Vaccine nationalism

I asked a question on Twitter the other day. Mad, I know. Twitter is a place for saying stuff or belittling others not for engagement or seeking information. My mistake.

Within seconds, one of those right wing, Brexiteer, men dismissed my question, mocked it, refused to engage with it when I followed up. Quite the snowflake. Not just ignoring something he didn’t like the look of, seeking to close down the discussion.

A shame because I think it’s an interesting avenue for consideration. And one that would benefit from discussion and engagement.

It’s a chicken and egg thing. In which Brexit is a chicken and nationalism the egg.

British exceptionalism

I suggested that there’s a streak of British exceptionalism running through coverage of the Oxford vaccine. And when I queried where Brexit fitted into that my interlocutor could not cope. His decision to drop out I’m taking as a sign that I was in fact on to something.

To be clear, Covid vaccines are good. The three main candidates to report results so far are more effective than many dared to hope. Great. The end of the pandemic is maybe not yet in sight but we know roughly where it is and how to get there.

First out of the blocks on the vaccine front was the US/German candidate from Pfizer and BioNtech. (What is that cap N doing in the middle there??). Then came Moderna from America. And when both announced their breakthroughs the UK press seemed to report with a large dose of ‘but the one that really matters is ‘the Oxford project’. 

Throughout the pandemic the academics from Oxford have been vocal. That may be because they knew they were on to something from the start. I’ve been in journalism and around politics long enough to know that those with the most mouth are often the biggest bullshitters. So Oxford’s taste for the limelight triggered my scepticism. Possibly incorrectly. And I’m prepared to concede that the whole premise I’m setting out here may simply be a case of me trying to demonstrate that I was right all along.

The race

Pfizer won the race to produce an effective vaccine. End of. 

Moderna took the silver medal. 

Both reported efficacy upwards of 90%. 

The Oxford AstraZeneca effort claimed bronze and reported 70% effectiveness. This is a noble effort. Bronze medals are good. I have one from a Scottish media 5-a-side tournament played at Townhead pitches in the year 2000 and I treasure it. Not least because I’d been allocated to the B-team that day and we progressed further than the A-team. And because I scored a rare goal whilst lying on the ground like a worm.

Within hours of the news that Oxford had come third came new takes on their vaccine. It’s cheaper. Easier to store. If you give the doses in a certain order it matches the other candidates. Fine, the vaccines have differing pros and cons. But it felt a bit like a desperate effort to talk up the UK entry. 

Our vaccine is different and better than the other vaccines. It arrived later, is less effective, but somehow better. And the government has bought loads of it. I did wonder if there was a different angle on this story – that the Westminster administration that has bungled the pandemic throughout had gambled on the worst candidate.


It all felt familiar, particularly to someone who has covered Brexit at fairly close quarters. I spent three years working on a Brexit podcast for one of the nation’s foremost think tanks on the issue. We tried to balance guests between those known to be pro-Brexit and those anti. Repeatedly the Brexiteers failed to properly engage in the detail, dismissed concerns and talked up minor advantages as huge leaps forward.

For example one of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign dismissed my questions about the process and their lack of involvement in it after the referendum by claiming I had a ‘Remain face’. Another claimed Brexit was a good idea because it would be easier for the sick to get a pilots licence.



Oh and as I return to this blog it’s increasingly clear I was on to something. In the intervening days we’ve had questions raised about the Oxford vaccine. The claims about its route to 90%+ efficacy perhaps lack the full weight of evidence (yet). And We’ve seen over the recent days certain government figures claim that we could only approve this German vaccine that is manufactured in Belgium because we’ve left the EU. (I wouldn’t like to call this one, there may be a sort of grain of truth to it but clearly there’s a lack of the necessary nuance in the claims of Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees Mogg.) Meanwhile Gavin Williamson’s assertion that we were able to approve a vaccine faster than anyone else because we’re just better than everyone else once again raises the question of whether he’s a moron or a maniac. Possibly both.

The fundamental question applies. Is a sense of British exceptionalism endemic, and hence when the Brexit vote came along many people were susceptible to some of the flimsier claims that tapped into that feeling? Or is it Brexit that’s fuelled or engendered a sense of British exceptionalism?

Perhaps the answer is both. Let’s face it these questions rarely give rise to simple, binary responses.

More importantly what does it mean going forward? I felt I detected a bit more British exceptionalism than you’d hear a few years back in the BBC coverage of the Oxford vaccine. That may be in part due to the onslaught the corporation has faced around its impartiality. But whatever the reason it matters. If a sense of British exceptionalism is starting to infect and consume British public life it matters. Not least because it’s nonsense. 

Deadly bungles

It’s fine to be proud of your nation and there is much in the UK’s response to the pandemic to be impressed by – the mind-blowing bravery of frontline health workers, the people who’ve pulled together, the stoicism of supermarket workers etc. Not the response of the government which has been a litany of bungles. Deadly bungles. (If Deadly Bungles isn’t on the Mercury album award shortlist next year after support from 6Music I’ll be disappointed).

But the pandemic has predictably undone any sense that the UK is special. Unless you look to our particularly high death rate and deep economic recession. We’ve been hit in the same way other similar nations have suffered – Italy, Spain, France, UK. Broadly there’s little to choose between the industrialised, urbanised nations of Western Europe.  

We could’ve done things differently. Britain is different because it’s an island so we could’ve pulled up the drawbridge in theory. In practice of course that didn’t happen because it couldn’t. Citizens move between nations too freely for that. Remember there’s a theory that the majority of Covid in the UK was seeded by folk returning from February half term breaks in France and Italy. And business is too closely enmeshed with European supply chains to cut ourselves off.

Geography matters. As many Brexiteers are about to find out. It might be easier to get an Australian visa as a result of some trade deal with Canberra. Most folk will still holiday on the continent and be hacked off when they can’t join the faster EU queue at the immigration desk. 

Constructing policy infused with exceptionalism when there is no basis for that outlook is a bad idea, and it’ll end badly.

All this is not to say that Brexit is inherently a bad idea. I personally remain fairly open minded. But I have yet to see the decisive evidence in its favour. A last hope is that the practice demonstrates why it’s all worthwhile.

What’s the point?

So what’s the point of this ramble? That I detected British exceptionalism last week. (And while I take the point that talking about English exceptionalism might be more accurate I see enough shadows of the same sort of point of view running through nationalism per se, including strands of Scottish nationalism, to throw them all into the pot together). And that inkling was borne out by events. So others ought to be aware of it, look out for it, challenge it when it is unfounded. 

If Brexit is running on misplaced British exceptionalism (and I’m content to leave it as an ‘if’ for now despite a strong sense that for some of the leading proponents of the policy that clearly is the case) it will hit the buffers. And people will suffer. Fundamentally I’ll trade rhetoric and hollow patriotism for the condition of the poeple. Some Brexiteers take a different tack. Most believe the policy will improve life for the population. But if that belief continues to be held in the teeth of evidence to the contrary then it’s fair to ask what truly lies behind it. And at that point it must be challenged at least, stopped at worst. 

Socks and a snood

This country is great. But so are other countries. I like this country best because it’s my country, I’m invested in it. I own socks bearing the St George’s cross and a snood covered in St Andrews flags. But I don’t necessarily think it’s best because of that. 

And if British exceptionalism takes root, becomes normalised in policy and public discourse, feeds those who take that sense of exceptionalism too far into nationalism and beyond, then – no matter its regulatory regime or purchasing power when it comes to novel vaccines – this country will be diminished.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

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