Just before the 2012 Olympic Games were scheduled to begin in London a sensitive and quiet American – a man who worked in a travelling theatre – said that he really did not like the ‘better than everyone else’ attitude that would, sooner or later, be displayed by the English. He simply did not like the slightly mocking tone that the English adopted when they were reflecting on other cultures. He thought that the English tended to look down a rather long nose at the conduct of people in nations other than their own. He was puzzled about where this outlook came from. If he is correct, I think there is an answer and it lies in something that is pervasive but often overlooked in the culture of the English.
A post on the BBC website helped me to get clear about this: the website offered its readers the chance to send in their ideas concerning distinct features not of the English but more generally of the British. The aim of the inquiry was to ‘help’ foreign visitors identify some of the customs that made for typical Britishness. Readers were allowed 212 words in which to outline a typifying custom or habit. I thought about this and decided to write out some lines on something that struck me as significant about the English (but not necessarily the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish.) I knew that the various submissions would tend to pick out things like ‘tea’, ‘queues’, ‘newspapers that are about more than just news’, ‘the weather’, ‘the NHS’ and the (relatively) ‘unarmed police’ but I thought it worth going a little deeper than that: my focus was on the English psyche.
It didn’t take me long to settle on the heading, The best in the world – under which I wrote: ‘Visitors to England should never ignore the fact that the English have an underlying sense of their own superiority. Through the medium of television, the newspaper, everyday chit-chat and story-telling, the English – largely unconsciously – are programmed to believe that they have exported civilisation and invented the really important things in life – both here and abroad; the English believe that they not only brought order and cool administration to raucous and superstitious cultures but also modelled the proper virtues – such as politeness, self-control, clear-headedness and discipline. English history is a celebration of firsts – from electro-plating to football, from the tin can to the steam locomotive, from the world-wide web to cultural diversity: ‘After all, we did it first; we discovered it’. The English do not think that they owe much to their cultural neighbours in Europe or North America or Africa – to ideas such as ‘democracy’ or to social arrangements such as ‘organisation’. And, of course, the English trump all-comers with their supreme sense of irony and the extraordinary richness of their humour. Of course, a foreigner must never draw attention to (or question) the inviolable principle that ‘the English are the best in the world’ – a principle which lies at the heart of the English psyche. That would be bad form.’
I know that this is not a popular thing to make explicit. But, I’ve continued to test the idea that there is something in the cultural programme that comes to structure the English psyche in this way; and, it really does seem that the English are forever being told about the terrific achievements of their countrymen and women: the inevitable inference drawn, the only possible inference, is that the English are somehow special and a bit better than all the rest.
It may be that this is all good for the confidence of the nation. It may be that this helps the country to ‘punch above its weight.’ But it is a view that is highly partial, conducive to prejudice – and often absurd.