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Exceptionalism is again visible in what was by most metrics a far bigger disaster than Suez or Amritsar: the partition of India and Pakistan, which left between 1 and 2 million people dead, created 10 million to 20 million refugees, and established a hostile relationship between successor states that threatens global security to this day.
The last British viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, has been blamed ever since for speeding Britain’s exit deadline up. What he achieved by that was to ensure that most of the fallout did not happen on Britain’s watch. Internationally, many newspapers reported Indian and Pakistani independence alongside photographs of Mountbatten and British officials applauding the raising of new flags. (Mountbatten had all British flags removed in advance, thus avoiding embarrassing images of newly independent peoples cheering them being pulled down.)
Only in the days and weeks after partition did the shocking reports of death and destruction ramp up, and so British exceptionalism was able to remain unscathed. The British could sigh sadly at the appalling outcome, and murmur “après nous, le déluge.” The writer Pankaj Mishra has described a “malign incompetence” common to Mountbatten and the Brexiteers. His point rings true, but the critique cannot be limited to a few individuals, or it risks again letting the system itself off the hook. Why do British politics, society, and culture produce such individuals, promote them, and reward them? Only so many similar results of this system can be dismissed as aberrations before it begins to seem as if they might not be aberrations at all.
A British leadership that wanted to deliver Brexit safely and was not in thrall to exceptionalism might have learned from past mistakes. Suez might have taught it to prefer reality over fantasy, compromise and conciliation over arrogance and vaingloriousness. Partition might have taught it to respect and understand complexity rather than oversimplify difficult problems, to make a plan before setting tight deadlines. Both might have taught it that you should never, ever imagine you’ve had enough of experts.
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But to learn from mistakes you must confront them, and exceptionalism means you never do. Successes may be evidence of Britain’s greatness, but failures are inherently un-British. It is worth noting, too, that exceptionalism does not affect only those who support Brexit. As the historian Robert Saunders has pointed out, “The idea that Britain should lead the EU—widely deployed [by campaigners who supported staying in the EU] in 2016—has as strong an imperial heritage as the aspiration to leave it.” What would be exceptional about meekly accepting equal status with 27 others?
Brexit is exposing flaws in the British political system and culture, but they are not new. Exceptionalist thinking has long helped insulate that system from the criticism and reform it needs.
For advocates and critics of Brexit alike, it may be tempting to imagine a golden age in which Britain was competent, reliable, stable, and sensible. Looking at its history, though, if it turns out to be none of those things, we shouldn’t be surprised.