Dr Mike Finn, British exceptionalism and the aching disappointment of Brexit – Part 1.

I am indebted to @LSEBrexitvote and @GeorgePeretzQC for bringing this, by Dr Mike Finn of Warwick University, to my attention. A quick scan through it revealed a number of statements that were, at best, open to question; and at worst, downright wrong. Finn’s case is that Brexit – the people who voted for it, and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who campaigned to achieve it – are living in a myth of British exceptionalism. His implication is that this myth has misled the British people to vote the wrong way.

So let us start with a definition of ‘exceptionalism’. This, from the The Free Dictionary, seems to be as good as any other:

“ex·cep·tion·al·ism (ĭk-sĕp′shə-nə-lĭz′əm)
1. The condition of being exceptional or unique.
2. The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm.”

In the case of Mike Finn’s article, we might legitimately extend that definition just a little, by suggesting that Britain is exceptional in that it is good, or talented at a number of things which set it apart as a nation from many others. For most people, exceptionalism is just a long word which means that we are entitled to feel very proud of our country. It may be true that if this belief were to be taken to extremes, it could lead to jingoism and arrogance. But the important point is that Finn argues that this exceptionalism is a myth; and so our belief in our ability to do well as a nation outside the EU will lead to disappointment.

Dr Finn demonstrates why he feels that this is the case by reference to a number of articles which he feels support his view.

“For Gove and Johnson, Britain is the nation who stood alone in 1940, a great nation, heir to Anglo-Saxon culture and ‘first in the world for soft power’, owing to Britain’s supposed ‘invention’ of representative democracy. For Johnson, Churchill was a man of ‘vast and almost reckless moral courage’, the encapsulation of all that is good about Britain, not least British pluck. As Gove puts it, those who believe that the prospect of Brexit is a terrible idea are actually arguing that Britain is ‘too small and too weak…to succeed without Jean-Claude Juncker looking after us.’ Johnson went further, comparing the European project to Hitler’s attempt at territorial domination. Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.”

Most of this is perfectly fair enough. Britain did stand alone in 1940, we are the heir to Anglo-Saxon culture; and by some measures, we are pre-eminent in ‘soft power’ (although on this measure, we have just been overtaken by the United States). It is true that in ‘hard power’ terms we have dropped behind a bit, but this will be discussed later. The problem with Finn’s hypothesis is in the last sentence to this paragraph, where he says : “Both agree that, as in 1940, Britain can, and should, stand alone.” There is nowhere in the links that he makes, where Gove or Johnson made statements to this effect. I think it is unlikely that at any time in the referendum campaign, either Gove or Johnson would have been foolish enough to suggest this. And at the time of writing, I cannot find anywhere where they have. For a trading nation such as ours, standing alone in the world would be a bleak and deeply unprofitable experience.

In the next few paragraphs headed “A culture of escapism”, Finn develops his theme to describe what he calls the self-delusion of the British relationship with the United States. In this, he cites the allusions Macmillan made to likening Britain as Greece to the American Rome. Finn considers this metaphor to have been born of British snobbery. However, Macmillan had experienced the slaughter of the the First World War trenches first hand and had a horror of the real consequences of a few well placed atomic bombs detonating upon British soil [1].  Macmillan, and every other British prime minister since who has attempted to operate as wise counsel to the Americans, has had the same object in mind. When this did not happen, as in Tony Blair’s relationship with George W Bush, the results have been criticised heavily – particularly by the Left. As well as ‘courting’ Kennedy, MacMillan also opened dialogue with Khrushchev with a view to establishing a long term process of diplomacy. When I was a child in the 1960s, the word “détente” seemed to be spoken on every other news bulletin.

However, Finn then flips from Macmillan’s “self-delusion” to “popular culture” and links this putative “escapism” to James Bond. He claims that the James Bond myth was internalised by successive generations of Britons. Repeatedly, he uses the words ‘myth’ and ‘mythos’ to ‘depictions’ of the capabilities of British armed forces. In a couple of gratuitous swipes, he denigrates the SAS, the Royal Navy, the RAF and the British army as well as Tornado GR4s, Brimstone missiles and the Royal Navy’s current lack of air cover – and goes on to suggest that the Royal Navy is no longer a ‘blue water navy’. Someone (preferably from the SAS) needs to sit Dr Finn down in a pub and quietly put him right about a few things. However, in the meantime, I shall do my best to fill in a few gaps for him:

  • Brimstone is an anti-armour missile which can be launched from air, land or sea. Mostly, it is being used by the RAF to attack ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. It’s principle qualities are that it is extremely precise and has a variety of programming modes. The low fragmentation warhead reduces collateral damage and so it can help to minimise civilian casualties.  It’s use has been highly successful and RAF operations (including Brimstone) have not so far produced any civilian casualties. The USAF do not currently use Brimstone.
  • Tornado GR4 A mid-life upgrade from the original GR1s which were first in service in 1979. The GR4s first saw active service in Operation Desert Fox in 1998. 8 GR4s are currently stationed at RAF Akrotiri for operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They are typically armed with Brimstone missiles and Paveway IV laser guided bombs. GR4s are being steadily replaced by Typhoons and ultimately the F35B (Lightning II). Whilst they are elderly airframes, they have been upgraded and are still extremely capable multi-role combat aircraft. If you want to find out what these ‘clapped out ancient Tornado airframes’  are actually doing in the Middle East, try reading this.
  • Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are expected to be fully commissioned and operational by 2020. They are both capable of carrying up to 40 F35Bs, but will mostly be carrying 12 to 24 for normal operations, plus helicopters. They are designed to fulfil multiple roles and be able to achieve a sustained high rate of landings and take-offs by aircraft. They are the biggest ships ever ordered for the Royal Navy – built from steel which is 94% British and includes three new grades of steel which is lighter and stronger, enabling less fuel to be used.
  • SAS. The regiment was formed in July 1941 by David Stirling to harass German and Italian forces in the North African desert. It was disbanded in October 1945 and reinstated in 1950 during the Malayan Emergency. Its role is principally strategic – to provide sustained strategic offensive behind enemy lines, often from several bases within hostile territory. It also provides recruiting, training, arming and co-ordination of local guerrilla forces. Its principle operating unit is 4 to 5 men, each with a specialist skill such as demolition, signalling, first aid, parachuting etc.  It now has an additional counter terrorism role, exemplified by their success in the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. Their success has led them to be emulated throughout the world and many countries now have specialist elite forces, principally but not exclusively for counter-terrorism purposes. [2]

The armed forces of the United Kingdom have a proud tradition of fighting long, hard and very effectively in many wars and insurrections throughout the history of this country. Not every battle has been won – there have been some shocking disasters – but overall, Britain has been on the winning side because of the training and qualities of our armed men and women. In recent years however, Her Majesty’s armed forces have faced their biggest, most effective and implacable foe in the form of Her Majesty’s Treasury which has left them in a parlous state. On this, Dr Finn is correct to question whether they really are ‘the best in the world’ given that, for example, the Royal Navy would currently struggle to repeat a Falklands-style operation.

After the 2010 General Election, the new coalition government walked into the Treasury to find a note from a former Treasury minister, Liam Byrne, which said that there was no money left. After 13 years of Labour governments under Blair and then Brown, the nation’s finances were in a mess. It was not just the Treasury where the finances were in disarray. The Ministry of Defence had an enormous ‘black hole’ estimated to be in the region of £38 billion (or the equivalent of its total annual budget). Liam Fox and then Philip Hammond as successive Secretaries of State for Defence had to make some very hard decisions to heal the damage left by Labour financial mismanagement. Big chunks of our strategic capability were amputated and decisions for future procurement were postponed. That is why HMS Ark Royal and Invincible have been taken out of service before their replacements were completed. It is why the Harriers were retired without replacements. It is also why the Nimrod programme was axed. This has left our armed forces and defence contractors with having to make do and mend. The Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010 reflected the shocking financial mess that the MoD had got into.

However, by the time the SDSR 2015 was published, it became apparent that the turnaround was at last under way. Both QE class aircraft carriers are to be commissioned, the Type 26 frigates are ordered and the steel is cut (although the final go-ahead has not yet been given). The first F35 has been delivered to the RAF. The UK production part of the F35 programme will be worth £1 Billion or more and 35, 000 jobs. There is a firm commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence and with a real year on year increase of £0.5 billion every year until 2021. The differences between SDSR 2010 and SDSR 2015 can be seen in the table on page 8, here.

The past and present courage, success and resourcefulness of our armed forces are undoubted. It is far from a myth. The current situation amounts to some appalling gaps left by the ravages of poor funding and abysmal political management. The future is looking a little more assured, but rests entirely upon the ability of our politicians to be able to make strategic decisions for 5, 10 and 20, 0r even 30, years ahead. The problem is not in the exceptionalism of our armed forces – that is beyond doubt – it is in the short-termism of modern politics and the generally poor quality of modern politicians.

Aside from the armed forces, there are many, many other aspects of the UK which give cause for celebration:

  • The City of London is the largest financial centre in the world, exceeding even New York – and dwarfing Frankfurt.
  • London has seven large orchestras and a large number of smaller ones. These include: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Of these, the LSO is usually ranked in the top 5 best orchestras of the world. If you want to listen to  live music, London is a very good place to be.
  • British farmers are about the most efficient in the world, given the standards that they have to adhere to. These standards of environmental and animal welfare are the most stringent in the world.
  • UK environmental, animal welfare and conservation standards are the most exacting in the world – and it is these which have led and driven standards in the EU. It is not the other way around – see here for instance.
  • UK car manufacturing is bounding ahead, with Nissan Sunderland being the most efficient car plant in Europe, and Toyota Burnaston not that far behind. Jaguar Land Rover is reporting one vehicle sold every two minutes. The recent drop in an over-valued Pound Sterling will enhance sales rather than depress them, especially as 77% of UK car production goes to export.
  • Academically, the UK has 7 universities in the top 30, the list being dominated by US universities. The UK is second in terms of the number of Nobel Prize winners we have produced.
  • The UK has recently done extraordinarily well at the 2016 Olympics, coming second on the medal tables and beating China on the number of gold medals won. On a per capita basis, that’s not at all bad. Apart from football, the Brits seem to be doing much better at sports than we were, say, 30 years ago.
  • Clause 61 of the Magna Carta places, for the first time ever, the King (or the state) liable under the same laws as everyone else:
    • If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.
    • It is this, perhaps more than anything else, which gives good cause to the idea of British exceptionalism; because it establishes for the first time ever that the state is answerable to the law. This is the foundation of ‘The Rule of Law’. In a modified form, the Magna Carta formed the basis of the American Constitution, which itself stemmed from the original Boston Tea Party cry of “No taxation without representation”. And this, in a 21st Century iteration which has bounced back across the Atlantic, provides the basis for the sense of profound loss of sovereignty caused by the creeping erosion of our traditional rights and justice, which the European Union has imposed upon our nation. We are being taxed but have no meaningful representation or political accountability.
  • The English language is geographically the world’s most spoken language. Trade, international law and science are all conducted principally in English. Along with the principles of the rule of law, common law and representative democracy (all Anglo-Saxon traditions) it forms the basis of democracy and western civilisation.  These tiny, overcrowded islands have given the world the basis for the greatest leaps of technological and social progress that humanity has ever experienced. As an example of British exceptionalism, it cannot be gainsaid.

This list is a tiny number of the examples that could be given to demonstrate British exceptionalism; but it does give a flavour of reasons why there is every cause for British optimism for the future, based upon our considerable strengths as a nation.

This ‘exceptionalism’ is not a myth.



[1]       Mangold P, The almost impossible ally: Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle. 2006; I B Tauris (2nd edn).

[2]      Connor K, Ghost Force, the secret history of the SAS, 1998; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.



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