The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance
Lord of the Flies
‘You’re all British, aren’t you? This remark made by the naval officer clearly has an underlying message. Namely, the British, when put under stress, behave well and it is the mark of the race that they do so. Lately, as often as not in the name of Brexit, much has been made of the idea of British exceptionalism - that British values are better than those of any incomer and you can’t call yourself truly British unless you accept that as a fact.
So, what are these much-vaunted British values? They can scarcely be ancient lore handed down from our pre-Celtic past. Any such beliefs would surely have been seriously diluted by the arrival of the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen and Norman French each with its own set of beliefs and customs. Indeed, it would be interesting to know if, traditionally, the values of the citizens of Newcastle, let alone Inverness, were the same as those who inhabited Cornwall or the Isle of Wight. I suspect not. My own belief is that no such set of uniform values would have existed until it had been invented, mostly for political purposes, then imprinted on the general populace from above. The novels of Dickens may well have been a starting point, but for the nation as a whole to be imbued with a common set of beliefs something more universally available was required and the something that turned up was the moving picture industry. Films like Passport to Pimlico where a London borough declared UDI as a protest against rationing showed the British how the British behave. Hollywood weighed in with likes of Mrs Miniver where the stiff upper lip lies behind the cut-glass accents of the Home Counties. Of course, it was a trick, a trick that allowed a war-worn populace to bask in the reflected glory of those acting the fantasy war being played out before them. And at the height of conflict there was no better story than Shakespeare’s Henry V. Olivier played the leading role, the credits thundered homage to the Commandos and Airborne Troops and the modest few with their trusty longbows defeated the arrogant many. The message was clear: the wartime audience was to see itself in this ‘mirror of all Christian kings’ and thus gain strength from the images of determination and virtue on show. But this was also a trick. Unlike the original play there was no indication that Henry had gone to war to save his political skin, threatened to loose his troops on the citizens of Harfleur in an orgy of rape and pillage or slaughtered his French prisoners in contradiction of whatever passed for the Geneva Convention at the time. Hardly a good example to set to the nation.
In the end British Exceptionalism seems somewhat unexceptional. At its best it is tolerant of a variety of views and understands that such tolerance eventually leads to a mutually advantageous compromise. At its worst it puts a plausible spin on unpalatable truths