Dying Myths of British Exceptionalism

Government is a shared myth. When the myth dies the government dies” Leto II, God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert

We live according to the myths and stories that we tell ourselves. During my lifetime, the dominant myth has been that the free market will solve all our problems, and that individualistic market economics will optimise the distribution of social resources to maximum efficiency. The mythos of winners and losers runs deep in the British psyche. Those with accumulated wealth deserve their good fortune, while those without assets are poor because of the bad choices they have made.

Brutal economic Darwinism prevails, with little sympathy for the less fortunate. Merit begets wealth. Fortune is bestowed to the deserving. This is the myth that most have come to accept and do not challenge. If you are poor, it must be your fault. If you are wealthy, it’s because you deserve it. The greatest dream for many is to build their assets through investments or property, and then live off the surplus income, without having to labour to secure a decent, never mind a high standard of living. Retiring early on the back of your property portfolio is the dream of many.

However, as Thatcher’s revolutionary ideal, of the property-owning democracy recedes into oblivion, and becomes a distant reality for most, and an obscure memory for others, the consequences of this myth continue to be played out in our political discourse. Our politics is fought across a landscape of marginal constituencies defined by swing-voters by who own a house, who aspires to own a house, and who intends to profit from the hoarding of these assets on the grounds that life is full of winners and losers, and they intend to be winners.

Rather than being the great fulcrum of democratic capitalism, however, property ownership has confined the benefit of social resources and assets to a limited few. Intergenerational social status is stockpiled through private education, networks of employment, private healthcare and low taxes on property. Those who have been fortunate to ride the wave of property speculation have hoarded their assets, protected from the prying eyes of the government who refuse to tax them to pay for vital collective services, like childcare, elder-care, prisons or education.

Property wealth is the immovable and impenetrable bedrock of the British economic distributional system, with intergenerational asset transfers confined through family inheritance scams and responsibility avoidance. Old people block beds in hospitals because relatives don’t want to sell their homes to pay for their care. Merit, industry, virtue, and social contribution play no longer play a significant role in determining how future generation gain reward for their efforts. If you don’t have wealthy relatives, and lack the skills of the gambler or spiv, then you are unlikely to benefit from good fortune. There is more chance of working people winning the lottery than getting a fair crack at the whip when it comes to fairness at work.

Because the benefits of asset wealth for the few are so incredible, like winning the lottery, the dream of wealth remains inflated in our heads. Dominating all of our attention, regardless of how improbably it will be for the promised rewards to come to us. Shared and social provision is no longer something to wish for, aspire to, or even think possible. Wealth is only something to dream about as a private occurrence. Any sense of shared prosperity and collective benefit has been diminished even as a possibility.

We no longer share common goals, only individualistically defined needs that we must meet by accumulating more wealth, more goods, more stuff. Wealth envy is played out across social media, with the deification of money, luxury brands, yachts, lavish cars, estates rather than homes. We worship at the altar of social advantage enacted by inhuman forms of personality, built on seductive presentational techniques of persona management and self-righteousness. The irony is that we worship the lucky few ‘living their dream,’ while the rest of us can only fret and worry about even the most basic things that will make our lives moderately comfortable and sufficiently functional.

What good is the aspiration to a luxury lifestyle if the roads are clogged, the air chokes us, and the quality of living is spiralling downwards? Here in the UK, we are witnessing the dissolution of the myth of market individualism. This myth has instilled personal advantage as the only motivating factor we should consider as a possibility. Our essential services, however, are falling apart before our eyes thanks to the corrupting influence of a free market devoid of a sense of common benefit.

The prevalent feeling is that nothing is working. Everything is an effort. Outsourcing and efficiency, touted as the saving function of the market, turn out to be nothing more than a liturgy of spreadsheet-defined delusions. Capitalist who run care homes take record dividends, while old people live in squalor. Government supporters win multi-million-pound contracts for equipment that is less than useless and has to be incinerated. The trains are a cash-cow for foreign speculators. The property market only goes up, and never comes down, as the government holds interest rates artificially low, making people feel that the crash will never come, and the bubble will never go pop!

The slow dissolution of the myth of British exceptionalism, promoted with gusto with Brexit, is gradually falling apart on the rocks of practical reality. Brexit is just another symptom of our problems. Competence, it seems, is a diminishing resource. The liturgy of consumer capitalism continues to be pronounced by the free-market priesthood, but we are increasingly aware that they are empty words. The barbarians are at the gates of the citadel, while the Brexit clergy assures us that our continuing faith in the benevolent hand of the market will protect us.

The myth is degenerating into threadbare dysfunction, and our present form of government is not long behind it. Plus ça change.

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