Psychological Notes: National character in Blair's New Britain

ONCE IT has been established that not all Italians are excitable and unreliable, that not all Germans are inflexible and authoritative, that not all Englishmen are phlegmatic and reserved, is there any point still in talking about national character?

Or alternatively, if despite all the above people nevertheless accept the existence of national character, then how far is my own individual character determined by it? Could I claim diminished responsibility because English, or, perhaps more pertinently, Irish? Or Serbian? Could I even blame my various psychological problems on my nationality?

In the late 1920s, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson was studying the Iatmul Indians of New Guinea. They were a bizarre and violent tribe. When things weren't going well, they believed this was because they had not shed enough blood and promptly set out on head-hunting expeditions. Otherwise long hours were passed in elaborate theatricals which basically involved the men showing off to the women. Bateson observed that the more extravagant the men's behaviour became, the more the women became contemplative and passive.

He fielded a theory which he referred to as "schismogenesis". The idea was that any form of behaviour will provoke a response that is either competitive or complementary. One person in a group starts telling jokes, the others will split up into those who try to rival the teller with their own jokes, or sit back and giggle as the competition escalates.

Bateson used his theory to suggest how individuals can become ever more different from each other precisely because involved in a group ethos which prompts them to assume competitive or complementary positions around given polarities. It's not difficult to imagine how this can be referred to national character. It also explains why you can no more represent Englishness on your own than you could be human, or indeed inhuman, on your own, or a son without a mother.

Let's imagine the nations of Europe as involved, over decades, over centuries, in different conversations. The Italians, for example, subject until little over a century ago to foreign domination, still very much in the thrall of the Vatican, are ever locked into a debate about the relationship between private and public and above all the duties of the individual to collective authority.

Any Italian will be obliged to take up a position on these subjects, behave accordingly, and the fiercer the debate the more extreme the positions, the more feverish the back- and-forth of those who take it upon themselves to look for some kind of compromise.

You are born into an age-old wrangle and the idea that you could simply refuse to take part and think about something else is not one that readily occurs to the infant as he comes to consciousness.

For centuries the English have debated - for example - around the issues philanthropy / socialism / laissez-faire, a debate intimately tied up with a strong class system, with the responsibilities, glories and guilt of colonialism, the snobbery and splendour of monarchy and much else besides. Taking positions on those conundrums will determine your attitude to such phenomena as Thatcher's England, so called, Blair's New Britain, so called.

National character is generated by the dynamic of such debates, the constellation of possible attitudes it allows people to assume. For one to have been out of that national conversation for 20 years, as I have, is not to lose one's love of one's country, but gradually to feel that one is no longer quite as English as one was. New Britain doesn't mean anything to those who missed the run-up. It is impalpable.

At this point, I suppose, the interesting question becomes, what, if anything, of Englishness remains when one has ceased to participate?

Tim Parks is the author of `Destiny' (Secker and Warburg, pounds 15.99)