The terrible threat of the tunnel: a psychologist writes

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The Independent Online
TODAY we have with us Edwin Shankset, the national psychologist. All yours, Edwin]

What exactly is a national psychologist?

Well, all psychologists specialise to some extent. Some specialise in the psychology of crowds. Others specialise in children. Dr Anthony Clare specialises in getting all the jobs going on Radio 4. Myself, I specialise in the psychology of nations.

Do nations have distinct psychological make-ups?

Certainly. Otherwise I'd be out of a job. Everyone has always known that members of an individual nation have loosely identifiable characteristics - we know that Americans tend to be dynamic. But this isn't the same thing as saying that America is dynamic. America as a nation may also dither, as over Bosnia or drugs or gun control.

Hmm. In what ways can this study be practical? I mean, do individual countries come to you for help and counselling?

Oh, yes.

For example?

My consultations are entirely confidential and secret.

Oh.

But if you press me, I'll give you an example.

I press you.

Here's an example. Say France or some European country is negotiating to buy gas or oil from Nigeria, and they find the deal dragging and they think that it's because of their ignorance of the Nigerian character and the way Nigerians do business, they might come to me for advice.

Did that in fact happen?

No. In fact, it was Japan and Saudi Arabia.

So where does all this fit in with

us and France and the Channel

tunnel?

Well, you've got to remember that France already has very close borders with a number of countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain . . . so the opening of the tunnel is no big deal to the French. It's just another border. But for us it will represent the first time we have ever been able to go to a foreign country on dry land.

What are the implications, psychologically?

Well, already we are tacitly trying to claim the tunnel as our own, by giving it different names. We call it the Chunnel or Channel tunnel. The French have never called the Channel the Channel, only la Manche, so they are calling it Eurotunnel. The last time the French and British were engaged on a joint enterprise, they were careful to choose a name which could be either French or English. Namely, Concorde. This time there is no such precaution. This tells us that something profound is involved.

I see.

But there are far more important implications than this. Remember that continental people need far less body space than island people do. Italians and French people stand much closer together when conversing. Eye contact takes place at closer range. British people, on the other hand, like to keep a safe distance. This is true on a national level as well. Continental countries jostle together. We keep apart. Now, because of the tunnel, this has changed a bit. Suddenly the French are much more tangibly next door. You can almost smell the garlic. It's as if the British suddenly found someone sitting very close to them on the same park bench, and our instinct is to edge away.

So our reaction to the opening of the tunnel is one of embarrassment?

Exactly] Very good] It's become much harder to pretend that the French are not next door. And we have always had a difficult relationship with them.

Why?

In the old days, they were the number-one enemy. That was fine. That was easy. For centuries we fought and hated each other. Then, from the Crimea onwards, we found ourselves on the same side, usually against the Germans. We still haven't learnt how to handle this. We haven't come to terms with being friends with the French. For instance, it is often said that we were allies with the French in two world wars, but if you examine the record you will find that we never actually fought side by side with the French much. They were somewhere, we were somewhere else. De Gaulle and the Free French often gave the impression that they were fighting against Churchill more than Hitler. And they still remember our sinking their ships in North Africa more than any damage inflicted by the Germans, and our bombing Caen . . . .

What does this all mean?

Well, when we think back to the war, we think of our allies as being English-speaking nations such as the US, Canada, Australia. Deep down, we wish the Channel tunnel could have emerged the other end, in America.

Dr Edwin Shankset will be back soon with more confusing analysis.

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