The State of Britain
During my stand-up career, whenever I wanted to poke fun at British self-loathing I would open the routine with a quip:
"I love this country,” I would tell the audience. “And I say so publicly, which is how you know I am not really British”.
Until recently, I was entirely unaware that this attitude has a long and storied history. In 1941, as German bombers dropped deadly payload after deadly payload on British cities, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled “England Your England” in which he made this remarkable observation:
This attitude and ensuing lack of shouty patriotism, outbursts of which are reserved for England football games, is not without its benefits. As Orwell argued in the very same essay, one of the distinctive features of Britishness is that under no circumstances will we take ourselves too seriously. The goose-step could never be used by the British military for the simple reason that “people in the street would laugh” he explained. This is, perhaps, why Britain has resisted authoritarianism as consistently as it has: we can’t quite take seriously anyone who takes themselves seriously. Neither the communists nor the fascists who captured the hearts and minds of so many across the continent of Europe in the 20th century had any lasting success here.
The other thing that makes Britain distinct is the class system. I’ve seen comedians, especially those from other countries, extract a solid 20 minute routine from this fact alone. And, Orwell makes much the same point: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly”. Even though he correctly predicted that the war and other developments would change this, to live in modern Britain is to notice on a daily basis that people often experience themselves as locked into a set of behaviours and experiences that are a product of their birth.
British people are amazingly unaware that it is not so in other places. An American who becomes a millionaire is a millionaire and enjoys the status and accoutrements of his wealth. An American who is poor experiences himself as poor and low status with everything that entails. The American Dream is the dream of “making it” and Americans celebrate those who come from nothing doing so with an unrivalled enthusiasm. Success in America washes away your humble beginnings, indeed, it merely makes the success more worthy of celebration. Failure does the same in reverse.
Britain has the exact opposite dynamic. The arts, for example, are filled with middle class people who earn a pittance. Their habits, clothes, accents and mannerisms are entirely unaffected. Despite being poor, they experience themselves as having status in a way that my plumber, who runs his own business and earns a six-figure salary, does not.
It is for these reasons that we move slowly here. Britain is not a revolutionary place. We do not rise up, take to the streets or whip ourselves up into a frenzy.
In many ways, this is a good thing but it is also why this country is uniquely vulnerable to the “progressive” ideology we are busily importing from the United States.
The lack of patriotism among the chattering classes Orwell referred to makes us extremely vulnerable to the ideas of self-flagellation which are rapidly spreading through the Western world. While others can muster a relatively robust defence against revisions of their history and attempts to paint their countries as racist, xenophobic and bigoted, here in Britain these accusations are welcomed with open arms by intellectuals, artists and media elites who have spent their entire careers talking down this country. To them, American woke talking points are yet another tool by which they can separate themselves from the proles.
Before I move on to the issue of class, I must make the very British disclaimer that I am not and have never been a member of the “top one percent” who pop up more and more as the villain in our discussions of Britain’s challenging economic outlook. Popularised by the Occupy Wall Street movement in America and pushed into the public consciousness by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the notion of a rent-seeking, greedy, uncaring elite maps very neatly onto the notion of Britain’s rigid class system expressed so beautifully by Orwell.
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