English character

ImagesJustin Webb, the BBC's North American editor, responded to my End of Pessimism post. Here's why Webb has faith in America:

We are not "pro-American" in the sense of being cheerleaders for a nation and its people (at least Matt Frei and I are not) but nor are we blind to the simple incontrovertible fact that America is a stunningly successful place whose ability to prosper in almost every year since its inception must surely have some link to the energy and vitality of the people who come here and make it work and the system (brutal sometimes) that allows them to achieve their potential.

Perhaps one reason that English emigres like Webb and myself appreciate the United States is because the country's seriousness (which critics misinterpret as humorlessness) creates character. Americans are generally much morally hardier than Englishmen -- which explains why, in Webb's language, they are better at realizing "their potential". Americans take themselves, their country, their history and their future more seriously than English people. It's the Puritan legacy, of course, a moral calling that is cavalierly satirized by the disrespectful English. Americans are much more successful at controlling their worst impulses -- which means that, in contrast with England, there are far fewer displays of public debauchery, violence and other manifestations of anti-social activity. Defying national stereotypes, Americans are much more polite and respectful to one another than the English. And that makes life in America both more civil and exciting than it is in England.

The English journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in this morning's FT, pursues a similar theme in a op-ed entitled "Hypocrisy, booze and the British: 80p a shot":

Nations cultivate images of themselves that they successfully foist on others but that are sometimes the exact opposite of the case. Nothing is more amusing than the contrast between the supposedly laid-back, easy-going Americans and the uptight, hidebound English. Maybe a new book is needed, an answer to Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, a catalogue of unrecognised truths. One might begin, for example, with this: the Americans have better manners than the English, but they are much more snobbish.

And more restrained. When told that my countrymen are essentially reserved or even repressed, it is tempting to ask: Have you ever seen the London tabloids? For that matter, have you ever seen British boys and girls on a Saturday night spree? Not so much in desolate inner cities or ethnic ghettos as in the most genteel cathedral cities and county towns, they can be quite a sight; drunken 18-year-olds shrieking and vomiting as they stagger out of pubs and clubs.

The question of an Englishman's character is also richly addressed by Richard Reeves in this month's Prospect. Reeves, the biographer of John Stuart Mill and the director of the Demos think tank, makes the connection between the corrosion of English character and the decline of the country's civic life. Reminding us that "good societies need people", Reeves argues for a re-emphasis on the value of character development and suggests that we can learn from 18th century moral theorists like Mill and Adam Smith.

So where did all that English character go? It went west, of course, sailing toward that little city on the hill. I wonder if England ever really recovered from Puritan hejira of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Certainly this great migration left England a much less morally serious place with less faith in the ideal of character. To learn about their past, English people should come to America. It might be a character-forming experience.