Once again, Great Britain has become the focus of attention for much of the global press and once again the world has looked on in shock. In 2016, Europeans across the continent could not believe that despite warnings from the grand majority of economic experts around the world – who explained that separating from the European Union would cause significant damage to the British economy – a majority of UK voters voted in favour of Brexit. There are a multitude of reasons that can explain the source of the support for Brexit, but it is difficult to ignore the suspicion that part of it comes from a nostalgia for the British Empire and the related belief in UK exceptionalism. The Brexit campaign was led by a part of the Conservative Party that argued that this great country could prosper outside of the union, that it did not need its most significant trading partner, and that it should strike its own trade deals across the globe. Moreover, there were some Brexiteers who argued that the UK should prioritise economic ties with the Commonwealth of Nations over trade with the European Union. It became clear that, for some, this ideology was more important than economic interests. Many individuals within the Leave campaign characterised the pronouncements of the grand majority of experts and other detractors as alarmism, declaring that it was all part of the so called “Project Fear”. While the country has for the moment avoided the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit, the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has made Brexit inevitable, leading the United Kingdom to a situation that will surely harm the economy.
In 2020, it seems this ideology has again influenced the decision making of Brexiteers now in government with grave results. Just like four years ago, Europe has looked on perplexed as the UK has decided to take another direction in combating coronavirus. When many countries were beginning to introduce elements of a lockdown and had the example of Italy to show the damage that the virus can do, the UK government decided to follow a policy of pursuing Herd Immunity without a vaccine. This strategy was made up of two pillars: protecting the most vulnerable within the population and, at the same time, allowing the virus to infect at least 60% of the rest of the population. This decision was immediately questioned by the WHO as well as the UK public health community. To calm a public concerned that the government was diverging from the path taken by other countries, government ministers assured everyone that they were “following the science”. The inevitable implication of such a statement was that scientists in other countries were wrong and that the scientists in England had a better approach. Additionally, as some have pointed out, there is no single “agreed” science and there exists divisions and diversity of opinion within the scientific community. As a result, it is politics that ultimately chooses which science to follow and it is notable that Dominic Cummings, trusted adviser to Boris Johnson, was attending meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). It is also notable that when the members of SAGE were revealed, many asked why independent experts in public health were not present or consulted. The government pursued this Herd Immunity policy without considering that the National Health Service (NHS) did not have the resources to properly manage the wave of cases after years of budget cuts and austerity. Care homes did not have enough Personal Protective Equipment either, something that would seem essential for a strategy that had, at its core, the goal of protecting the most vulnerable. Later, when a study led by a prominent expert in epidemiology from Imperial College London was released suggesting that 510,000 people could lose their lives following this strategy, Johnson reversed his policy on March 16. But following his anti-authoritarian instinct, he chose to follow a strategy of voluntary confinement. A new message insinuated from this strategy was that other countries needed strict rules to achieve compliance, but the British public did not. When mobile tracking data showed there was not enough adherence to the guidelines, the government once again reversed its policy. On March 23, Johnson announced a strict lockdown that would be enforced by the police to guarantee compliance. Studies now show that the government lost crucial time during these early stages that could have prevented some loss of life. While it may have avoided the catastrophe of the death of a sitting Prime Minister, the United Kingdom is now, tragically, the country in Europe with the highest Covid-19 death toll.
With this experience in mind, one might ask whether the structures maintaining the belief in British exceptionalism might be starting to crumble. One might also ask whether the Conservative government will start to see the benefit in cooperating with its neighbours, even if this sometimes means following others. One may also wonder whether the government will now be averse to exploring risky political choices without the global consensus of expert opinion. Considering the government is not willing to extend the negotiation period with the EU on Brexit, and that there are reports that the government is preparing for a no-deal scenario, it seems the ideology of exceptionalism will continue to lead the UK into further blunders in the future.