“Despite having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony,” the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, the Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn, announced in an attempted joke about British Zionists that has tumbled into a debate about the extent and nature of his anti-Semitism. But what is just as striking as his attitude toward “Zionists” is his definition of Englishness as being gifted with a supposedly unique sense of humor.
He is far from alone in this assertion, and it often pops up in official political discourse. At a citizenship ceremony I attended recently, the Mayor of Camden described new British passport holders as now being able to understand English “eccentricity.” And on the other side of the spectrum from Corbyn is the Pantagruel of English politics, the Tory Boris Johnson, who also uses humor as a shorthand for exceptionalism. He is well known for his “eccentric” demeanor and tirelessly provocative jokes about women in burkas looking like “letter boxes.” Corbyn would probably say he is appalled by Johnson’s japes, but perhaps he and Johnson have more in common than it seems, tying humor, national identity, and an attachment to England’s imperial importance in ways that lead to opposite political tribes but point to common national pathologies.
Johnson was the most important vote-winner for the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. If there was one underlying motif to the vote (which actually tapped into many different grievances) it was an insistence on national exceptionalism: We are still a great country, we can do things our own special way. Part of English exceptionalism has always been to define ourselves as Not European. The trouble with EU immigration isn’t that newcomers are so unlike the English, but that in many ways they are pretty similar, with similar ideas about family, work, faith, and fun. For a nation that has always defined itself as exceptional, unique, eccentric, different, it was disconcerting to suddenly feel it might not be so special after all.
Unlike previous immigrants, the new EU ones didn’t make the English feel unique.
Take the (often Jewish) Eastern Europeans who arrived in England in the early 20th century. They were so keen to join the most powerful club in the world they would amputate their names to fit in: from Vinogradov to Grade; Brokhovich to Brook. No one would bother doing that today.
When my family arrived here in the 1970s as political refugees from the Soviet Union, the English welcomed us partly because it showed that England’s political system was superior. The Empire was gone but England was still a force in the Cold War.
Postwar immigrants from former British colonies often came from cultures more “different” than EU migrants. But they also reminded the English of their colonial grandeur, some sort of special destiny. Immigrants and their descendants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia have often been treated appallingly (and a dedicated segment of racists does exist in England), but there is still a sense that these people form a part of a greater national legacy.
As the Brexit vote became a way to insist on England’s exceptional nature, the campaign became a competition between two different styles, both of which laid claim to expressing the essence of Englishness. The Remain Camp were all Common Sense and Prudence, warning of the irresponsible financial risk of exit, and of the economic value of immigration. The Leave Campaign, led by Johnson and Michael Gove (who had tried his hand at television comedy after university), went for eccentricity laced with fear of foreigners. In the country of Silly Walks, eccentricity won hands down; John Cleese, inevitably, is a Brexiteer.
Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit has always been confusing. Officially, he was Remain, but he campaigned sub-optimally. Throughout most of his political life, he has been opposed to the “neoliberal constraints” of the European Union. Since the vote, he has readily embraced the idea of British Jobs for British People.
England’s sense of uniqueness (or is it just superiority?) is deeply connected to memories of imperial grandeur. This pride has had to be stifled beneath the shame of the racism which fed colonialism. The Leave campaign, and Johnson especially, managed to dislodge this by constantly claiming England was now a benighted colony of Brussels—an absurd claim from a country that intimately knows exactly what colonialism entails. Suddenly, it was OK to take pride in the British Empire. If we’re all victims, why can’t we celebrate our past, too? Johnson’s humor specifically plays at resurrecting taboo imperial references: calling Africans “piccanninies,” or nastily jesting that President Obama didn’t like Britain because of his Kenyan heritage (the British pioneered the use of concentration camps in Kenya). The problem with Africa, “is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Johnson likes to claim his type of Brexiteers are not Little Englanders but in fact open to the world—by which he means that they are open to ruling it again.
Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to Empire is at first glance the opposite of Johnson’s. He sees colonialism as the root of all evil (and Zionism). But as the SOAS academic Yair Wallach has insightfully pointed out, Corbyn’s thoughts regarding Zionists’ lack of English irony also play into classic tropes of writing by British officials in Mandatory Palestine, which contrasted “crass Zionists” with “refined Arabs.” Moreover the school of thought which sees colonialism as the main cause of all political events reveals a heavy dose of self-regard, still seeing one’s country as the source of all things, albeit negatively. It also robs others of their own agency, leaving them somehow below-par humans. Putin, Assad, Hamas—they’re not responsible for their own actions. All they ever do is a consequence of the actions of real people, the ones with that special sense of irony.
As England’s achievements grow ever less remarkable, so the desperate need to have something to see that sense of specialness through becomes more pronounced. Eccentricity becomes the last exceptionalism. Ironically, it’s making us into a laughing stock.