British exceptionalism: Where Brexit and our coronavirus response collide

PUBLISHED: 10:12 03 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:23 03 May 2020

Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain's Potential speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich following the UK's exit from the European Union. Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA.

Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain's Potential speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich following the UK's exit from the European Union. Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Historian DAVID EDGERTON on the cynical fantasies about innovation and exceptionalism providing a common strand with Covid-19 and Brexit.

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Workers in the assembly area of an aircraft factory in the Midlands, building spitfires.  (Photo by Hudson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)Workers in the assembly area of an aircraft factory in the Midlands, building spitfires. (Photo by Hudson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The government’s response to Covid-19 and Brexit are intimately connected. Recognising this is vital to understanding the politics of both. Indeed as the trade expert David Henig has noted, we will know that the UK is really serious about Covid-19 at the moment in which is prepared to say that a Brexit extension is needed. That moment has not yet come, indeed it has been ruled out.

On the face of it there is a very great difference between the two policies. In the case of Brexit the government has consistently rejected the advice of economists, including its own.

In the case of Covid-19 it constantly reiterates that it is “following the science”. But there is an underlying connection which is important. Brexiteer arguments are centred on fantasies about British scientific and inventive genius. The government has sought to address Covid-19 at least in part on this deluded basis.

At the beginning, Boris Johnson stood behind “the science” to justify a UK-only policy of ‘delay’ of the Covid-19 virus. This involved minimal intervention in what Johnson took to reminding us are the “freedom-loving” proclivities of the “British people”. Too late, what looked like a cunning plan to exemplify the virtues of the British way collapsed utterly.

The UK is now, broadly-speaking, following Europe and much of the rest of the world. “Following the science” now sounds like a way of not answering legitimate questions.

But when it comes to ventilators, a Brexiteer innovation-fixated logic applies. The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU.

The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators. First off the blocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiteer Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiteer capitalist, Lord Bamford of JCB, to make many thousands of the devices.

This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the Second World War, as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm.


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It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes, even though many of the companies making the components in the UK are European, like Siemens, Airbus, Thales…

That wartime analogy was deeply misleading – the UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them.

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What is clear is that we are not in 1940. The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it. Furthermore, the NHS (and this is a scandal) has been under-supplied with them. The high-end ventilators the NHS now needs will and are coming from abroad.

It looks as if the British emergency ventilators will generally be low-end ones, and one at least has already been rejected. The ones that seem to be going into production are based on simple machines long in production in the UK.

Indeed, there may be a wartime analogy which could become pertinent. Churchill did attempt to conjure up new weapons in a hurry in the face of expert advice. They included anti-aircraft rockets, spigot mortars, and indeed a trench-cutting machine. They were universally late, did not work well or at all, and represented a huge waste of resources.

We should not be fooled into believing that there is a coherent industrial strategy emerging out of the epidemic, a determined move to national self-supply.

For if there were the government would not be throwing manufacturing in Britain to the winds, as its Brexit plans certainly would. For they involve the breaking up of the regulatory and customs market in which they exist, and furthermore, would open the British market not only to European producers, but those from all over the world. That is what being a global champion of free trade means.

What we need to understand is the centrality of a mythical picture of British innovation to Brexit. Brexiteer arguments for a hard Brexit hinge on the UK’s supposed leadership in creativity and innovation, which was just waiting to be unleashed.

Dominic Cummings got his £800 million in the budget for a UK version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The wonderful thing about invoking ‘science’ is that it suggests action, drive, modernity.

Yet what Johnson and other Brexiteers have rediscovered was a great British liberal tradition of making a lot of noise about science in order to cover up deliberate inaction, in the face of demands for a national and imperial strategy for agriculture and industry.

Before the Great War, faced with calls from the Tories for tariffs on imports, not least food, which he vehemently opposed, David Lloyd George funded agricultural research to help farmers instead.

Of course any help they might receive would be years in the future and trivial by comparison with tariffs. Similarly, in the 1920s, the government resisted protection and imperial preference by creating an Empire Marketing Board, one of whose major functions was research. It had minor impact, as intended, and was wound up the moment tariffs came in the 1930s.

The strategy has been in action for a while. After 2008 there was much talk about the ‘march of the makers’, and the ‘northern powerhouse’. One of the very few initiatives was the support, with £50m, of the Graphene Institute. Graphene, made by two Manchester University scientists, was seen as a wonder material, which would transform the fortunes of the university, its region and the whole country. It was trumpeted the key to a vibrant new future. It has not arrived. Sums like £50m can buy a lot of media coverage; they cannot buy you a real industrial strategy. Innovation capacity in batteries has been a favourite for some years. Yet there is no significant British battery industry, nor the prospect of one. Electric cars, and batteries for them, are very much more advanced in Europe, in China and in Japan. One cannot magic an industry out of thin air, whether high-end ventilators or batteries, but by referencing innovation one can pretend, for a while.

And that is where the politics of Covid-19, and Brexit, are stuck, in cynical fantasies about innovation.

• David Edgerton teaches at King’s College London, where he is Hans Rausing professor of the history of science and technology and professor of modern British history; this article also appears at his blog, www.davidedgerton.org

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