The English National Character, by Peter Mandler

A mongrel race in search of an identity
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The Independent Culture

As I was brought up in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, I think I can claim to have started out knowing with some certainty exactly what comprised the "English character". The English were, to use the vernacular, "bastards". They were smug, supercilious, hypocritical, bossy, colonising bullies and tricksters. When the oil came along, they were thieves, liars and cheats. When they voted for Thatcher, they cast Scotland into the seventh circle of hell. The English were the enemy.

This was a little confusing, since my mother hailed from Essex, and she appeared to be the finest of all living beings. But I went along with it, first because the price of not doing so was high in social-outcast terms, and second because my father assured me that while my mother was an exception, he'd found the rest of England to have been full of patronising idiots.

When I moved to England in the mid-1980s, I was surprised to find that the English seemed a lot more diverse and interesting than I'd been led to believe. Oddly, too, the ones I liked mostly carried with them an idea of an English person that was not dissimilar to the Scottish opinion. Unsurprisingly, they were keen to distance themselves from these unflattering descriptions. These days, they have succeeded admirably in achieving that distance. The English, endearingly, haven't on the whole got the smallest clue what sort of "character" defines their nationality, although they are clearer about what sort of character doesn't.

The charming thing about Peter Mandler's painstaking palimpsest, subtitled "The history of an idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair", is that it tends to confirm that it was ever thus. Mandler has marshalled together an impressive panoply of writings on the nature of "Englishness", many of them fabulously contradictory. His descriptions of centuries of philosophical squabbles over race vs culture, nature vs nurture and so on, take in everyone who is anyone - Montesquieu, Shakespeare, Mill, Jung, Darwin, Dickens, Hume, Emerson. But the overall impression is that the subject is eternally fascinating precisely because no soul has ever been able to come up with a useful definition.

Meditations on English identity have tended to have been taken up for political ends - to imbue the "mongrel race" with a shared conception of itself in order to promote a certain mode of leadership. In the Victorian period, the intellectual tussle over national character was a brawl between liberals and conservatives. The liberals were keen on the idea of a national character, because it promoted the idea of personal trustworthiness among a responsible populace. The Tories were appalled by such thinking, as it undermined their idea that the nation should be defined by its elites. Conservatives, of course, became converts to the opposite view, but it's surprising how late on that switch - and the idea of the Little Englander - came.

What one really gains from Mandler's slog through this synthetic history of a synthetic concept is a lively understanding of where a lot of stereotypes about "the English national character" have come from. Many of the great flowerings of such interest in national character blossomed when the English were doing rather well for themselves. So, during the European revolutions, there was much speculation about what made England so splendidly impervious to popular revolt. During the period of Empire, there was head-scratching over what it was that made the English into such absolutely perfect templates for the way forward for all humanity.

Mandler, as a historian, is less sure of his analysis the closer he gets to the present. One of the bolder assertions in the final pages is that "the Scots show no sign of seeking separation from Britain". In reality, the Scots are as minded to believe that the English are bastards as ever, and look like they might be delivering that message at the next election. No doubt another round of deep thought on the nature of Englishness will follow.