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The idea a people has that they are an exception is not just a problem facing Britain and Europe in 2016, it lies at the heart of humankind’s relation to the planet.

Brexit and exceptionalismThe new British government led by Theresa May has been bequeathed the difficult task of reconciling delusion and reality. The delusion, propounded by the Conservative right, was that Britain could leave the EU, take back control over immigration and continue to have full access to the European single market. As the Swiss found out only last month, the EU is absolutely clear that the internal market requires the free movement of goods, services, capital and people (sometimes referred to as the ‘four freedoms’). To demand the first three but to be exempted from the fourth is to want to have one’s cake and eat it.

So how come a significant section of the Conservative Party believed this was possible? To be generous to them there is some mileage in the idea that Britain, unlike Switzerland or Norway, is such an important trading partner to the EU that they will inevitably make an exception for us. But there is another way of understanding exceptionalism which I think takes us much closer to the truth. And this is the idea that in some sort of way the nation to which one belongs is exceptional and therefore that the laws that apply to other nations do not apply to one’s own. The most studied example is American Exceptionalism. So, for example, the US has ‘exempted’ itself from a whole number of international obligations and treaties such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague, in this case presumably because of the fervent belief that the concept of ‘war crime’ could never apply to an American soldier.

Sometimes, as in the case of the USA, exceptionalism is rooted in the idea a nation has that it is a ‘chosen people’, that is, chosen by God. English exceptionalism (and interestingly enough historians rarely refer to this phenomenon as British exceptionalism) has less religious origins and is based more upon our early adoption of modernity and industrialisation and then, of course, of Empire and our inability to mourn its loss. This inability is expressed through a melancholic longing for the identity of being a paramount global power, manifest in our clinging to the hideously expensive but practically useless Trident nuclear programme. This form of English exceptionalism has been a consistent feature of post-war British culture and is exemplified by the right wing of the Conservative Party which holds primary responsibity for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

This idea of exceptionalism will be very familiar to anyone from the world of psychotherapy. Its not just that we sometimes come across people who have the delusion that they are special but more importantly psychotherapists recognize that there is an element of this in all of us. And to that extent we all, at times, imagine that we can have our cake and eat it and that the rules that govern the rest of society do not apply to us, for example, that only the little people pay taxes.

And there’s good reason to believe that this both individual and collective sense of being special and privileged is historically and culturally specific and that, for example, it would scarcely feature in the psychic life of a peasant farmer in the Punjab. In her new book Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis and Radical Ethics Donna Orange usefully refers to what she calls the ‘superiority complex’. This is the real ‘white man’s burden’, revealed so unselfconsciously in Kipling’s poem of that name, the legacy left by centuries of colonialism, slavery and racism. As Orange puts it, by virtue of this complex we unconsciously assume that “the earth belongs to us, the so-called whites, and that others, “they” exist to serve our economic interests: to mine the minerals we want or need, to make us cheap clothes, to work at below poverty wages, and so on”; and she might have added, to bear the costs of our privilege as the unequal impacts of climate change kick in.

So exceptionalism is not just a problem facing Britain and Europe in 2016, it lies at the heart of the problem of humankind’s relation to the planet. For we humans also imagine ourselves to be an exceptional species, God given, to harness the resources of nature for our higher purposes. As if the laws of nature do not apply to us and as if we can have our planetary cake and eat it.


Paul Hoggett

Chair of Climate Psychology Alliance


Other articles on this subject

An Unravelling World in Need of Radical Repair by Chris Robertson

Britain & Europe: What Moves People? by Paul Hoggett