Cruel Britannia: Coronavirus lays waste to British exceptionalism

Britain has never triumphed alone.

Cruel Britannia: Coronavirus lays waste to British exceptionalism

LONDON — As the coronavirus rips through Europe and the world, Britain’s response to the pandemic has shown it’s suffering from another dangerous disease: unshakeable belief in its own exceptionalism.

This is not a uniquely British illness, of course. Many countries put themselves at the center of the map and at the hub of history. But while the sickness causes sporadic bouts of chauvinism in others, the British seem to have a terminal case.

When that exceptionalism collides with a virus that knows no borders and steamrolls over the “keep calm and carry on” spirit, the results, as we’re seeing now, can be disastrous.

Britain’s belief that it’s unique — and the collective jingoistic conceit that the British are somehow inimitable — has plagued Britain since the time of Saint Bede the Venerable.

It was the Benedictine monk’s eighth-century “Ecclesiastical History of England” that first forged a narrative of a people united by common bond. But the real havoc was wreaked by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century scribe who wrote one of the maddest books in history.

As Britain limped into the 1970s, it increasingly resembled a jaded rock star — a once-great icon seeking contemporary relevance but forever obliged to fall back on old hits.

In 1136, as Norman England plunged into civil war, Geoffrey took out his quill and knocked off “The History of the Kings of Britain.” The work claimed that Britain had been founded by Brutus of Troy, a descendant of the Greek hero Aeneas, who had captured it from giants.

By 12th-century standards, it was a publishing sensation, with hundreds of copies finding their way into monastic libraries across Europe. It was also overtly political in intent, seeking to create a unifying origin story and a common destiny.

In reality, ancient Britain had been a backwater off the backroads of Europe, but by the time Geoffrey had filed his parchment, the story had been reshaped into a saga of an incomparable people doing phenomenal things.

Monmouth’s clerical contemporaries may have scoffed, but over the next 900 years his fake history became entrenched in mainstream consciousness.

Matters weren’t helped by topography. Island people are naturally suspicious. While the sea acts as a filter and a defense, it can also make islanders tend toward paranoia; they’re shaped by a lingering fear of the horizon, of what might come over it and what the people beyond it are plotting.

As England blinked into the Renaissance, its individualistic tendencies and distrust of other Europeans came of age. Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, and his successors engaged in a series of prolonged wars with the rest of the Continent.

Contemporary propagandists, including William Shakespeare, played up the distinctive and the extraordinary, setting the country apart from the rest of the region, despite our long and intertwined history. The “Sceptered Isle” as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt put it: “This precious stone set in a silver sea.”

In the ensuing centuries, as the empire expanded, so too did Britons’ sense of entitlement. But there was a problem. You can’t convincingly lay claim to world hegemony if you’re descended from a bunch of farmers speaking what is in effect a French-German creole.

So, the British pilfered from the Classical Age and pretended that English grammar and spelling were every bit as orderly as Latin. It was a grand deceit — and it worked. Many people still believe that narrative, and the accompanying idea that Britain and her people are somehow unique and special.

 * * *

The half-serious conceit that God and heaven were English, pushed by poets and shored up by politicians, prevailed until long after World War I. But in the painful years following 1945, when Britain’s empire started to wane and America usurped its place in the world, much of that hubris was consigned to the attic. As the country limped into the 1970s, it increasingly resembled a jaded rock star — a once-great icon seeking contemporary relevance but forever obliged to fall back on old hits.

It could have been a turning point, the beginning of an era of humility — if not for the fact that the United Kingdom joined the European Union.

As the country benefited both economically and politically from membership of one of the world’s great trading blocs, fresh blood seeped back into its veins. But with renewed success came an unwelcome return of the old vanity.

Conservative voices began to complain that history wasn’t being taught properly and that Britain’s central role in world events was being overlooked.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had hoped to lead Britain back to a central role on the world stage | Neil Hall/EPA

In 2005, the think tank Civitas and the Daily Telegraph led a campaign to get an Edwardian era “history” book called “Our Island Story” back into print and, having done so, donated copies to school libraries.

The peculiar book, penned by eccentric Scottish-born author H.E. Marshall, perpetuated the myths first set out by Geoffrey of Monmouth and reinforced the “destiny” narrative of English history. Conservative voices queued up to sing its praises. And by 2010, then Education Secretary Michael Gove was saying he wanted it put back at the heart of the curriculum.

British exceptionalism’s most notable triumph was, of course, Brexit. The notion took root that the country had no need of Europeans, their pernicious “human rights acts” or their outstanding range of fine wines. We had once ruled the world and invented Marmite. They needed us more than we needed them.

The country had been held back by Brussels and would now reclaim its place among the Gods. With an ersatz Churchill — Prime Minister Boris Johnson — at the helm, the country would return to past glory.

 * * *

The coronavirus takes a wrecking ball to that conceit — or rather it should.

The country’s initial response to pandemic was, unfortunately, yet another example of Britain’s belief in its own uniqueness and blind confidence in its ability to chart its own path.

Even as the coronavirus spread beyond China and the emergency accelerated, Britain’s political class seemed curiously unconcerned. They were obsessing, instead, about the important stuff: Would Big Ben be able to bong on the night that the U.K. left the EU, and when could we get our hands on those collectable Brexit 50 pence pieces?

On January 31, Brexit Day, Johnson gave a televised speech and recorded bells chimed out across Parliament Square. The news that the U.K. had registered its first two coronavirus cases went practically unnoticed. Johnson then took a two-week holiday in Kent.

Only when Britain breaks free from the chains of make-believe history will the recurring cycle of unwarranted superiority end.

When the prime minister finally made it back to the office, he declared people should go “about their business as usual” — a reflexive nod to the wartime notion of “keep calm and carry on” that was as devoid of sense as it was a reckless waste of precious time.

Outside Britain, his approach was already being condemned as “confused, dangerous and flippant,” but the government, unbothered, ploughed ahead with a uniquely British methodology based on “herd immunity.” A U-turn was only evinced when Imperial College researchers suggested it might claim 250,000 lives and overwhelm the NHS.

This was a global crisis that needed a global response, but Britain’s government, newly reacquainted with its sovereignty, seemed determined to go it alone. The U.K. neglected to join a combined EU ventilator scheme, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Britons to summon up their “Blitz spirit” and rise to the occasion, just as their forebears had done in two World Wars.

Londoners shelter in an underground station from the German bombs during the Blitz in 1940 | Davies/Getty Images

By late March, as the death toll mounted and Johnson was admitted into intensive care after catching the virus himself, news of events beyond these shores dried up. British exceptionalism had lulled the nation into believing that our circumstances were unique and that this was now our crisis and ours alone.

The truth, of course, is that Britain’s past is quite at odds with the myth. The country has never triumphed alone. In all recent major wars, we have won thanks to alliances and common endeavor.

Britain has no pre-ordained destiny. It did not spring fully formed from the primordial swamp either: It was forged by waves of migrants arriving here from the fifth century onward. The nation’s identity and all that is good within it comes from the fusion of languages, people, food and culture that followed.

Only when Britain breaks free from the chains of make-believe history will the recurring cycle of unwarranted superiority end. Tragically, the deceit runs so deep that it’s hard to imagine that such a day will ever come.

Source : Politico EU More   

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Conte’s coronavirus honeymoon comes to a close

Looming economic disaster erodes faith in PM's ability to steer Italy through the crisis.

Conte’s coronavirus honeymoon comes to a close

ROME — For months, it seemed Giuseppe Conte could do no wrong.

As the Italian prime minister waged battle against the coronavirus epidemic, political opponents heeded calls for unity, halted their attacks and reigned in their criticism.

In March, approval for Conte’s measures to combat the virus stood at 94 percent, and his personal ratings climbed to 71 percent.

But as Italy’s health emergency begins to recede and signs of the impending economic catastrophe move into sharp focus, Conte’s coronavirus honeymoon appears to be coming to a close.

Regional governments, industrial lobbies and the Catholic church are revolting against the government’s plans to slowly lift Italy’s lockdown restrictions, accusing Conte of moving too slowly and standing in the way of the country’s recovery.

As Italians begin to emerge from the eye of the epidemic’s storm, they are increasingly worried about their economic future.

The opposition has occupied parliament in protest of the remaining lockdown restrictions. And even members of Conte’s coalition — an unstable alliance between the anti-establishment 5Star Movement, the center-left Democratic Party and the liberal Italia Viva party — have threatened to pull the plug on the government unless it steps up the pace.

Critics also blame Conte for failing to resolve delays in the arrival of financial assistance, off-loading key decisions to task forces and abusing his emergency powers.

The sheer scale of the potential economic disaster ahead has eroded faith in the prime minister’s ability to steer the country through it, according to Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster at YouTrend.

“The more that public opinion shifts from the health to the social and economic crisis, the more Conte risks losing consensus,” said Pregliasco.

Local defiance

As Italians begin to emerge from the eye of the epidemic’s storm, they are increasingly worried about their economic future.

Last week, Fitch lowered Italy’s credit rating to BBB, just one notch above junk. First-quarter results showed that GDP contracted 4.7 percent, and the government revised down its economic forecasts to a GDP contraction that could be as bad as 10 percent.

Although Conte claimed victory late April after negotiating with European leaders to grant Italy access funds from the European Stability Mechanism without conditions, the Italian media has continued to speculate that any assistance could come with “strengthened oversight,” recalling the specter of the Troika that imposed devastating cuts on Greece.

For those hoping for a quick return to normal to offset the worst of the economic impact, the limited easing of lockdown measures has been disappointing, especially in the south where there have been relatively few cases of the virus.

Families and stable partners can now visit each other. Parks have reopened, and takeaways from bars and restaurants are now allowed. But churches remain shut, earning Conte a harsh rebuke from the Catholic bishops association. Schools will stay closed until September, leaving working parents at a loss for childcare.

About 4 million people, mainly construction and manufacturing workers, are back at work, but the powerful federation of employers, Confindustria, has accused the government of lacking a return-to-work plan, citing its failure to begin immunity tests or app-based contact tracing. Meanwhile, Italy’s lifeblood, its small and medium-sized shops and businesses, mostly remain shuttered.

An empty Venice | Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

With discontent growing, regional authorities last week defied the central government to move ahead with their own ad hoc rules. In some areas, visiting second homes is now allowed.

The president of Calabria, Jole Santelli, went the furthest, with an order allowing restaurants and bars with outdoor seating to open.

Santelli, of the center-right Forza Italia party, points out what she sees as an injustice: Wealthier industrial states with many cases of the virus are getting back to work before the economically fragile regions with few cases.

“Everyone knows about coronavirus and social distancing now. We have to trust people to act responsibly and begin learning to live alongside it,” she told POLITICO.

“This government has, in practice, put zero euros in the pockets of citizens and business. That is the truth, and that is the problem.” — Guido Guidesi, League MP

“Our territory doesn’t have industry,” she added. “It is a service economy with small and medium sized businesses, for whom a few weeks can make all the difference between surviving or not.”

Pushback against the lockdown has made it clear that Conte’s political opponents are tired of playing nice.

“This government has avoided taking decisions and failed to get financial support to those that need it,” said Guido Guidesi, a senior MP for the far-right League. “This government has, in practice, put zero euros in the pockets of citizens and business. That is the truth, and that is the problem.”

Guidesi was one of dozens of MPs from the party who occupied the parliament last week, vowing to stay there until the lockdown measures are lifted before calling it off in time for the bank holiday weekend.

Matteo Renzi | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

The government is “incapable of managing an economic emergency like the one we are witnessing,” he added, predicting a larger shift in the Italian political landscape.

If the public grows increasingly impatient and worried about the economic impact, that groundswell could indeed “provide the trigger” for a government collapse in the months ahead, said Pregliasco, of YouTrend, who predicted catastrophic unemployment figures and a steep increase in businesses filing for bankruptcy.


Conte’s stratospheric popularity during the crisis has also attracted attacks from the coalition he depends on to stay in office.

Matteo Renzi, who leads the liberal Italia Viva party and is a long-term critic of Conte, threatened on Thursday to bring down the government and accused Conte of “populist paternalism” for keeping Italians “under virtual house arrest” for months rather than finding solutions to save jobs.

“There is a vast reconstruction that needs to happen that will require courageous choices and vision, not remaining stationary as we have done so far,” he said.

Renzi also claimed Conte was more concerned with Facebook followers and polls than unemployment data, warning: “If you choose the road of populism, of saying what people want to hear, we will not be by your side.”

Italy historically has relied on technocratic governments to take over and take tough decisions during crises.

For now, it is unlikely that Renzi or others would want to assume responsibility for opening up a power vacuum during an emergency.

“To have a crisis at this time, would be unthinkable. The public would not understand it,” said an adviser to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

As Conte said in an interview with La Stampa on Sunday, “instability [at a time of emergency and economic difficulty] would be a serious damage for the country that we cannot allow ourselves.”

Constant speculation about a new government of technocrats or of national unity “is part of the Italian political game,” he said.

former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia MP Renato Brunetta | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

If Renzi’s MPs were to withdraw support for the government, wiping out its majority in the Senate, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party could prop up the government in the short term, according to the Berlusconi adviser. But this would be a short-term measure.

“There will come a moment when the economic problem becomes unbearable, when we have to think of a government of unity,” said the adviser.

Italy historically has relied on technocratic governments to take over and take tough decisions during crises. President Sergio Mattarella would almost certainly seek to find out if there was a majority for a government of national unity or a technocratic government, rather than call snap elections.

Members of the far-right League have pushed for Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank, to lead such an executive. “We completely support his proposed measures to prevent the economic crisis from becoming a structural crisis that would leave workers and companies abandoned,”said Guidesi, the League MP.

For now, as the government limps on, Conte could still quell the critics if his slow-and-steady strategy proves successful in balancing pressure to re-open the economy.

But it is by no means certain that Draghi would even want the role — one that is certain to be difficult and unpopular, as recollections of former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s drastic cuts to public services and pensions are still fresh in the memory of Italians.

Any government of national unity would find it hard to reach agreement on important issues such as accepting help from Europe, and would face crossfire from political forces outside the government.

For now, as the government limps on, Conte could still quell the critics if his slow-and-steady strategy proves successful in balancing pressure to re-open the economy with the need to curb infections.

Other countries, such as Germany and Singapore, have seen the number of new cases rise rapidly following the lifting of certain containment measures.

Their example may help justify Conte’s more cautious approach to his detractors. But as worries of economic disaster grow, that caution may not be enough to keep the political peace.

Source : Politico EU More   

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