A Very British Exceptionalism
Britain has carried an unshakeable belief that it is unique, under a collective nationalistic conceit that the British are somehow unparalleled. The nation feeds off of the idea that its failures are so small that they can be overlooked by its ‘huge’ achievements. The recent events following the outbreak of Covid-19 and the protests under the Black Lives Matter movement, have magnified this false belief, rooted in the illness that has plagued Britain since its inception- British exceptionalism.
On the 10th of June, the United Kingdom surpassed 50,000 deaths due to Covid-19, the second highest number of deaths in the world. When asked how he can have pride in the current state of Britain, prime minister Boris Johnson claimed, “I think it was an astonishing achievement of the NHS and the country to get the epidemic under control.” This was supported by his government that stated while it may have made ‘some mistakes’, it has ensured that the health service was not overwhelmed. The reality, as millions of Brits have and continue to suffer through, is far from being ‘under control’. Since the outbreak of the virus in the UK, the government adopted a view that the nation’s circumstances were exclusive, so the virus was solely ‘our crisis and ours alone’.
By ignoring the advice of other countries ahead of it in fighting the virus, the British government failed to impose a timely lockdown, to enable widespread testing and tracing, and consequently to prevent approximately 20,000 deaths through its blatant inaction. In turn, the NHS is now more overstretched and overwhelmed than ever before.
Britain’s disastrous response to the virus has revealed another toxic branch of British exceptionalism- the belief that the UK is an exception to countries that are racist. Firstly, the extent of structural racism in the NHS has been highlighted through recent evidence that ‘black people are four times more likely to die of the virus than their white counterparts; a higher percentage of black pregnant women are admitted to hospital with Covid-19; and more than 6 in 10 of dead NHS staff come from BAME backgrounds.’ Such realities undoubtedly exist outside of health care too, unsurprisingly evident in almost every sphere of society; dangerously deep rooted in the country’s criminal justice system.
In 2019, black people were stopped and searched 9.5 times more than white people. In 2020, the government plans to expand these non suspected stop and search powers which make a black person 47 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person; conclusively making it a suspected crime to be black now more than ever before.
When asked if he will abolish such abhorrent racist powers, the prime minister stated “these powers are an important utensil to fighting knife crime”, adding miserly “ ofcourse, black lives do matter”. The way the UK has continuously reiterated that black lives matter recently, can be underlined by the country’s forced belief that Britain is not ‘as racist as the USA’.
Where Derek Chauvin brutally murdered George Floyd from a choke hold, the same choke hold has been used in the UK at least 4 times by the police in 2017 alone, killing the black victim within minutes. Where Derek Chauvin is being charged with second degree murder, not one of the police involved in the above 4 cases have been investigated or charged. Thus, when a comment or statement of ‘a Britain that will never be as bad as the US’ surfaces, it must be remembered that under the lens of racism, the differences between the UK and what is unfolding in the US dangerously disappear.
The anti- racist ideology of Britain has been advanced by the country’s political class to create an image of racial equality, whilst their statements and actions make clear that the country upholds anything but that. Following the murder of George Floyd, Boris Johnson said to believe Britain “is not a racist country”, he ironically added to this statement by labelling the peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protests as ‘subverted thuggery’, justifying this on the basis that “people must protest peacefully and in accordance with the rules on social distancing.” Such racist remarks are not a new occurrence, with Johnson having a track record of referring to African people as ‘flag waving pic*******s’ or outright stating that the UK should recolonise Africa. He also called on police to investigate the ‘utterly disgraceful acts of thugs who will face justice’, after #BLM protests led to the minor defacing of a Winston Churchill statue in London. Yet when illegal raves in Manchester resulted in the death of a man, and the rape of a young girl or when police were physically abused during the violent far right protests in London, leaders were failed to condemn these clear violations of social distancing measures and crimes that ensued. It seems the nation’s leaders are quick to silence any peaceful call for justice from the minorities that they suppress; but they stand silent when a white majority incite chaos and violence.
It becomes clear that structural racism isn't a phenomenon which only existed decades ago, but it is prevalent even in more recent memory. It is apparent in the housing sector, where in March 2017, 3 months before the Grenfell tragedy, the £274 million of usable reserves that should have been invested in safety mechanisms for those living in Grenfell tower was stored away. Whilst black and brown habitants of the tower campaigned for safer housing, the borough council proudly exclaimed the millions of pounds are a product of an “over achieving efficiency drive”. This racism was heightened in the expenditure of the UK government when it ‘heroically’ invested £11 million over the last 13 years in the absent evidence investigation of the white girl named Madeleine Mccan.
Yet, the 2019 case of the 12 year old black refugee Shukri Abdi, who was drowned to death by identifiable suspects with clear racial motives did not amount to anything more than a ‘tragic accident’. In the last month, where were the political class’s calls for justice disappear when police officers tasered an innocent black man to the level of incapacitation, for driving above the speed limit? Or when the case of Belly Mujinga, an innocent black woman who died from Covid-19 after being spat on, was closed with no action taken against the perpetrator due to ‘no evidence’? What these examples reveal, are two fold.
The first is that Britain’s political leaders' statements, actions and lack of initiatives rooted in complete ignorance, do not lie in the collective principles of justice or rule of law but within their self interests that will only better their privileged positions. Secondly, the fact that these elected individuals can continue to evade accountability and ignore their responsibility, allows them to steep further and comfortably normalize this self interest.From this realisation, how should Britain’s exceptionalism be treated now that recent events have majorly revealed the “keep calm and carry on” spirit to be a ploy for “keep the nation clueless and carry unwarranted superiority on”?
In terms of action, we must not let our amplified voices be muted into another finite moment of false freedom, but demand actions that lay a foundation for a long term movement. We must be critical: question injustice, demand responsibility and do not be complacent. We have subconsciously excused below average knowledge and unaccountability of Britain’s leaders for far too long, to the point that this is what is now expected of them, and of our society. 2020 has exposed the government’s failings, broken promises and power vacuum to reveal a new sense of alarm and anger. It has created a new unknown of what Britain truly stands for: one rule for the ruling class and one rule for the rest of us.