Dying Myths of British Exceptionalism

Originally published at: https://robwatsonmedia.net/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 is that the free market will solve all our problems, and that individualistic market economics will optimise the distribution of social resources to maximise efficiently. 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.

Merit begets wealth. Fortune is bestowed on the deserving. This is the myth that we have come to accept. 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 up their assets through investments or property and then live off the income, without having to labour to secure a high standard of living. Retiring early on the back of your property investments is the dream for many.

As Thatcher’s revolution of the property-owning democracy recedes into oblivion, and becomes a distant reality for some, and a memory for most, the consequences of this myth remain central to our political discourse. Our politics is fought across a landscape of marginal constituencies defined by who owns a house, who aspires to own a house, and who intends to profit from the hoarding of these assets.

Rather than being the great fulcrum of democratic capitalism, property ownership has confined social benefit to a few. Those who have been fortunate to ride the wave of property speculation have hoarded their assets, protected from the prying eyes of the government. Property wealth is locked into the economic distributional system, with intergenerational asset transfers confined to family inheritance.

Merit, industry, virtue, and social contribution play no role in determining how future generation gain reward for their efforts. If you don’t have wealthy relatives, or lack the skills of the gambler or spiv, then you are unlikely to benefit from good fortune unless chance deals a winning hand in a lottery. Because the benefits of asset wealth for the few are so incredible, the dream for the many remains inflated, 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 aspire to, something to dream about. Any sense of shared prosperity and collective benefit is diminished even as a possibility. We don’t 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 through personality, persona management and self-righteousness. The irony of the lucky few ‘living their dream’ while the rest of us fret and worry about making 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, that instils personal advantage as the only motivating factor we should consider. The marketisation of our essential services is falling apart. The 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. 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.

The slow dissolution of the myth of British exceptionalism is gradually falling apart on the rocks of practical reality, Brexit being the most obvious. Competence 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 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.