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The UK’s ‘World-Beating’ Rhetoric: A Distraction From Reality?

Iain Overton looks at the hyperbole around post-Brexit Britain, and how nationalist exceptionalism blinds us to our real problems and their remedies

A faded Union Jack in a window at Keswick. Photo: Craig Stennett/Alamy

The UK’s ‘World-Beating’ RhetoricA Distraction From Reality?

Iain Overton looks at the hyperbole around post-Brexit Britain, and how nationalist exceptionalism blinds us to our real deep problems and their potential remedies

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There are no promised sunlit uplands.

Rather, Britain grapples with unresolved strikes and dwindling public services, amid a 10.1% inflation rate in the year to March. As the country faces an alarming backlog of doctor appointments, legal cases, and delays in obtaining essential documents like passports and driver’s licenses, 41% of younger, lower-income Britons have said that they fear a far bleaker future than enjoyed by their parents.

This week the Bank of England’s top economist, Huw Pill, warned that this dire situation will only worsen unless people in the UK accept that they are poorer. In a recent US podcast, Pill attributed the escalating prices to a reluctance to acknowledge collective financial hardship, as workers respond to higher bills and other costs by demanding wage increases and businesses continue to charge more.

This is not a picture conjured by Remoaner pessimism. This is the UK’s reality.

Millions face poverty due to food shortages, countless more live in inadequate housing and a strained medical workforce impacts the entire nation. With the International Monetary Fund forecasting a dismal economic performance for the UK, there seems little hope on the horizon.

So far, so bleak.

But, according to the government and its representatives, this isn’t really happening. Instead, if you believe their rhetoric, the UK is flourishing in the world. 

Indeed, a quick examination of the number of times the words “world-beating” have been used in Parliament shows a marked uptick in 2020 compared to the previous two decades.  Those sunny uplands are, according to this political view, very much here. 

Such words paint a kingdom not of doom and gloom, but one where the UK stands head and shoulders above the rest – with a “world-beating” economy and productivity. 

This claim – world-beating – is used again and again by the Tory government.  A trawl of recent pronouncements by ministers and press releases would, if you didn’t know any better, show Britain as truly exceptional.  Because, according to the Conservative government at least, we are the world’s best in our creative and screen industries; our tourism attractions; and our non-stadium sports coverage. All praised for being the best in the world. 

In commerce, the government claims the UK has the best innovators and entrepreneurs in the world, the best legal services, a uniquely amazing Companies House service and ‘world-beating’ Scotch lamb and beef. Ministers have, in recent years, bigged up our health service, claiming global dominance for testing potential Covid 19 victims and for tracing patient contacts, alongside the boast the UK’s vaccination programme as world-class.

The Conservatives believe our shipyardsnuclear industryflow of freight and logistics sector are all second to none. And that the UK is unsurpassed in higher educationdevelopment expertise and partnershipstechnical education systemsIntellectual Property; and “technological tools”.

It’s not just here. According to the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the government wants “to grow the UK as a global space superpower”. Whilst back down to earth, the government says the country is the best in the world in terms of its science base; its scientific testing at Porton Down; and its overall scientific research. It also claims its net-zero climate target, its hydrogen strategy, its heat batteries and its offshore wind energy are all No.1, globally. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the Ministry of Defence’s language about the UK’s “world-beating” government-supported defence industry that is, perhaps, the most boastful. We are, according to them, the best in the world in terms of what has been described as “power technologies” (aka weapons). This includes the UK’s Apache helicopter capability; its defence crisis simulation platforms; its Tomahawk precision strike capabilities; its combat aircraft; its hunter-killer submarines; and, – more broadly – its technology, across air, sea, land, space and cyberspace

Of course, it’s not always a bad thing to excel. British wines might be among some of the best in the world, London is said to be the most Instagrammable capital on earth and – to some – the best city; the UK reportedly has the world’s favourite penguin; and some even claim we have the best nightclubs in the world.

But other things are less to be proud about. Britain reportedly leads the world in offshore finance; in post-Brexit ferry queuing; in Game of Throne pirate downloads; and, in 2020, Britain generated the second-highest amount of e-waste per person in the world, “50% higher than the European average”.

But isn’t, some say, a bit of patriotic hyperbole a good thing? 

Backwards BritainHaving Rejected a European Future, We Can Only Hark Back to an Imperial Past

Last year Rishi Sunak, then a Tory leadership hopeful, even proposed changing the definition of extremism to refer to individuals who exhibit an “extreme hatred” of Britain for deradicalization. This move would have broadened the current definition of extremism, which already includes vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values such as democracy, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. 

But pointing out we are not ‘world-beating’ is hardly an act of radical dissent.  It’s just the truth. 

For instance, experts state the UK is good but not outstanding in priority areas of science and technology. They argue that the country’s reputation for being a global leader in science and technology may be inflated by historic successes, such as Nobel Prizes, universities that score highly in global rankings, and an over-dependence on wildly successful outliers. For instance, the UK may account for 7.8% of the citations in the top 100 AI papers. However, when DeepMind is excluded, the percentage drops to 1.9%. 

The UK’s spending on research and development (R&D) is around the 2019 OECD average of 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). However, the direct government contribution to domestic R&D is less than 0.5%, which ranks it 27th among 36 OECD countries, behind countries like South Korea, Germany, and the US.

Professor Paul Nightingale and Dr James W. Phillips, authors of the critical review of Britain’s place in global sciences, concluded: “the UK is good, but not outstanding, in priority areas of science and technology. It is clearly not as good as assumed by the most commonly used statistics.” Yet, still the myth-making persists. 

Such national exceptionalism is problematic. 

It can lead to a sense of superiority and entitlement, to discrimination, and even to aggression towards other nations and cultures. The notion that the Great in Great Britain is not used to differentiate Britain from its similar-sounding, but much smaller French neighbour, Brittany, but something more innate about British excellence can discourage self-reflection and self-criticism, hindering a nation’s ability to improve and evolve. 

As one op-ed in the Financial Times concluded in 2020: “British exceptionalism has run its course. The coming years will demand nothing so much as a long, unremitting slog to rebuild the economy after the ravages of the pandemic and the collateral damage promised by Brexit.”

It seems the Tory party didn’t get the memo.

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