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Artillery Row

An American in search of the English national character

Daniel Pipes’s quest to understand the English national character leaves him none the wiser

“The English are the most remarkable of any people that perhaps ever were in the world”, wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume in 1748. Prompted in part by this observation and in part by England’s recent re-emergence as a distinct political entity, I wondered, “Who are the English?”

In search of an answer, I located groaning shelves of books and articles on the English national character, many written by distinguished figures. Sadly, though, their combined wisdom amounts to a massive contradiction.

The eminent historian Mandell Creighton got me started with the observation that “the English were the first people who formed for themselves a national character.” He then defined its dominant motive “to have been a stubborn desire to manage its own affairs in its own way, without any interference from outside.”

Many agree with this notion of an independence-loving English people. John Stuart Mill, the liberal philosopher, noted “how repugnant to the English character is anything like bluster” which, rather than intimidate it, raises its “dogged determination … not to be bullied.” Three-time UK prime minister Stanley Baldwin praised his co-nationals: “The Englishman is made for a time of crisis, and for a time of emergency. He is serene in difficulties but may seem to be indifferent when times are easy.” David Cameron, a future prime minister, defined Britishness as “freedom under the rule of law.”

Focus groups of foreigners repeatedly described the English as reserved, uptight and snobbish

However compelling, other English authors beg to differ with this view. Edmund Dale, a medieval historian, called the English “simple, rugged, patient, dogged”. George Orwell found them gentle, insular, not gifted artistically, not intellectual, not particularly practical, but a “sleep-walking people,” world-class hypocrites, and lovers of flowers. W. Somerset Maugham opined that, “The English are not a sexual nation,” something confirmed (“a low interest in sexual activity)” by anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer’s massive survey research. My colleague Sam Westrop offers perhaps the wittiest formulation: “Englishness is the quantum state of both loud relief that we are not French, and a quiet desire to be more so.”

Speaking of the French, novelist Honoré de Balzac called the Englishman noble. Spanish writer Salvador de Madariaga saw him as a man of action. Belgian Maciamo Hay deemed him “independent-minded, polite, critical, moody, class-conscious, polarised, practical-minded, entrepreneurial, humorous, reserved.” American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson focused on “pluck.” American historian Henry Steele Commager called him “so prosaic, so stolid, so materialistic.” Focus groups of foreigners repeatedly returned to three words: reserved, uptight and snobbish.

Middle Easterners generally have a low opinion of the Ingliz. An Ottoman-era ditty found him “irreligious.” Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an early Islamist, held that he “is little of intelligence, great of perseverance, ambition, greed, stubbornness, patience, and haughtiness.” Iranian author Jahangir Amuzegar announced that the British are “cold, crafty, self-controlled, deferential.” M. Sıddık Gümüş a Turkish conspiracy theorist, called them “a conceited and arrogant people.”

Looking at the larger picture, writing in 1955, Gorer found that the “fundamentally English character has changed very little in the last 150 years, and possibly longer.” In contrast, historian Peter Mandler reviewed English ideas about their national character in the era 1800-2000 and found that these changed continuously.

Together, these accounts tell me that the English are (contradictorily) serene and moody; brotherly and conceited; fair and greedy; haughty and deferential; hypocritical and noble; stolid and humorous. Such a string of opposites, needless to say, says nothing at all. It brings to mind an astrology forecast that predicts joy and misery tomorrow, as well as serenity and tumult, gain and loss.

Perhaps that’s the way it must be. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1701 of “from a mixture of all kinds began / That heterogeneous thing, an Englishman.” In 2004, journalist Amelia Hill dismissed the whole effort: “bar the white cliffs and the bad weather, nothing is forever England and, however old the quest for the essence of Englishness, the hunt is a bogus one.”

David Hume, paradoxically, goes farthest, denying the topic’s very validity: “The English, of any people in the universe have the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such.” And if that was true in 1748, how much truer today, in the aftermath of large-scale immigration.

With this, my impressionistic survey grinds to a halt, leaving me befuddled. Sadder and no wiser, I leave the search for English national character to return that easier topic I usually study: the Middle East.

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