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Sun 25 October 2020
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With 60,000 people dead from COVID-19, a failing economy, a trashed international reputation, a ‘no deal’ Brexit looming and a second Coronavirus wave, Hardeep Matharu explores whether the public’s own sense of exceptionalism has put the UK on a unique, sadopopulist path 

While the Prime Minister has been busy distracting the public with his defence of ‘Rule Britannia’ and prompting outrage over his plans to breach international law by reneging on the UK’s Brexit agreement, a second Coronavirus wave has been approaching – one which could result in 50,000 new COVID-19 cases a day by mid-October, according to the Government’s own experts.   

Not content with racking up more than 60,000 excess deaths, the Government’s continued lax approach to the pandemic means that the virus is now gathering strength again in the UK. Six months of new restrictions could be on the cards, the Prime Minister has warned, and a second wave was always “inevitable”.

But today, a new explanation was posited by Johnson as to why the UK, unlike other countries in Europe, is experiencing an increase in Coronavirus infections. The British people themselves, he claimed, are so “freedom-loving” that they are willing to subject themselves to some sort of a death wish. 

When asked in the House of Commons by Labour MP Ben Bradshaw whether the likes of Germany and Italy, where life has returned to relative normality, have far lower COVID-19 rates because they have local, publicly-run and effective test and trace systems in place, Johnson replied that this was incorrect.

Instead, he pointed to the British public’s wish to be free – so free that they are apparently happy to risk the spread of a deadly virus.

“There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world and that is our country is a freedom-loving country and if you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country and it is very difficult to ask the British population, uniformly, to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary,” Johnson declared.

“Collectively, the way to do this is for us all to follow the guidelines which we will strictly enforce and get the R down.”

This sense of exceptionalism, nurtured by a mythologised history of lone struggle, war and Empire, has been peppered through Johnson’s tenure, not only around the Coronavirus but the project for which it is the foundation – Brexit.

His latest admission though takes it a step further by implying that his Government is only giving the British people what they already desire. While it might be tempting to dismiss this as yet another piece of blame-shifting rhetoric conjured up when reality doesn’t serve him, in his perverse projection does Johnson have a point?

Simply put, it must be asked: do the British people have a kind of death wish?

The developments of recent years have exposed uncomfortable truths about what Britain’s identity really amounts to – and the arrogance, deference, imperialism and insecurity at its heart. 

Borrowing the mirror America has had to hold up to itself in the era of Trump, the UK too must ask itself why it elected a man such as Johnson and why there seems to be a continued lack of collective will demanding that enough is enough. As the author and academic Timothy Snyder has observed, through what he identifies as “sadopopulism” in the US, why is governance without policy and with pain attractive to some?

From its damning handling of the Coronavirus crisis to the obliteration of Britain’s democratic norms such as the rule of law and the likely ‘no deal’ Brexit approaching – why is any of this considered acceptable? Do people merely feel powerless, disengaged or is something deeper coming to the surface?

Perhaps that is what Johnson instinctively understands, the old Etonian English imperial leader he is. He knows that enough of the Britain he presides over has a masochistic mission to find a sense of meaning through its own harm and will put up with a leader who can deliver this for them. 

And this may be Johnson’s greatest insight of all.


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