English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
I wonder how history will judge the current time.
Maybe the song whose title has been circulating in my head will have something to do with it.
I know it a little from The Dubliners, and had always assumed that it was Irish, but a closer look shows that it is Scottish, attributed to Burns. The song excoriates those who signed the Act of Union in 1707, and the loss of Scottish independence that followed it. Plus ça change.
The Brexit experience seems to have sparked a bout of national soul-searching that shows little sign of abating; in effect, the arrival of Covid has done little more than divert the main channel of its expression, and perhaps blur the boundaries somewhat.
Quite where this will lead is anyone’s guess. No matter what the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, a cultural chasm has been opened and it shows no sign of closing again. While those who have always had an outward-looking view seem to have doubled down on their Europeanism, the debate is not restricted to them. I think this is a good thing: as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, the worst thing about ignorance is your ignorance of your own. There’s only one way to change that.
The D-K Effect has a geographical expression too: people who are raised in insular places risk not only remaining insular, but also unaware of how insular they are. They tend to do it by over-estimating their own centrality and importance. That, to my mind, sums up the story of this nation, probably ever since sea levels rose 10,000 years ago.
The causes of Brexit go far deeper than the matters of the past decade and lie in the simple geographical fact the Britain is not part of a continent. How little this past-clinging nation has really changed was shown in the belief of a fair proportion of its population in its right and ability to ignore the rest of the world – except to the extent that it can contribute to further reinforcement of its own self-delusions. Such conservatism is another expression of insularity – in our case, turbo-charged by certain events in our past two centuries.
A feature of isolated groups around the world is that they tend to be inward-looking and self-referential. When the outside world does intrude, the reaction is typically one of suspicion, hostility, or disdain. It’s no different from an English speaker walking into a Welsh-language pub. A bombastic, passive-aggressive culture is often the result: a superiority-inferiority complex that wallows in its own failings, while simultaneously twisting them into virtues and thereby itself back into the Promised Land that it believed all along. We in all these islands excel at that. That, I think, is where Britain’s dark humour comes from: the hard-bitten cynicism of a place that deep down knows its reality is not a patch on its self-image.
Much of this nation’s historic relationship with the wider world can be easily read through this prism. The love-hate relationship with its neighbours that stretches back centuries may be more complex than popular opinion believes – but it is still an expression of a relationship that was founded on limited knowledge, just as it is now. People with literally and figuratively limited horizons simply find it more difficult to know how life might be different elsewhere. They have more difficulty just going to see what happens elsewhere – and Elsewhere finds it more difficult to bring itself to them. It was not unsurprising, when that outside world did intrude – during the Nineteenth Century when internationalism took root, the World Wars, and again with EU membership and its consequent migrations – that the national reaction would be inconsistent, unstable and extreme. Insularity and reactionary conservatism go together. When you are unused to dealing with people from Elsewhere you are not equipped to do so, and the line of least resistance is to dismiss them in one way or another.
And then we come to the Insularity Squared of Dunning-Kruger: worst of all, the insular nation was not able to see that the insularity was by definition its own, not the rest of the world’s. The 1950s headline Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off may be apocryphal, but it still betrays the traditional view of an insular nation. I suspect many in the UK remain in ignorance of the extent to which life elsewhere has become internationalised and globalised. International families and nation-hopping careers are no longer unusual. We, meanwhile, still largely see Abroad just as a place to holiday with better weather.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that this problematic worldview has been embedded in our national mindset to a depth that even those who consider themselves liberal might be duped by. I remember my own parents – who were hardly apologists for the British Establishment – expressing attitudes towards “continentals” and their countries that appear mildly shocking now. It was not meant to be incendiary; that was simply how the British views of the continent were, even in the 1970s, when memories of the War were fresher. But despite the emergence of an internationalised so-called “elite” in the country, I think far less has changed than such people are inclined to believe.
In my own case, it was only the opportunity to experience other European countries ‘differently’ that came from having useful language skills and friends who had moved abroad, that changed this beginning in the late 1980s – but even then I found it a long and difficult struggle to stop being intimidated by those places and their ways, even as I enjoyed discovering them. Had this chance not arisen, I suspect I would have continued with my childhood perspectives, as others in my family have done.
Whatever one’s conclusions, I think it is good that questions are at last being asked. If nothing else, Covid has made it harder to avoid comparisons between the nations of Europe and indeed elsewhere – just at the time when many Britons might have wanted to be doing just that. The raw statistics have made it harder than ever to argue that national differences are not significant, or to persist in the belief of the UK’s innate superiority: the same superiority that informed Boris Johnson’s early claim that the nation had a “world-class” response at the ready, and would survive virtually unscathed, as it always supposedly did.
World Class – the perpetual refrain of a nation that is now very often anything but; those that are, don’t need to keep reminding themselves. A natural disaster such as a virus can demolish the vanities of national exceptionalism like little else can.
My own objections to Brexit were born from a genuine belief in the commonality of people, most immediately within a shared Europe, where history and geography have always made it inevitable that we need to rub along somehow. But it was also born from my growing realisation of just how backward and inward looking this country still was, and a patriotic desire that Europeanism might change that. But for years, my views met most commonly with blankness, as though people simply didn’t know what I was going on about. The idea that Britain might no longer actually be Top Dog simply did not compute for those whose entire lives were still based around the contrary assumption.
Or maybe they just didn’t want to think about it. It is a view that many Brexiters still seem to struggle with, despite the tribulations of the last nine months.
If anything, my view has shifted more towards resignation. The one thing that might have made me accept Brexit would have been concrete evidence that this country is indeed building such a strong and enlightened future for itself that membership of the EU would clearly have been a handicap. That would not be impossible: see Switzerland. But I just can’t see it here. The hype is nothing more than that; the repressive undercurrents run just too deep to see, let alone change.
First amongst them is the received wisdom that society is inevitably hierarchical. I have gradually come to see that this assumption is, if not absent, then significantly weaker on the continent wherever stronger social democracy prevails. In fact, I suspect that the UK is one of the last developed nations to have such an entrenched, subconscious and hypercompetitive preoccupation with Status and Pecking-Order as it still does; many others now define themselves absolutely to the contrary.
It is so entrenched that even now most don’t see it; but it is socially destructive all the same. It is there in the promotion of high-end goods on their “exclusivity” and the emphasis on the status that wealth supposedly brings. And in the notion that getting ‘one up’ is both acceptable and desirable. You don’t need to worry so much about social mobility if society is reasonably equal in the first place.
I see it on my regular cycle rides into the Essex countryside, which have revealed any number of luxury modernised farmhouses and former barns tucked away in the glacial folds, where the Very Wealthy are buying themselves seclusion, away from the towns and villages that are fighting a losing battle against swamping by the future-slums of the volume Noddy-house builders. I wonder at the lives lived in such places: a mere 50 miles from London, perhaps simply second homes, the children neatly tucked away in private schools. No need to interact with the plebs of Regular Britain at all.
But it’s only what the higher orders have done in this country for centuries. In a way, I almost don’t blame them – for Regular British life is a pretty crass affair, not something to aspire to. “Civilising” forces – such as a respect for learning, and access to higher culture, are largely absent from mainstream British life, drowned out by the lowbrow, the cheap and the blatantly commercial to an extent that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere.
Historically, this country produced few cultural giants of the stature of the French painters, Italian sculptors, or German composers; only in literature do we come close. We have never valued abstraction or philosophical thought – the basis of idealism for a higher life. (Such as we produced was, ironically, mostly Scottish). We hark back to the Victorians – yet much of their legacy, while grand, is largely derivative and backward looking, a manifestation in stone of that same social authoritarianism that has kept so much of the nation down. It took French abstraction and German/Scandinavian modernism to produce genuinely new templates for the present age – and once again, Britain struggled to cope with change. Its elites made sure of that.
It can be argued that there has been a renaissance in Art, Food, Architecture and Fashion in the past few decades, but it has largely (once again) been cornered by the new-generation elite – educated and affluent; just a new way of demarcating social status rather than anything genuinely democratising. There are precious few signs of its widely enriching the towns and lives of provincial Britain, let alone the poorer parts. Except where the new rich in-comers are pricing many locals out of their own homes. It became symbolic of a way of life that is alien to the majority of British people.
Why wouldn’t those of more discriminating tastes want to distance themselves from such a morass? There seems little alternative – but this is part of the problem, not the solution. By monopolising the best, all you do is coarsen the rest. I see less to flee from in more equal countries.
You only need look at the political climate, or the responses to Covid to see that different values and perspectives are at work in different places. In this country’s case, it is the desire of those at the top of that still-enduring hierarchy to wash their hands of the rest (or at least, patronise them) – as their breeding suggests they are entitled to do – that actually perpetuates the wider crassness. It is by democratising the nation’s assets that people can be levelled up – to use the Prime Minister’s favourite phrase. And yet that is the last thing instinct makes him and his kind able to understand, let along implement. They just can’t get over their traditional sense of entitlement – and over generations, institutionalised deference has polluted the entire nation’s view of itself.
Brexit and Covid are pushing this nation further into a mire of its own making. We still seem unable to see that the only workable ways forward are communal and egalitarian: new models, not clinging to the old. Shameless individualism can be exploited by the virus as well as the political system. We still don’t ‘get’ that the underlying problem is the way this country is fundamentally configured.
Its solutions to both are largely predicated on the values and worldviews of its past; just as was the way it has functioned for decades. It is there in the way its adversarial political system dismisses any other than a single dominant world-view; in the condescension of its leaders, and their failure to cope with the consensual pluralism of the EU27, which even now is more concerned with finding an accommodation than rattling sabres. Its only answers are “more of the same” – the criticism I first made of this country’s inability to become truly forward- and outward-looking several decades ago.
Alternative models that have successfully addressed at least some of these issues have been available just a few tens of miles offshore for the past fifty years. But we have only ever been intent on seeing the wideness of the Channel, not the opposite. And so intent were – and are – we in our belief that there is no other way, even an ocean-crossing virus has yet to make us think again.
It’s easy to blame the nation’s current predicament on this or that sub-group. But in truth it is the whole culture – all of us – that is the problem. From the coarsened urban masses, through the newly-affluent in their barns, to the old elites (whose influence is still stronger than many realise – only less visible) – to our new generation of bombastic, wealth-obsessed ‘leaders’ with their empty nationalism. The Scots (who once made common cause with the French) might sense a particular irony – and the continentals themselves I suspect now see it in a clearer way that we still can’t, now that we have shattered the stereotypes.
In reality, we’re all part of it: such a parcel of rogues in a nation.
2 thoughts on “A parcel of rogues”
Great read, Ian – highly thought provoking and I suspect largely accurate assessment of English culture and attitudes. I’ll need some time to digest further and hopefully add some more meaningful response – but in the meantime, thank you for an excellent article.
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Thanks Richard, glad you liked it. I’ll await further comments with interest! 🙂