Friday, 26 July 2019

Meaningless rhetoric can have consequences

According to the new Prime Minister, the UK after Brexit and under his leadership will become the greatest place on earth.  It’s the sort of rhetoric which so easily trips off his tongue, but it’s ultimately a meaningless turn of phrase.  It’s impossible to define any criteria for judging the truth of otherwise of any claim to be the ‘greatest’, and it inevitably comes down to a subjective view.  What he means by it is that he wants all the people of the UK to believe that the UK is the greatest – and, of course, that he has made it so.  The parallel with Trump is an obvious one, and the two men also share a passion for untruth in pursuit of their goal of making people believe.  And it’s in line with his apparent approach to Brexit – we only need to believe strongly enough, and we can make things work.
Now there’s nothing at all wrong with people taking a certain amount of pride in their country’s achievements, whether on the field of sport or in any other field, although it’s a good deal healthier if such pride is occasionally tempered by regret or even shame at the bad things done in our name.  And that’s the sort of country that I want to live in; one which acknowledges its past both good and bad and recognises its collective failures as well as its collective successes; one which co-operates and works with others rather than trying always to compete with them.  But I neither want nor need to believe that my country (however defined) is the ‘greatest’ or best, let alone set out to compete with anyone else for the title.  The history of people or countries who believe that they are the greatest is not exactly a happy one.
One of the main drivers for Brexit from the outset has been an Anglo-British sense of exceptionalism and superiority, so much so that what would be regarded as dangerous nationalism in the case of anyone else who believed they were special is regarded as not-nationalism-at-all by people who simply ‘know’ that they are exceptional, and that anyone else who thinks they are is just plain wrong.  Insofar as Johnson believes in anything at all other than his pre-ordained right to rule, I suspect that he really does believe that the UK – or more specifically Greater England: it’s a very English perception of what the UK is – is unique and special, and deserves to be treated as such.  He certainly seems to suffer from a certain nostalgia for Empire (he once wrote, referring to Africa, that "the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore"), like many of his background.  At one level, that is nothing to worry too much about – contact with the reality of the modern world will soon enough demonstrate the fallacy of such a belief.  At another level, however, it is much more worrying.  He is deliberately encouraging a belief in a unique greatness, and in the idea that the UK is in some way entitled to special treatment from the EU27.  There aren’t clear dividing lines between national pride, blind patriotism, and a belief in superiority; these are just labels we give to points on a spectrum.  What probably looks to him like simply another piece of political rhetoric carries the danger of being interpreted as, or even inciting, something much worse.

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