Farewell to 2012, the year of British exceptionalism

Posted on 1 January 2013

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The midnight fireworks over the Thames were, for once, not so much about seeing in the new year as about casting a final, fond farewell to the old, the year when London was the capital of the world. 2012 was no ordinary year for Great Britain either. What is striking is how often ideas of “British exceptionalism” consistently shaped our public conversations about what the year said about who we are.

The inclusive patriotic spirit of 2012 was celebrated by voices across the political spectrum. Yet less noticed was how these optimistic stories of British exceptionalism often disrupt the dominant intuitions on the left and right of British politics, challenging both the post-nationalism of the liberal-left and the the cultural pessimism of much of the right. Was that a one-off effect, for special occasions only, or might this leave a legacy which lasts into 2013?

There were at least five significant stories of “British exceptionalism” in 2012.

That the Jubilee was a very British occasion was, perhaps, the one thing on which those who adored the street party bunting and the dissenting minority who loathed every moment might have been able to agree. The institution of Monarchy is far from unique to Britain, but the British Crown, itself shared across sixteen Commonwealth realms, is by some distance its most famous contemporary example.

‘Only the British could have chosen to put on an opening ceremony quite like that’ proved to be a thought with rather a ‘Heineken effect’, reaching parts not much in the habit of flag-waving. The Guardian’s review of the year made Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony its arts highlight of 2012, as cultural critic Charlotte Higgins argued that it had ‘forged a new mythology for Britain … it wasn’t just about the spectacle or story; it was also about tone. This was simultaneously serious and silly, reverential and idiotic: a bonkers but brilliant melding of comedy and gravitas, cheek and anti-authoritarianism that no other nation could have pulled off’.

If celebrated for self-deprecating humour, the core narrative of Boyle’s ceremony was hardly modest. It was, rather, an unmistakable tale of British exceptionalism, however gently told: that it was Britain which had made the modern world. Indeed, the claim was that Britain had done so twice, acting as the forge of the industrial revolution, before playing a crucial role in the crucible of the internet age too, through Tim Berners-Lee’s insistence on making his invention a source of public rather than private good: “this is for everyone”. London’s claim to be the global capital and its contemporary diversity was therefore rooted in this British history of global exchange, rather than representing a post-national escape from it.

Once the Games began, Team GB and London’s Gamesmakers were celebrated for representing shared pride in a diverse society, symbolised by that triple gold hour for Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah on ‘Super Saturday’. Three-quarters of people told Ipsos-Mori that they thought the Games had shown Britain to be a confident multi-ethnic society, with just 8% disagreeing. Nobody now remembers the pessimistic media predictions that Britain would be unable to recognise itself in Team GB when one in ten team members were born abroad, fearing  that a team meeting ‘would resemble Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Three during a baggage handlers’ strike’ (even though that mirrored, as it happens, the population at large). That ugly pejorative term “plastic Brits” was happily consigned down the memory hole.

Finally, the Paralympics provided a crowning moment for these happy narratives of British exceptionalism. No Olympic and Paralympic host to date could rival Britain in coming so close to approaching not merely a formal parity of esteem but an equal embrace of sporting enthusiasm and public ownership. This celebratory pride was combined with the universalist aspiration that future hosts would now emulate how the British had done it. That not one moment of the Paralympics was seen live on American network television was, though, an indication of how far others may need to travel to catch up.

So British exceptionalism was often the unstated common currency of so many everyday exchanges about what had made 2012 special. Many on the liberal-left, having often somewhat surprised themselves with their ability to join in, celebrated the spirit of inclusion, but did not dwell on this point. The left’s universalist instincts make it suspicious of particularist narratives about national identity or ethos, often dismissing them as irrational sentimentality and myth-making, likely to form a barrier to desirable, rational progress.

Yet the British liberal-left, despite those universalist principles, can voice particularist narratives rather more often than it realises. It is just that they can more often take the form of viewing Britain as distinctive – but unfortunately, distinctively worse. This was George Orwell’s observation in the 1940s that the English intelligentsia could often become suckers for anyone else’s nationalism but their own, though the post-imperial roots of this condition may perhaps have become more subconscious now. It remains striking how often liberal-left arguments revert to suggesting that Britain would be better if only it could be turned into somewhere else. If only we were as equal as Sweden; and not so hung up on history and sovereignty as to prevent us being good Europeans, and could throw off the Ruritarian traditions of hereditary monarchy, to embrace the grown-up politics of coalition and compromise that we now watch in our cherished Danish television imports.

Arguments can be put for, or against, any or all of those propositions – but could often be more effective if located ‘within’ British traditions, including republicanism, more often and not only by appeals from elsewhere. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony drew too on traditional British culture, from Nimrod and Jerusaelem to Shakespeare. By representing in Stratford the iconography of popular protest from the suffragettes to the Jarrow marches, and publicly cherished institutions like the NHS and the BBC, it offered Britain’s left and liberal traditions a reminder of an alternative, once dominant, approach where their own distinctive ethos and sense of its own history could provide cultural resources with which to contest future public arguments too. The Olympics and Paralympics foregrounded too several counter-claims for Britain as a distinctively progressive society, which has often done rather more than other European countries, such as in the extent to which it has made public racism taboo, challenged stigma about disability, or made national pride and identity more inclusive. Times columnist David Aaronovitch recently, following Orwell’s approbation of a distinctive English “habit of not killing each other”,argued persuasively that British traditions of “the toleration of views and the freedom to speak them” provided a barrier and antidote to turning even deeply held disputes over issues such as gay marriage, abortion or immigration into full-throated “culture wars” of the type which polarise American politics and society

Meanwhile, the political right has little problem with the principle of national particularism, as was particularly evident during the Jubilee of its instinctive relish of the irrational but practical virtues of Monarchy in British society during the Jubilee, and the evidently broad public legitimacy which it enjoys. The right often voices particularist arguments, most obviously in its unresolved debate about whether the UK can ever be at ease within the European Union. So British exceptionalism is an instinct which comes more naturally to the right (Up to a point, anyway. When it comes to frustration on the reformist right about Britain’s inability to have a “rational debate” about the “secular religion” of the NHS, it is uncanny how much the commentators and policy wonks of the right sound like their left-liberal peers who oppose the monarchy, which is perhaps another sign of how far this public service has entrenched itself in the national psyche, as the Olympic opening ceremony also demonstrated. There was also a perhaps more surprising strand of anti-particularism hidden beneath the patriotic-sounding title “Brittania Unchained”, an influential tract in which some of the brightest sparks of the Tory class of 2010 at times seemed to suggest that their alternative project would be to remake “lazy” Britain not into egalitarian Scandinavia, but rather to remould it in the image of industrious East Asia).

What the right finds more difficult – with exceptions, especially London Mayor Boris Johnson, the most prominent champion of Tory optimism – is to locate its celebration of what is distinctive about Britain in the present and future, and not only to celebrate a past that it fears is in danger of being eroded and lost. As a result, Conservatives including the Croydon MP Gavin Barwell and ex-minister turned ConservativeHome blog editor Paul Goodman see their tradition as facing an “existential challenge” of adapting to the recent census evidence of how British society has changed. They are right to warn their party not to follow Mitt Romney and the US Republicans over a demographic cliff-edge, adopting strategies which won elections two decades ago but which now risk giving the US right permanent minority status, until it can become a natural home of Hispanic and minority as well as white voters. But their cogent argument may struggle to get a hearing if the constituency associations were to spend the next two years obsessing only about the rise of UKIP, which can often voice a potent pessimism about loss and decline.

Protection of what is distinctive is naturally important to a conservative ethos, but the historic persistence of the British conservative tradition has depended in avoiding its conservativism hardening into a reactionary, existential pessimism. The demographic challenge of 2013-15 and beyond, though significant, could hardly be said to be as great as that facing the party a century ago, when many feared that universal suffrage, tripling the electorate, would bring about an end to property and order. Lord Salisbury had made it the defining project of late nineteenth century Conservatism to avoid or delay the onset of this ‘dangerous and irrational creed by which two day labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild’. Yet, rather to their own surprise, the Conservatives instead became the dominant party of the era of mass democracy. The Conservative tradition may have sought to slow down change, where possible, but it has had a particular talent for adapting to it too, and will need to do so again.

The spirit of 2012 offers an important clue for how it might do this, for perhaps the core message of the inclusive patriotism of 2012 was that British culture and British identity have proved stronger and less fragile than cultural conservatives have often tended to fear. In particular, the British cultural inheritance, from Shakespeare and the Monarchy, to the BBC and Britain’s post-war pop and sporting traditions, have proved especially attractive to new Britons, disproving the predictions of those cultural pessimists who argued that British identity and ethnic diversity were inherently incompatible.

If British exceptionalism was the theme of the extraordinary year that was 2012, the earliest knockings of 2013 herald an altogether less unusual year. The economic anxieties of the left and the cultural fears of the right will certainly be prominent; it is less clear where any riposte to balance a prevailing mood of anxiety, and perhaps pessimism, might come from. The next two years will also see an increased public focus on national identities within Britain: the Britishness of 2012 resonated with majorities across the nations of the United Kingdom, but whether and how an inclusive British identity will prove capable of accomodating the growing assertion of English, Scottish and Welsh identities, and managing the deep divisions over identity and symbolism in Northern Ireland, remain open questions which will now move towards centre-stage.

Yet the final lesson of 2012 could hardly be to indulge in a first wave of modern nostalgia for that now lost golden summer, wondering why everything has gone to the dogs since. 2012 demonstrated a strong public appetite for taking part in things that bring us together. That will not have gone away just because the calendar has ticked on into 2013.

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