British Exceptionalism: the aristocracy’s philosophy of despair


I recall, back in the early 1980s, taking part in a European research project and frequent meetings with continental counterparts – all in the medium of English. British researchers could barely be expected to have even a fleeting familiarity with any European language, whereas all our European colleagues were skilful enough in English to at least get by. Nonetheless, some were reduced to struggling to express their complex ideas with the limited vocabularies at their disposal. We, therefore, could talk in nuanced terms about the tendencies to secrecy in open societies, shored up with bureaucratic cultures of loyalty and prudence – whereas they were reduced to more brutal assertions such as “big government good, small government bad”. The British parties left these meetings assured that we were the more sophisticated and took with us a paternalistic view of European thinking as…well, as European, which is to say, not so developed or as substantial as the couisine. Stupid.


When it comes to self-belief and complacency – two traits much celebrated by the British aristocracy – few have as much to draw from than Finland. In most measures of social wellbeing they outstrip their fellow nations: frequently top of the international league-table for education, one of the highest spenders on health care, and at the top of the tables for the wellbeing of children. The UK is sliding down the health rankings, performs poorly among rich nations for child wellbeing according to UNICEF measures, and languishes near the bottom of (PISA) educational league-tables.

This in no way deters some of us from our belief in British exceptionalism – the conviction that Britain is special and excellent in the company of colleague-nations, a notch above, more historically accomplished, more sophisticated and with more evolutionary substance.

We claim to have ‘the mother of parliaments’, though Iceland’s parliament predates ours by hundreds of years. We frequently assert the preeminence of British cultural history – Chaucer, Sakespeare, the Beatles and all that – and yet the Renaissance which set the Western standards for humanism and expression was almost exclusively a creature of…well, not even a country, but some small city-states in what is now Italy.

Britain would claim to be the natural home of democracy and democratic political philosophy, and yet our starting-point (and, in many ways, our end-point – even in British Utilitarianism) is Greek philosophy, while by far the dominant strain in modern (post-industrial revolution) political thought is Philosophical Pragmatism, ‘born in the USA’ (Pierce, James, Dewey).

Well, it’s fun to go rambling across these terrains of thought, which are always surprising and full of learning. So a little more, perhaps – just to raise hackles. Some of the great exponents of English literature were not English – Joyce, Beckett and Shaw were Irish, Conrad, Polish, Hemingway, North American, Rushdie, Indian; British classical composers take second rank to the Germans, Russians, French, Italian and Austrian; British jazz has never poduced a single figure as accomplished and influential as Miles Davis, Parker, Gillespie, Bill Evans, Ellington, Marsalis and numerous others. On the other hand, the British theatre pantheon is unparalleled with its Shakespeare, Orton, Potter, Pinter and so on – though Britain has never produced dramatic theorists as weighty as Brecht, Artaud, Stanislavski, Dario Fo. British plastic arts and sculpture – even with its Moores, Turners, Constables, Nash, Freud and so on – cannot hold a candle to the Florentines and their many schools of art. British film holds a cherished niche and boasts the preeminence of Carol Reed, Hitchcock, the Ealing Studios and others, but, really…Hollywood?

Of course, most of this is all pretty stuffy stuff, it is contestable and it rests more on my chutzpah than on my substantive knowledge. It is, of course, an entirely Western view – mostly Eurocentric. These are poor representations of just the high canon, and against them we would have to pit contemporary culture with all its innovation – including such as pop music, architecture, industrial design where Britain possibly shouts far louder. In any event, it would be foolish and fruitless to even attempt to be exhaustive or even authoritative. I only mention what little I have gleaned over the years as a dilettante of culture, and I do so not to make any claims, but to be provocative of thought. Along the way I display at least as much ignorance as insight, as some will have noticed. So, here’s the thought I want to provoke.

However we look at it, accomplishments and claims to exceptionalism are more evenly distributed than we care or are able to think. Indeed, the Darwinian insight almost certainly holds true once again – that there is more diversity within a species than across species (for ‘species’, read ‘country’). The variation between Italy, Spain and the UK is little compared with the profound differences between Andalucía and Catalunya; between Palermo and Florence; and between Newcastle and Winchester. Darwin himself was distressed by the banality of natural laws and the collapse of his own (and his wife’s) cherished sense of exceptionalism.

For the UK to think that it is somehow distinguished by accomplishment or merit from other European countries, or that our ‘natural’ state is one of singularity and incomparability is a fallacy and owes more to ethnocentricity than to proper consideration. Indeed, here lie the roots of an Internationalism that has always been a cornerstone of left-wing parties across Europe. Though conceived as creating common defence against a ruthlessly self-interested and greedy wealthy class (who have no difficulty in discovering their own common ground with multi-country counterparts), the real basis of Internationsalism is a recognition that we are all more alike in our needs and characteristics than we are unalike.

Nor do I want to conflate social democratic Internationalism with Globalisation. The Internationalism that recognises common characteristics and common differences – I suppose what Labour Party people would call ‘broherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’ – is not of the same border-crossing intent that promotes common greed and the universal ability to stomach economic exploitaton of the poor and the working classes. Globalists are not Internationalists.

Of course, the greatest concentration of ‘exceptionalists’ is among the British aristocracy and their progeny, the British Conservative Party (think Rees-Mogg). The very concept of ‘inheritance’, together with a history of aristocracy-inspired European wars appears to this myopic, self-interested class, to define ‘us’ as discrete historically, culturally, politically. This is the arrogation that leads to the hopelessly deluded sneer from ‘Lord’ Alan Clarke of ‘Lord’ Michael Heseltine as a super-wealthy man, yes, but one who “had to buy his own furniture”. Or the arrogant, self-important assurance of ‘Earl’ Spencer at Diana’s funeral that the boys swould be cared for by their “blood family” (i.e. not by the parvenus from the Hapsburg Empire and Greece).

But just as this seemed to give the aristocracy the right to suppress democratic demands from the Diggers and Levellers to the Chartists and Tolpuddle Martyrs, and Henry VIII the confidence to break with Rome (our first major Brexit), so it now breeds this absurd idea that we are different from Europeans and even that we can somehow live apart from Europe. Once again, we live in the shadow of public school ignorance and aloofness (again, think Rees-Mogg).

But Henry VIII was by no means the first head of state to break from Rome. In that, too, we were no different in aspiration and yearning for independence than our European counterparts. All countries, it seems, are afflicted with an aristocracy or its equivalent who harbour views of exceptionalism, and who seek to impose that on a citizenry which is, in fact, quite content to live next to diverse neighbours and then to drive on holidays to encounter ‘different-but-the-same’ families in holiday camps.

To imagine ourselves different, exceptional is to abandon Internationalism and collective strength. It is a philosophy, but a philosophy of despair. It is a response to feeling embattled, it is a small-island philosophy, one of loss of hope for making rich connections through which, yes, we yield some independence, but in exchange for greater richness and discovery of a broader family.

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