Writing about the English character seems a fool’s game. For every generalisation you offer, the opposite is also true. The English are a peaceful people who leave the violent overthrow of governments to the French and other excitable foreigners. So it appears, until you remember that French students and workers failed to overthrow Charles de Gaulle in the May 1968 évènements, while the 1970-74 Heath government was destroyed by striking miners, the 1974-79 Labour government by striking public-sector workers and that the proximate cause for Margaret Thatcher’s ejection from power was the 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.
What about the agreement of foreign and native observers that English reserve remains a solid national trait? At first glance, the urge for privacy and the importance attached to not opening yourself to ridicule by revealing your true feelings does indeed seem a constant. “Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal though a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated as to be almost undetectable,” sighed the anthropologist Kate Fox in her Watching the English. Her foreign female friends told her they could not tell if Englishmen were politely flirting or seriously interested, and constantly complained about “protean behaviour they attribute to shyness, arrogance or repressed homosexuality depending on their degree of exasperation”. All true, as equally frustrated Englishwomen will confirm.
Yet those same foreign friends must have noticed the garish mourning for dead celebrities and princesses, the licentiousness of the Saturday night drinking crowds, the self-exposure of the working-class guests on daytime television and the gushing exhibitionism of the upper-middle-class actors on the evening chat shows.
One trait remains permanent, however: an unyielding suspicion of unwarranted power. No other culture has so many expressions to cut the grandiose down to size. “Who do you think you’re talking to?” “I’m not your servant.” “Who does he think he is?” “She’s no better than she ought to be.” “He thinks he’s above the law.” “She thinks there’s one rule for her and one for the rest of us.” “He’s trying it on.” “She’s taking a liberty/taking advantage/taking the mickey/taking the piss.” And although it is dying out with the passing of the old class system, you still hear sneering voices saying, “He’s got ideas above his station”.