Contrarian Reponses to Brexit #1: Why Such a Big Deal?

There is such a massive world media response after the vote because the result was so inconsistent with Britain’s long-term image, and self-image, in the world.

As one brought up in a country that still believes that “[limted] executive power derives from some farcical [non-aquatic] ceremony,” I sometimes find it hard to remeber how distorted the UK image in the world is.

We (meaning all including the UK here) think of the UK as educated, intelligent, witty, tolerant, calm, principled, classy, well-governed, and above all as living in the world so well portrayed in what my family has long called “Master-Race Theater.”  At its core has been the idea of Britain “standing alone” against Nazism.  At some level, we all thought we could rely on the UK, if not to save the world again, at least to act as a real anchor against chaos.

But last week forced that image into conflict with the reality of a small, short-sighted, disunited, unpredictable and selfish island with a non-functioning political system.  In other words, it is not so different from the rest of the world.  It is a bit scary.

Now indeed the world wonders if “standing alone,” was less about principled “standing,” and more about being “alone.”  And, let me tell you, British exceptionalism may be more self-deprecatory (at least for some of the people, some of the time), but it is a far more subtle, pervasive, and deeply ingrained version than, for example, the American one.

US exceptionalism, in an idea-driven  pluralistic country, is more about the specialness of the country as a whole .  But British exceptionalism, in a country that all too often still thinks of itself as racially unique, is at least as much about the special character of all its citizens.  That is impossible to budge.  Changing it would require asking people not to think about the world differently, but rather to think about themselves differently.

So the rest of the world, disabused of its faith in the reliability of Britain, is not only disoriented, but a little frightened, as the whole world seems to change in its orbit.