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Some Observations on English National Character

Reader comment on item: An American in Search of the English National Character

Submitted by Sophie (United States), Jan 25, 2021 at 19:21

Having been born in London the daughter of a British woman, and having spent large portions of my childhood there and getting to know and see the British in their native environment, I feel qualified to offer my two shillings on the subject of English national character.

England is a very stratified and disparate collection of peoples, formed of an accumulation of the various European peoples who settled the British Isles over recent millenia. What united them, over the course of the middle ages and early modernity, was their isolation from the mainland of Europe, opposition to Continental great powers (perhaps a cultural memory of Caesar's, Canute's and William the Conqueror's invasions), and, most importantly, the flexibility this motley assortment of peoples found in governing themselves, after a long era of civil instability, in the constitutional monarchy/ aristocratic democracy (the UK would not become what we today would consider a democracy until well into the XIXth century, at least, in my opinion) established after the 1688 Glorious Revolution.

While foreigners love to stereotype the famed "stiff upper lip" and "keep calm and carry on" sorts, those notions are reserved solely to the upper classes, as Dickens clearly shows in his writings on lower class people. In any event, those tropes, and the lack of sexuality, disappeared largely after the 1960s rock and roll revolution, even among the aristocracy. (today's UK culture owes more to Mick Jagger than to Mrs. Miniver)

One thing few foreigners pick up on when exploring England is the role of the "mob" in history - i.e. from time to time the English lower classes have spontaneously revolted against the established order - some would go so far as to say that the English were the first anarchists. From Wat Tyler's 1381 Peasant Revolt to the 1780 Gordon Riots to the Sex Pistols in 1977 to, importantly, Brexit in 2016, these are all examples of this anarchic mob spirit that to me is an essential but overlooked part of British character.


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