it was all about. With his ridiculous hats and his rompers and his cigars and his excess of alcohol, he physically managed to represent the central idea of his own political philosophy: the inalienable right of the British people to live their life in freedom, to make his own thing. Guess who it was meant to remind contemporary readers?
Being drunk on freedom is one way for people to “do their own thing.” Another is to take a specific national approach to a global pandemic. The myth of a single, defining love of personal freedom as a badge of nationality underpinned a deep reluctance to impose vital restrictions on social movements and gatherings. Other people could accept this kind of thing, but not the English. On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed.
This innate genetic resistance to conformity is a myth. This is evidenced by the persistence of an equal and opposite cliché of English: the queue. George Orwell could sum up “soft, non-demonstrative, law-abiding English” and “the orderly behavior of English crowds, lack of pressure and quarrels, willingness to queue.”
Anthropologist Kate Fox wrote: “During the London riots in August 2011, I saw looters form an orderly queue to sneak one at a time through the broken window of a store that ‘They were pillaging.’ Order is just as important as distrust in the English self-image – suggesting that none of these truisms are old, inalienable, or really worth it when you make a policy in times of plague.
The exceptional “freedom-loving instinct” has little to do with history and much more with current politics, especially the politics of Brexit. Johnson described a 2014 book by architect-Brexiter Daniel Hannan titled How We Invented Freedom – “we” being the Anglo-Saxons, as “magnificent.” Hannan expressly adopted the idea of exceptionalism, the freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons being the exception in particular to European slavery. Brexit, as he argued, was an imperative of this dichotomy. Tragically, the idea that the UK could ignore the World Health Organization and do its own thing with the virus was another.
Covid-19, as Johnson himself discovered in the most horrible way, is no exception. The threat is universal. And the shield against it – the NHS – is cosmopolitan and global. There are 200 different nationalities represented in its ranks by 150,000 doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff. One consolation in this catastrophe is the realization that Great Britain has an exceptional chance of having them. – Guardian