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Angela Tilby: The myth of superiority is dangerous

06 March 2020

MY PRE-LENT bedtime reading was an accidentally picked-up copy of a recent Frederick Forsyth novel, The Fox.

It is about a reclusive 18-year-old British boy, who hacks into the computers of the American security system. A retired British intelligence officer manages to protect him from American justice, recognising his potential as a secret weapon in wider global conflicts. Thanks to the boy’s prodigious computer skills, a state-of-the-art Russian battleship finds itself ingloriously steered towards the Goodwin Sands, fit revenge for the Salisbury Novichok assault on Sergei Skripal. But that is only the beginning. The teenage prodigy manages to wreck a secret Iranian nuclear programme, and a devastating North Korean missile is mysteriously blown to bits. It is all highly entertaining and told with relish — although I worked out the inevitable ending soon after the Goodwin Sands incident.

Forsyth is expert in his field and knowledgeable about intelligence, weapons, spycraft, and politics. There is meticulous research behind the storytelling.

But there is something else. The Fox expresses a kind of gung-ho British superiority, which is deeply attractive to his British readers. I am susceptible to it myself. Although I think of myself as a patriot, I am suspicious of this tendency to national grandiosity. We are not as globally significant as we tend to think we are.

And Forsyth is one of a number of British thriller-writers who are never going to show us how to be modest. Indeed, we are programmed to love the manifestations of British superiority in The Fox: the low-key SAS operatives who protect the gifted boy as opposed to the gung-ho shoot-on-sight Americans. We admire the observant Scottish ghillie who outwits the well-armed Russian sniper. The portrayal of leadership in Russia, Iran, and North Korea might bear some relation to reality, alas, but I am not so sure that the British side is remotely plausible.

Europe plays almost no part in Forsyth’s view of the world. It is plucky, cool Britannia punching above her weight, by virtue of a canny intelligence officer and a brilliant, frightened adolescent. It embodies our national myth. It is hard to imagine a thrilling page-turner about the EU.

British superiority is a dangerous myth. But I suspect that the popular fiction that still encourages us to believe in it is one of the reasons that we have such a large Conservative majority in the House of Commons, and that the campaign slogans “Taking Back Control” and “Get Brexit done” have resonated so widely. If repentance means coming home to reality, we still, perhaps, have much to repent.

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