If you want a bomb proof career, if you want to sail through life without being negatively affected by the consequences of your professional choices, then get a job in Conservative politics. For a bunch of people who are always banging on about how the market rewards success and penalises failure, they’re very good at ensuring that precept doesn’t apply to themselves. This is precisely why the Benighted Kingdom is in such a mess, because the British establishment has rewarded itself with immunity.
George Osborne and David Cameron ruin the country by putting their party interests before the nation’s, and they walk off into lucrative positions. Theresa May’s advisor Nick Timothy, who advised her disastrously poorly, spends a fortnight in the political wilderness nursing his wounds with a compensation payout of £35,000 then bounces back with a very paid column in the Telegraph. That stickler for correct titles The Disgraced Former Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox got the boot for confusing his job with a promotional scheme for his pal Adam, and a short time later he’s back negotiating with Donald Trump on behalf of some chlorinated chickens. Ian Duncan lost the campaign for the Perth seat in the general election, but within a couple of weeks he’s given a peerage and the job in government that he was going to get had he been elected. Why bother with democracy when you’re a Tory. The list goes on and on. This is what happens when you operate your country on the basis of a national myth of privileged exceptionalism. It means that some people get to be more exceptionally privileged than everyone else. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be anyone on the number 60 bus to Easterhouse.
Exceptionalism runs through Unionism like the lettering in a stalk of rock, and the lettering says “know your place peasant”. Britishness is the stiff upper lip that stiffs us. Britishness is the comfortable lie that tells you you’re special, but the only thing that’s special is the way it rips you off. Britishness is that impossibly handsome guy on the internet who chats you up and tells you he loves you, but it turns out that the photo is fake and he’s really a toothless horror with body odour who wants you to have a threesome with him and Donald Trump while you whisper strong and stable in his ear because that gets him off.
British exceptionalism is what brought about Brexit, because Britain’s so special that it can have all of the advantages of EU membership without being bound by the rules or contributing to the costs. British exceptionalism is why foreigners who live in the UK are migrants, but British citizens who live in a foreign country are expats. British exceptionalism is the belief that nothing bad happens to the rich and the comfortable in Britain, and that much at least is true. The bad stuff happens to the people on the number 60 bus to Easterhouse, and the rich and the comfortable don’t care. British exceptionalism means they don’t need to.
Britain is so special that it doesn’t need to plan for Brexit. Planning is for little people. British exceptionalism means the expectation that it’s the Irish who will design and implement a new border regime between the Republic and the North so that Britain can continue to escape the consequences of its own actions. British exceptionalism means anger and disbelief when the Irish tell Westminster that it can sort out its own problems.
It’s exceptionalism that leads the Westminster government to believe that it can walk away from the EU without any deal being done at all. It’s the insane belief that no deal isn’t the worst deal of all, and that Britain can continue to avoid the fallout from its own nuclear implosion. Britain wants to take back control by having no control at all.
There are ways in which Britain truly is exceptional. It’s exceptional in its inability to house its population, exceptional in the way in which homes are treated as investments and stand empty while citizens sleep in cardboard boxes in the streets. Councils design street furniture with barbs and spikes to prevent people sleeping on it, while we are doing nothing about the causes that force so many people onto our streets. Britain is exceptional in the way in which we train ourselves to walk past the evidence of poverty and deprivation that is sleeping on our high streets and blame the poor for their poverty while giving a free pass to those who enrich themselves at the public’s expense.
We’re exceptional in our PFI schemes that force schools to pay thousands to replace a leaking tap while not providing buildings that are fit for purpose. We’re exceptional in the way in which our train services are run by nationalised companies, it’s just that they’re nationalised companies belonging to other countries and the profits that they make here are used to subsidise railways for Dutch commuters. The only way in which Britain is truly exceptional is the way in which its citizens are systematically ripped off.
British exceptionalism is what leads Unionists on social media to howl in outrage that EU citizens might be allowed a vote in a Scottish independence referendum, while they accuse independence supporters of xenophobic nationalism. But then their exceptionalism means that British nationalism isn’t nationalist at all, not even when it’s demonising foreigners and actively seeking a country that’s isolated and inward looking.
Unlike British nationalists who are so special that they’re not nationalist at all, the campaign for Scottish independence doesn’t seek a Scotland that’s special. Scottish independence supporters don’t demand a country that’s exceptional, a country to which the normal international rules of cooperation do not apply. The desire for Scottish independence is the desire to live in a Scotland that’s a normal country. It’s a determination to build a better country than the exceptionalists of Britain – and that doesn’t require any exceptionalism at all, mere adequacy will do it. If we aspire to exceptionalism, let it be an exceptional care for all our citizens, let it be an exceptional welcome to all those who do us the honour of choosing Scotland as their home, let it be an exceptional effort to be a force for peace, justice and equality in this world.
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