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Writing about the English character seems a fool's game. For every generalisation you offer, the opposite is also true. The English are a peaceful people who leave the violent overthrow of governments to the French and other excitable foreigners. So it appears, until you remember that French students and workers failed to overthrow Charles de Gaulle in the May 1968 évènements, while the 1970-74 Heath government was destroyed by striking miners, the 1974-79 Labour government by striking public-sector workers and that the proximate cause for Margaret Thatcher's ejection from power was the 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.

What about the agreement of foreign and native observers that English reserve remains a solid national trait? At first glance, the urge for privacy and the importance attached to not opening yourself to ridicule by revealing your true feelings does indeed seem a constant. "Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal though a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated as to be almost undetectable," sighed the anthropologist Kate Fox in her Watching the English. Her foreign female friends told her they could not tell if Englishmen were politely flirting or seriously interested, and constantly complained about "protean behaviour they attribute to shyness, arrogance or repressed homosexuality depending on their degree of exasperation". All true, as equally frustrated Englishwomen will confirm.

Yet those same foreign friends must have noticed the garish mourning for dead celebrities and princesses, the licentiousness of the Saturday night drinking crowds, the self-exposure of the working-class guests on daytime television and the gushing exhibitionism of the upper-middle-class actors on the evening chat shows.

One trait remains permanent, however: an unyielding suspicion of unwarranted power. No other culture has so many expressions to cut the grandiose down to size. "Who do you think you're talking to?" "I'm not your servant." "Who does he think he is?" "She's no better than she ought to be." "He thinks he's above the law." "She thinks there's one rule for her and one for the rest of us." "He's trying it on." "She's taking a liberty/taking advantage/taking the mickey/taking the piss." And although it is dying out with the passing of the old class system, you still hear sneering voices saying, "He's got ideas above his station". 

Much of the language of denigration comes from a snobbish
desire that others should know their place. The Australians' "tall poppy syndrome" — the instinct to cut the legs from underneath the ambitious and successful — flourishes in the old country, too. But most of the mistrust rests on the healthy instinct that unless they are held in check vested interests will grow over-mighty and rob the hard-working. Englishmen and women who cannot remember the last time they opened a book will still repeat Lord Acton's "all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", as if it were the most profound remark ever made about politics.

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Matthew
July 16th, 2009
3:07 PM
Captain Stupendousness would look like less of a fool if he hadn't completely bowdlerised the quote from Egil.

Captain Stupendousness
July 3rd, 2009
1:07 PM
@egil Some people might read "multiculturalist hostility of the ruling classes toward western values" as the raving of some lower-class crank who was stupid and irresponsible enough to swallow the rhetoric pumped out by big-business, right-wing media. But not me. All I had to do was look at all the black and Pakistani people in the British parliament; clearly, you're on to something. Tonight, when you're out smashing the windows of Jewish-owned businesses, assassinating abortion doctors or whatever, I'll raise a toast to your fine efforts to keep us safe from everybody who isn't white. Cheers.

Will
July 3rd, 2009
12:07 PM
The trouble with these sort of arguments is that they all focus on 'greed'. The desire to do well in business is not unique to bankers, and it is also not something that can have an intrinsic upper bound - what the focus on greed implies is that there is some level of greed which is acceptable, but that bankers have overstepped that line. Clearly it is not for players in an economy to stand back if they believe they are doing too well, just as sportsmen do not concede points when their team happens to move into the lead. If greed - which is in essence a desire to increase a feeling of happiness or wellbeing - has no natural limit, why do we suppose some people should impose such limits on themselves. Clearly, some external factor has to do this. However, greed, in this case is also misrepresented as people are really refering to the recklessness which has come about as a result of greed. Attacking greed is ultimately futile and perhaps akin to attacking the human instinct for survival.

Dee
June 30th, 2009
12:06 PM
You could say about a Scottish MP, who has no democratic mandate to rule over England - "He's given himself powers above his station." Our rulers have proven that they have no interest in democracy, above their own Party interests. They disgust me. We are slow to rouse, merely grumbling for the moment, but when we blow our fuses over this, they'll certainly know about it. I'm not far off that stage myself.

Egil
June 28th, 2009
7:06 PM
The economy is only part of the reason why so many people distrust government. There is also the fanatical multiculturalist hostility that so many in the "ruling classes" feel towards traditional British and generally Western values. People see the fraudulence and unfairness of multiculturalism, but there seems to be little they can do about it.

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