Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

English ‘exceptionalism’ despite Italy’s warning

Seeing ourselves as others see us, Italian-style.

Alice Figes
19 May 2020, 8.58am
Roberto Saviano at the Berlinale, February 2019. Marechal Aurore/PA. All rights reserved.
Marechal Aurore/PA. All rights reserved.

On March 9, I was still in Northern Italy. I’d been a Brit studying and working in Bologna for the past two years. The day after Conte called a national lockdown I managed to fly back to London, walking unchecked through Stansted and onto public transport. I couldn’t get a test. So I went into self-isolation for two weeks, confused and disturbed by the UK’s quiet self-confidence and unchanged routine. This was all despite overwhelming evidence from Italy that the virus was more than a simple flu and quickly heading our way. When Johnson reassured us that those returning from abroad would finally be tested in last Sunday’s public announcement, more than two months after my return, I almost laughed.

Just a few weeks ago we were looking at the Italian case as apocalyptic: now the UK has the second highest death rate in the world. In mid-March ‘herd immunity’ was put forward, just days after Italy’s national lockdown. This was in spite of the warning from former WHO director Anthony Costello that “the UK was out of kilter with other countries” and should follow mass testing, tracing and self-isolation. At this point, the UK had 596 confirmed cases. On the 13th, Jeremy Hunt, former Conservative health minister, criticised the strategy, “personally surprised that we’re still allowing visits to care homes.” Two months on, over a third of the UK’s 50,000 confirmed deaths have been in care homes, something that could have been avoided, as Starmer effectively explained in last week’s PMQs.

In early March I was admittedly convinced by UK mainstream press coverage that Italy was facing its own unique disaster, not applicable to the rest of Europe. ‘Italy has an ageing population’, we were told, something I accepted and said so to my Italian friends who had warned me that the UK would soon be in the same situation as they were. I was persuaded by the advice I was hearing that the NHS would be more ‘reliable’ than Italy’s savaged health care system (despite Lombardy’s reputation as one of the best in Europe). Fundamentally, I felt reassured that the UK would be smart enough to avoid Italy’s mistakes, with the benefit of advance warning. Retrospectively, I feel I was also probably guilty of my own belief in English ‘exceptionalism’. Now I am left wondering where that idea came from.


‘Exceptionalism’ is the idea that a person, country or political system is different, or even better than others. It’s a sense of your own special status, your immunity to the problems that afflict others. The etymology is interesting. From its Latin root ‘exceptio’, it means ‘withdrawal’, something we’ve done most obviously through Brexit. More recently, at the height of the pandemic crisis the UK government opted out of the EU ventilator scheme, despite massive shortages across the austerity-stricken NHS.

A political or cultural exceptionalism goes far back in our history. “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life,” said Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist, in this famous dictum to Lord Grey in 1853. The slippery construct of ‘Englishness’ presupposes an ‘Other’ – a foreign and inferior way of doing things on the other side of the English Channel. Of course, every country has its own sense of pride. But an English exceptionalism has grown increasingly nativist in definition in the past few years. Cecil Rhodes, as a white supremacist, whose brainchild was South African apartheid, was speaking of an ‘English’ Anglo-Saxon identity. “The first race” as he called it, which set itself out as superior to black, Mediterranean or any other racial category.

Of course it was the labour of Britain’s colonized peoples, slaves and working classes that constructed the empire Rhodes was so proud of. Today it is again working-classes, predominantly BAME peoples, who have been effectively forced back into competitive work, piling onto feverish tubetrains at the risk of their own lives and the lives of others. According to IFS data, BAME death rates are more than twice that of the white British population.

Images of the ‘Other’

Around mid March, some of the worst perpetators from a minority corner of the British media were dismissing the Italian lockdown as just ‘an excuse’ for a ‘long siesta’, explicitly playing on nineteenth century racist stereotypes of the ‘chaotic’ Mediterranean, lazy sun-drenched cultures compared to the productive Protestant work-ethic of North Europeans. Britain as the ‘vanguard’ of progress, liberal parliamentary democracy and the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, couldn’t possibly fall into the same mess as backward Italy – so the logic went – that land of the mafia, hot tempers and any other stereotypes.

While these stereotypes about Italy are still commonplace, it’s worth pointing out that according to OECD data from 2018, Italians work more on average each year compared to the British. Meanwhile in 2016, Roberto Saviano, writer, screenwriter, and Italy’s leading investigative journalist on the mafia, declared London “the heart of global financial corruption” and the UK, the “world’s most corrupt nation”.

For a country that congratulates itself for its global relations, and now with Brexit depends on these, the UK has an extremely limited understanding of its perception abroad – a country unable to relativise its experiences with those of other nations.

Italians have been watching the UK strategy with a mixture of incredulity and pity, wondering if the sacrifice they made and the advance warning they gave us has fallen on deaf ears. When Boris Johnson made his famous statement on March 12, that we would ‘lose loved ones before their time’, I received messages from Bologna asking if this was a joke. How could the death of our loved-ones be declared with such matter-of-factness? Conte was being hailed as a hero, for prioritising the dignity of life and initiating a national lockdown. Meanwhile, our own ‘common sense’ prime minister’s close death-via-Covid became the absurd crystallisation of our national hubris on the global stage.


Weeks on, one of the main debates in Italy has been around the term ‘congiunti’ (loved ones). It’s a term that continuously makes appearances on my social media newsfeed, a clear buzzword of Italy’s phase 2. Its prominence in the Italian political lexicon reflects the country’s prioritisation of family over any economic considerations. When Conte made the original lockdown speech on March 9, the word ‘aperitivo’ was mentioned dozens of times in his speech, causing everyone I was with to laugh with affection. We interpreted this as a recognition of something central to Italian culture: a need for social connection.

The split between those echo chambers, my Ital-UK news feeds, has never looked stranger. The vague definition of the word ‘loved ones’ in Italy has been peppered with jokes about who counts (friends, lovers, second cousins)? In the UK, by contrast, calls to end lockdown seem to revolve around work. Segments of the labour force were given just twelve hours to heed their bosses calls, much faster than it was in Italy, despite our considerably higher death rate. Cleaners afraid for their health and livelihoods are being called back to clean the houses of the middle-classes. In a tragic case last week, Emanuel Gomes, a cleaner in the Ministry of Justice died of Covid19, after returning to work out of a sense of obligation combined with financial strain, a choice he should never have had to make.

The commonplace of ‘English common sense’ nods to Victorian ideas of ‘personal responsibility’. As Owen Jones has recently argued, this presents the government with an opportunity to blame the public for a new spike in deaths, as will inevitably happen after last Monday’s policy of effectively coercing the working classes, including the most vulnerable BAME groups, back to work. An out-of-touch nostalgia for laissez-faire continues to dominate the government’s approach despite recent statistics that show 73% of the British population wish to remain in lockdown and prioritise lives over the economy. Even the governments of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have refused to follow the path of the English.

Italy’s La Repubblica reported on London’s lockdown recently, describing the perennial presence of Dickens in a city where “money reveals itself as the only regulator of human relations”. In Bleak House, Dickens describes working families, who lived together in crowded accommodation like today. The word “feverish” is employed as a metaphor for the “hot oven” of London life, riven with cholera and typhoid that killed the unprotected. They had no choice but to carry on – business as usual.

Italian defects

Of course Italy too has made its own mistakes and is dealing with its own dramatic hardships and complexities as it enters phase 2. It has been forced to make risky decisions for the sake of the economy from the reopening of national borders for tourism this week, to the early reopening of small businesses with strict social distancing rules. The most vulnerable Italian citizens are not furloughed as they are in the UK due to Italy’s deep financial crisis.

And just like the English identity, the ‘Italian’ can also be exclusive. The harsh legacy of Salvini’s Security decrees leaves BAME migrant communities unprotected and forced into unsafe work or homelessness, unable to obtain residency permits. Then there was the recent hotly contested debate dominating mainstream Italian press over the government’s negotiation to save hostage Silvia Romano, whose life (now as a convert to Islam) some claim wasn’t worth the cost to the Italian state.

Yet words and slogans from the top reveal something about national attitudes and values. At least, it suggests what governments perceive to be important. Conte not only prioritised access to ‘loved ones’, but apologised to the Italian people for his handling of the crisis. An apology from Boris Johnson or any member of the British political leadership is sadly unimaginable – let alone a pay rise for our key workers.

Capitalist realism

In the UK we are reminded that our government is constantly ‘guided by the science’. But if that is the case, why wasn’t the science from Italy, Spain and France taken more seriously in those crucial weeks?

The UK, among other countries, has an entrenched ideology of what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, accepting that no alternative is possible. I even noticed this attitude in comparing the differences between Italian versus UK reactions to Johnson’s original herd immunity speech. The neoliberal realpolitik of Thatcherism, with roots in Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, has percolated into our cultural psyche to such an extent that we continue our economic lives, without questioning why – as if working weekends somehow makes you a better person. Work as an identity. As we start to rebuild we must ask ourselves deeper questions about what brings value to our lives.

How is it that in the UK, a technically imagined entity such as profit takes precedence over the physical bodies of loved ones? The people that raised us, nurtured us, some of whom fought to defend Britain from fascism, became a generation living in nursing homes, neglected spaces during this pandemic and quick incubators of the virus.

As some of my teachers in Bologna have told me, whilst the practice has certainly grown in recent generations, nursing homes for Italians are mainly considered an Anglo-Protestant phenomenon. As in other European countries, care homes in northern Italy have been critical to the estimate of Covid deaths,. However, the preferred practice in Italy generally seems to be that of ‘caregivers’ (badanti). This is individual home-care work, typically carried out by eastern European migrant workers. According to data from 2018, older Italians are more likely to receive care in their own homes (16%), compared to their German or American counterparts (5%). In the south especially, multigenerational households where grandparents are cared for is part of the tradition.

Whilst the practice has certainly grown in recent generations, nursing homes for Italians are mainly considered an Anglo-Protestant phenomenon.

The UK has the highest excess death rates both over 65 and between 15-64, placing our peak at 5 times worse than the weekly Italian peak. As the BBC reported, given that Italy has an older population than the UK, and that the UK is considerably more densely populated (with about 275 people per sq m compared with about 205 in Italy), the Italian death rate should be higher. But the English peak was higher than in Italy, despite the fact that Lombardy did not have the advance warning we did. UK delay in the face of the Italian warning was a political choice, not a scientific one.

It is impossible to make simple claims about a singular ‘national culture’. But certain value differences are clearly emerging between nations as the virus works its damage. An overconfident and convenient English exceptionalism, growing explicitly more nativist each day, is not only prone to error, it is literally dangerous – to ourselves more than anyone else.

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