Sunday, August 05, 2018

An American writes on the British character - we don't like being told what to do.

There is an extremely perceptive article in the FT from the paper's outgoing American chief leader writer, Robert Armstrong, who is about to return to the states after spending five years here while doing the job.

It's called

"Why stubbornness is the secret to Britishness"

and in the article Armstrong argues that the defining element which links all the diverse British tribes - from the ERG to Momentum, from the arch-remainers to the SNP, from UKIP to the trade unions - is that

"The residents of these islands do not like being told what to do. They are stubborn, intractable and uppity.The British political classes, along with their opposite numbers in Brussels, have been re-learning this simple point, from Leavers and Remainers alike, since the June 2016 referendum. 

"Once I grasped it, not just Brexit but the whole heaving complexity of British culture, from its ways of talking to its manners to its humour and politics, became just a little bit clearer." 

He gives numerous persuasive examples of who Brits of all kinds believe in

"the right of the individual to decide, to not be ordered about by a music exec in a suit or some equivalent figure. It is no soaring Jeffersonian declaration of the dignity of the individual. Instead it gives voice to the mulish insistence that some things just are not anyone else’s damn business. But it is no less profound for not being a philosophical principle."

He links this into Brexit, for example. as follows:

I cannot help but think, however, that Brexit expresses something that is central to the national character, as best as I can understand it. It was always chancy to assume that the British were going to accept laws imposed on them from abroad — even if they played a large part in making them. 

On a reporting trip through Hampshire, Sussex and Kent on the eve of Brexit, I asked students, teachers, an antique dealer, retirees, a snooker hall operator, farmers, a mechanic, a church warden, cricket players, labourers and assorted passers-by about Brexit. One phrase recurred again and again: 'My head says in but my heart says out.' In the event, the heart won.

Scottish Nationalists hate being described as British, and won't usually engage with any argument about the similarities between the arguments they make on behalf of Scotland and those UKIP make on behalf of Britain. I provoked a minor twitter storm on the subject this weekend by triggering the Cybernats with such a comparison, but they never actually answered the point, they merely kept repeating arguments for IndyRef2 and a Yes vote in a second referendum which with a few words changed could have come straight out of the mouths of a Kipper or European Reform Group (ERG) supporter.

But the comments which Robert Armstrong makes explaining the reasons motivating the vote of the 52% of Brita voted Leave could equally describe many of the 45% of Scots who voted Yes.

Armstrong concludes

"Certainly I admire the uppity side of the national character. It is an important part of my cultural inheritance as an American. The English, perhaps wisely, drove many of the most extreme examples of their own kind off to America in the religious emigrations of the 17th century. Impossible people were planted from Maine down to Georgia. But cussedness — like its upmarket relative, courage — is a morally neutral virtue. It serves bad ends as easily as good, and the art of politics is to channel, rather than obey, the nature of the people."

For anyone who wants to understand the character and motivation of modern Britain, Armstrong's article is a "must read." You can do so here.

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