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No patriotism please, we’re English

England has had its share of terrorist bombings, economic crises, political reshuffles, the Olympic Games, and so on – but the basic “grammar” of Englishness hasn’t changed.

Flagging spirits: a St George's Day parade in 2010. Photo: Getty
Flagging spirits: a St George's Day parade in 2010. Photo: Getty

What did you do on St George’s Day this year? You know, 23 April? Or maybe you didn’t know. Surveys regularly show that the vast majority of us do not celebrate our national day in any way. Two-thirds of English people are unaware of when it is. Can you imagine so many Americans being ignorant of Independence Day or Irish people forgetting St Patrick’s Day?

It is often claimed that the English lack patriotic feeling and there is some evidence to support this. In a Europe-wide survey conducted in 2010, English respondents, on average, rated their degree of patriotism at just 5.8 out of ten, far below the self-rated patriotism of the Scots, Welsh and Irish and the lowest of all the European nations. If you are English, you may well feel that this absence of national amour propre is a good thing. These statistics might even be making you feel a little proud – although I’m sure the irony (and Englishness) of taking pride in our lack of national pride won’t have escaped you.

But I had a hunch, based on research for my book Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, first published ten years ago, that these statistics might be misleading. I recently did my own survey, asking more detailed questions, for a revised edition of the book, which was published, appropriately, on St George’s Day. My findings confirmed my view that we are a nation of “closet patriots”: 22 per cent of us “always” feel proud to be English; 23 per cent “often” do; 38 per cent do at least “sometimes”. Only 3 per cent “never” feel proud.

My poll shows (as many other surveys have suggested) that the quality we feel most proud of is our sense of humour. And although we may need reminding of the date, 75 per cent of the English feel more should be done to celebrate our national day and nearly half would like to see greater numbers of people flying the English flag on it. Despite this, even when it falls on a weekend, 72 per cent of us do not celebrate the day in any way and only 11 per cent would go so far as to fly a flag. If we feel proud to be English, why do we not celebrate St George’s Day or display the St George’s cross?

There is a clue in the way we take pride in our sense of humour. A crucial element of this humour is something I call the “importance of not being earnest” – the unwritten rule prohibiting excessive zeal. The extravagant parades and boastful, sentimental flag-waving of other nations make us cringe. We may feel proud to be English but we are too squeamish and cynical to make a fuss. It is perhaps ironic that the quality in which we take most pride prevents most of us from displaying this pride.

You may have noticed that the high percentage of English people who feel that more should be done to celebrate St George’s Day (75 per cent) is almost the same as the high percentage who make no effort to celebrate it (72 per cent). This contradiction is typically English and it reflects two of our defining characteristics: moderation and Eeyor­ishness. We avoid extremes and excess and we have a tendency to indulge in a lot of therapeutic moaning about a problem rather than address it. We complain that “more should be done” to celebrate our national day but we don’t even fly a flag.

Our reasons for not doing so are only partly rooted in these qualities. The flag has to some extent been reclaimed but it is still seen by some as a symbol of the far right and racism: a quarter of my respondents cited this as their reason for not flying it. However, the flag was only available for appropriation by extremists in the first place because the rest of the population had shunned it.

As a result of squeamishness about patriotism, particularly among the intelligentsia, even the concept of national character is regarded with suspicion – to the point that some deny there is any such thing – and the study of Englishness is regarded as a self-indulgent, archaic and perhaps even jingoistic pastime.

This queasiness is unfortunate, particularly at a time when we English are having a bit of a wobble about our identity. It’s nothing as dramatic as a full-blown national identity crisis – the navel-gazing implied by the term “crisis” would be rather un-English – but various factors, including the call for Scottish independence, globalisation and immigration, have caused a degree of uncomfortable uncertainty about what it means to be from this country.

We are not alone in this. Globalisation is not turning the world into a vast monoculture. Quite the opposite: there has been an increase in nationalism and tribalism; a proliferation of struggles for independence, devolution and self-determination; and a resurgence of concern about ethnicity and cultural identity. Now is a good time to be addressing and studying cultural identity, instead of cringing at the idea that we might have one.

Those who deny or shy away from the notion of national character often seem to fail to grasp that the term is just a metaphor, a colloquial way of talking about culture. Some psychologists appear to take the metaphor literally and have devoted much time and research to “proving” that the national character is a myth – on the grounds that stereotypes about it are untrue, because they do not correlate with aggregate scores on five personality factors.

The supposedly reserved English, for example, tend to score highly on extraversion in personality questionnaires. The so-called English reserve is certainly far more complex and contextual than the crude stereotype would suggest – as is its opposite, English hooliganism. Yet both our inhibited reserve in some social contexts and our selective shedding of inhibitions in others are part of a cultural grammar of rules and norms that has nothing to do with individual personality traits.

In real-life social situations, most people unconsciously obey the unwritten rules of their culture, whatever their individual personality. On commuter trains, for instance, English extraverts hide behind their newspapers, mobile phones and laptops and even avoid making eye contact with strangers, let alone striking up conversation – except when there is some disruption to share a brief Eeyorish moan about. In town centres on Friday and Saturday nights, after a few beers, even English introverts shed the same designated inhibitions in the same choreographed manner as everyone else. (Incidentally, they also do this if they are unknowingly drinking non-alcoholic placebos – the behavioural effects of alcohol are determined by culture, not by chemistry.)

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National character has become a taboo subject among anthropologists, who should know better, as studying cultures is what we do. Yes, we have historically studied smaller tribal cultures, in places with mud huts, monsoons and malaria – but I am hardly the first anthropologist to tackle the national character of a modern culture or even that of the English. Ruth Benedict’s study of the Japanese national character, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), is still hugely influential in Japan. Margaret Mead’s And Keep Your Powder Dry: an Anthropologist Looks at America (1942) was a university set text for decades.

The demise of national character as a res­pectable subject for anthropological research was probably, to some extent, the result of a pair of rather more questionable studies of the Russian and English national characters, published in 1949 and 1955 by the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer. His conclusions, particularly on the “causes” of some aspects of the Russian mindset, were so far-fetched that the anthropological study of national character fell into disrepute and has never recovered.

Social anthropology has become both more “micro” and more timid in recent years. These days, ethnographers take a tiny aspect of a tiny social group and describe it to death – and there is almost a taboo on ever attempting to make a definitive statement about any aspect of a culture, let alone trying to define a national one. We are not much help to nations struggling to understand themselves.

Is there any hope for a resurgence of anthropological interest in national character? Or will this remain a subject addressed only by journalists, humorists and, occasionally, from a safe distance, historians – and regarded as suspiciously patriotic by the English intelligentsia?

Perhaps it can be rehabilitated with a bit of clever marketing. After all, another branch of anthropology, sociobiology, became a highly unfashionable subject in the 1970s and 1980s, only to re-emerge, exactly the same but rebranded as “evolutionary psychology”, in the 1990s. It is now respectable and popular again. Many objections to the notion of national character might be resolved if we ditched this misleading figure of speech and talked instead about “cultural grammar”. It’s another metaphor but maybe a more helpful one, as a culture is much more like a language than a personality – and it allows for variation (regional, ethnic, class or subcultural “dialects”). A grammar, like a national culture, is merely a set of rules, which can be learned, although most natives obey them unconsciously.

Native speakers are rarely any good at explaining the grammatical rules of their language and, in the same way, members of a culture generally lack the detachment necessary to explain the unwritten, largely unconscious behavioural rules of that culture in an intelligible manner. That’s the point of anthropologists, so in Watching the English I set out to provide a kind of cultural grammar of Englishness.

At the risk of labouring this metaphor, I would add that although languages do change and evolve, these modifications take time to become established and changes in the underlying grammatical rules take even longer. It is much the same with cultural grammar. When my publishers asked me for a revised edition of my book, ten years after it was first published, I was initially a little reluctant. Yes, a lot has happened in the past decade – and England has had its share of terrorist bombings, economic crises, political reshuffles, the Olympic Games, and so on – but the basic “grammar” of Englishness hasn’t changed. Still, there were some emerging cultural codes that needed deciphering – changes in greeting practices, new linguistic class indicators, developments in mobile-phone etiquette, the new rules of social media. Minutiae, in the grand grammatical scheme of things, but I ended up adding over 50,000 words.

That my book is now being taught on “introduction to anthropology” courses at a number of distinguished universities suggests that the taboo on studying national cultures may be losing some of its force. Even if the rebranding is successful, however, there will still be squabbles over how we study such cultures. For instance, purist ethnographers object vehemently to the use of quantitative research methods such as national surveys. The trouble is, there are embarrassing things that some people will confess to only in the safety of an anonymous survey. For closet patriots, those things may include: “Yes, all right, I admit it. I sometimes feel proud to be English.”

The revised edition of “Watching the English” is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£25)