Last week, I went to the British museum for the first time, which is kind of embarrassing because I love history and have lived in London for a few months now. At the entrance, I was gleefully informed that entry was free as my bag was handed back to me, which amused me, because frankly, I think it would be a bit ridiculous to charge people to see a bunch of goods you acquired with the five-finger discount. But what struck me most during my visit wasn’t the mummies or the marbles, but the attitude that hung in the air. There’s an attitude of British exceptionalism, which is slightly different to the freedom brandishing brand we have in America.
The problem with Brits, even those of our generation, is that they have a sort of ownership complex. The British national mindset is still flecked with certain imperial assumptions; this is why young British people act the ways they do on their gap years as they frolic through southeast Asia. Their total lack of true respect for the native cultures and communities stems from the fact that deep down, they have a secret belief that they own the place. It’s similar to the weird ideal of ownership that you see in the eyes of England football fans when they tell you “it’s coming home.” It’s OURS, it belongs to US, WE invented it, WE are exceptional. Even when the English aren’t good at something, they fabricate some reason to pat themselves on the back (#Trump).
Would it not have been absurd for Greek people to have run around London during the 2012 Olympics aggressively chanting about how THEY invented it? Of course it would have, so they calmly took their two bronze medals home and melted them down to prop up their economy. Britain is like the dim Essex lad who’s way too ripped and turns into a toddler when girls reject him, with the main difference being that it is overcompensating for something that’s fairly major: it’s history of crime. The evidence sits in plain view. You can read it in street names, it fills museums up and down the country, it’s seated in the queen’s crown.
In saying this, I don’t mean to deny the bravery or talents of those Brits whose stories were used to lull you to sleep as a child. I would not have stood in the thin red line at Balaklava, nor could I have ever been good enough at football to get to a world cup final (my 5-a-side teammates will attest to this). But historically, British “heroism” and crime almost always go hand in hand. Most classically heroic British tales are surrounded by moral bankruptcy. Rorke’s drift was undeniably an impressive feat in terms of military prowess and fighting spirit, but British people never bother to ask why a gang of Welshmen were plodding through Southern Africa in the first place.
Commendation of these men’s “heroism” seems to imply either tacit approval of the situations in which they arose, or true ignorance of the context. Either way, it is up to British people to study their history, all of their history, in an honest manner. The majority of Brits look back through warped, Victorian glass, and it’s finally time for them to take a long look at themselves in a proper mirror. England cheated to win the 1966 world cup. Britain supported the South in the American civil war because slavery kept cotton cheap. It followed George Bush into an illegal war in Iraq. It has a xenophobia problem. Britain played a pivotal role in creating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it is not doing enough to help. Britain got almost all of China addicted to opium using (stolen) Indian land as its poppy farm, and then, when China tried to stop Britain from selling more opium to its citizens, Britain fought bloody wars with China so it could keep selling drugs. The British have enslaved, robbed, and executed people of almost every colour, class, and creed, and make movies lionizing the slavers, thieves, and executioners. There are aspects of British history to be proud of, without a doubt—but many, many more to be ashamed of.
There are always going to be a few psychological repercussions in a country when it goes from literally owning most of the world to being confined to a relatively small isle within a few generations. One could probably spend hours studying the development of this neocolonial subconscious, and perhaps such an understanding would be useful in helping to rid today’s Brits of that mindset. I believe that the first effective step that Brits can take away from their exceptionalist mindset is to reassess their conception of British history. It is not the action packed, Infinity war-esque heroic sequence of ass-kickings and cultural masterpieces that many imagine it to be. Until Britain can conceive of its past honestly, it will not be able to properly understand the present and its role in it.