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Thu 29 October 2020
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With one of the highest Coronavirus death rates in the world, the UK has proven itself to be exceptional. But its problems go beyond shallow notions of complacency and are rooted in deep-seated structural and cultural oppression, writes Hardeep Matharu

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Announcing that face coverings will become compulsory on public transport in England later this month, Grant Shapps yesterday reassured the public that the measure was not a draconian one but the Government “doing what many other countries have asked transport users to do” to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus. 

While masks in public were made compulsory in more than 50 countries around the world – including Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Pakistan and Argentina – the UK Government debated and waited and it is unclear why. Shapps said that “the evidence suggests that wearing face coverings offers some, albeit limited, protection against the spread of the virus”, acknowledging that – up until now – the Government has been willing to put its libertarian instincts above the risk to life. 

For all the talk of ‘we’ve followed the science at every step’, the UK Government is now doing what many other countries cottoned on to much earlier. Why the delay? 

It is a question at the heart of the UK Government’s entire approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Coronavirus was spreading through the country in February and March – when horses raced, people danced at concerts and bars and restaurants carried on as normal – the Prime Minister was telling the public to wash their hands and sing Happy Birthday, while also declaring that he was shaking hands with those who had the disease. People continued to pack out the Underground in London, the country’s virus epicentre. It was only on 23 March that England went into lockdown – seven weeks after a curious speech by the Prime Minister discussing post-Brexit trade. 

In it, he proclaimed that “when there is a risk that new diseases such as Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.” He suggested that the UK would be the country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion”.

Speaking to Channel 4’s Dispatches this week, former Conservative MP Dr Phillip Lee said: “Listen to that Clark Kent and Superman speech, it is this ‘Britain’s going to be different’, it is that sort of English exceptionalism BS… no, an infectious disease is an infectious disease.”

Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government’s approach seems to have been characterised by an exceptionalism – an approach reflected in the catastrophic cost to human life. Along with the US, it has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world. On 3 May, there were more COVID-19 related deaths in the UK (359) with a population of 66 million, than in all of the EU (314) with a population of 446 million.

Despite the urgent need to look reality in the eye, leaders in Westminster have carried on with a delusional belief that this country is unlike any other in the world and that its people have unique capabilities to ride out any storm – even a deadly virus which cannot be tackled with nationalist, populist propaganda, talk of war and Empire, and a derision of facts and prioritising of instinct, of which Johnson and his Brexiter MPs are so beloved.

Not content with a late lockdown, the Government has now decided to ease social distancing measures even though the rate of transmission of the disease is still close to one. With mass testing inexplicably abandoned early on, a national ‘track and trace’ system will not be in place until the end of this month. And deep questions remain about the time lost to following a dangerous ‘herd immunity’ plan – one which Johnson told the Italian Prime Minister in mid-March was his aim, it has this week emerged.


As the UK’s COVID-19 death rate has climbed, others looking on from abroad have spotted this English complacency, elitism and myopia, even if those living here cannot see it themselves.

“Complacent exceptionalism” and the notion that “what was happening in Asia wouldn’t hurt us” was a factor in why the UK didn’t respond quickly enough, New Zealand epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told a Byline Times event last month. Former WHO director Professor Anthony Costello agreed and said that the UK Government had suffered from “hubris” and failed to get a grip on the deadly disease because it believed it was “untouchable”.

In an article titled ‘Biggest Failure in a Generation’: Where Did Britain Go Wrong?’ in the Sydney Morning Herald, former Australian High Commissioner to Britain Mike Rann said of the UK’s COVID-19 response that “the earliest stages were handled negligently. A shambles of mixed messaging, poor organisation and a complacent attitude that what was happening in Italy wouldn’t happen here”.

For Antonello Guerrera, UK correspondent for Italy’s La Repubblica, “the way the world is looking at the UK is not the way the UK is looking at itself. Despite becoming the worst-hit country in Europe, Boris Johnson is enjoying the peak of his popularity curve… When a lockdown was eventually enforced in the UK, many Italians I spoke to couldn’t understand why we in Britain were allowed to jog, go for a walk or simply leave home without showing papers to the police. ‘You’re nuts, just stay home!’ has been a fairly frequent reaction”.

On the Dominic Cummings scandal, De Volkskrant in the Netherlands noted that comparisons had been made “to George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which the farm animals notice one morning that the pigs have secretly changed the rules, only to be told that the rules have always been the case. For Britons who sacrificed themselves during the lockdown… Cummings’ acting felt like a stab in the back”.

Meanwhile, Gulf News noted that “Boris is standing by his man. The old school tie means more than the odd tirades of those unschooled in the excesses of elitism and exceptionalism. Britannia rules and waves and waives the rules to suit – a pandemic is no place for polemics nor the politics of decency, after all”.


The problem is it’s not just a case of English exceptionalism; an act of mere attention-seeking or an exercise in rebellion. 

It is an exceptionalism of an elite which claims it is anti-elite. It is a reflection of an imperialist belief system, rooted in our institutions and culture, which has found a renaissance in Brexit Britain – a place where imagined myths of the past flourish and divisive structural distinctions based on class and race remain entrenched. In which an Eton and Oxford-educated former journalist who was sacked as a reporter for making up lies and has referred to minorities as “letterboxes” and “piccaninnies” nevertheless exudes an air of pomp and privileged confidence; an entitlement which in the eyes of many makes him fit to rule.

“The power that these people have is in their inherent belief in the [assumed] stupidity of the British public,” Shahmir Sanni has observed. “There is so much inherent trust in this country for the white Etonian man to come and save it that actually, during a pandemic, what they need most is a white Etonian man to come and save them… Britain’s systems are so rooted in classism and white supremacy and racism that you have this entire political class that is totally separated from the realities of what actually goes on in Britain, but the culture of this country allows them to be separated… It’s cultural, what is also part of British culture is blind belief in the oppressor, blind trust in the oppressor and I think a lot of Britain has become used to these people just saying something and them believing it.”

The rulebook seems to be a simple one:

We will rule over you because we know better and are better. We will get on with what we want to get on with – looking after and extending the interests which are important to us – while we feed you palliative propaganda aimed at making you feel good about your lot and what we do which is inherently bad.

Often we will emphasise the need for resilience and hardship which provides a false sense of meaning. We can do this because we know you will simply accept it. The whole exercise has a certain nihilistic quality to it. Suffering is baked in – but that means you will believe you need us to rescue you. 

The ideology embodied by Johnson and those around him is not simply one of market-driven libertarianism, it is an ideology rooted in the English psyche of superiority, deference and othering. The Downing Street briefings daily serve to patronise their subjects, dumbing-down and deflecting from the reality of more than 50,000 deaths with empty platitudes about how we won’t be able to simply ‘get back to normal’ as soon as the pandemic eases and how ‘we have all pulled together’.

As a disproportionate number of those who have died with COVID-19 were black or ethnic minorities, the pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities and discrimination at the heart of our society. In the UK, black people are most likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and death rates are highest among people of black and Asian ethnic groups. Yesterday, the Equalities Minister said that “this is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person”.

But the assumption that the Coronavirus crisis has shown that English exceptionalism has run out of steam is, I believe, wrong – as this is not the real problem. The real problem is of an ubiquitous imperialism, which continues to pervade our institutions and culture and has seen a political revival in Brexit Britain. It is so dangerous because it is the water we swim in – and in which more than 50,000 people have drowned during this pandemic. 


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