Time Out with Nick Cohen

In his search for England, Julian Baggini expected to find racism, sexism and fear. He found somethi

Julian Baggini seems a standard member of the liberal intelligentsia. The books he reads, the clothes he wears and food he eats match those of tens of thousands of others. He stands out because he has done what very few of his contemporaries are prepared to do and confronted England. Not by denouncing its government or letting out long sighs about its lack of sophistication, but by living among people he wouldn't ordinarily notice, in an attempt to understand the core beliefs of the England which doesn't listen to the Today programme.

It is a simple idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before. Polly Toynbee and Fran Abrams have written poignant accounts of life on the poverty line, while the Sunday Times wasn't exaggerating when it described Michael Collins's The Likes of Us as an "absolutely essential" guide to London's white working class. There are also thousands of academic studies of the national character - from the British Social Attitudes Survey to Kate Fox's Watching the English.

But Baggini wasn't interested in the poor, of whom there are too many yet who are the exception, nor did he follow Collins by staying in London, a separate country, as everyone says. He determined instead to concentrate on the mainstream English who can't be found on the minimum wage or living in the capital, but among the homeowners of the prov inces. The piles of academic research and opinion-poll findings helped him, but they couldn't give him the feel of England. For that, he had to uproot himself mentally and physically.

He asked the computer analysts who compile demographic profiles for the Acorn marketing company to give him the postcode of the English district that was closest to the national average: the town or network of streets where he could find, in microcosm, the mixture of wealthy people and poor pensioners, struggling families and single men and women that best encapsulated the country. They consulted their databases and told him to head for S66 on the outskirts of Rotherham. Its working men's clubs, as-much-food-as-you-can-cram-on-to-your-plate restaurants, out-of-town shopping centres and local radio stations are indeed typical, but they are also about as far away from Baggini's liberal England as it is possible to get without crossing the Channel.

"Three of the last four constituencies I lived in went Liberal Democrat at the last election," he said, as he tucked into an un-English vegetarian breakfast. "And the Lib Dems only lost the fourth by a few hundred votes. I have been in a parallel country for most of my adult life."

Baggini expected to find sexism, racism, homophobia, celebrity worship, provincialism and unreasonable fears about crime. What makes his Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind (Granta) a thought-provoking book is not that he didn't discover illiberal prejudices in Rotherham, but that he managed to come to terms with and, in a few instances, sympathise with them. For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family. His Italian side meant that he "never really felt entirely at home in this country", while his working-class background distanced him from the public-school boys and girls of the London intelligentsia. More important, I think, is that he is a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round the Philosophers' Magazine and live by their pens. None has the security of a university job, and all are suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy. (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, two of Baggini's colleagues, produced an attack on postmodernism, whose title, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, sums up the group's approach.)

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

He moved to Rotherham, rented a modern house by a main road, bought a car, and read the newspapers and watched the television programmes his neighbours read and watched. He encountered many prejudices he disliked, but gradually his views on popular attitudes softened. Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing.

The regulars of Rotherham pubs and clubs deserve credit for the softening. They didn't allow the strange, bookish southerner to sit by himself for long. But Baggini also realised that what he had taken to be idiotic views had a comprehen sible philosophical underpinning, even if it was a working-class philosophy that didn't always appeal to him. His reliance on the explanatory power of working-class attitudes may unnerve some, but his argument seems well grounded to me. Although the polls which report that almost six out of ten people still regard themselves as working-class invariably produce middle-class guffaws, Baggini says you only have to listen to the radio programmes he heard and go to the bars he drank in to realise that working-class culture dominates England. Many people may have more money than their parents had, but that does not mean that working-class attitudes have changed. Central to them is the importance of place.

The majority of the English still live within five miles of where they were born, and the attachment to locality keeps England a communitarian country. They want "local jobs for local people", local radio, local papers and raffles for local good causes. Complementing local pride is the strong notion that you can't enjoy England's benefits without belonging. Baggini got into endless arguments about the Human Rights Act, but his attempts to persuade his new friends that foreign terror suspects should never be deported if they could face torture always got nowhere. The new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream, he found. "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Although he met a few real racists, Baggini doesn't see such beliefs as racist in themselves. Instead, he draws on the image of the "hefted" sheep of northern fells, whose instinctive knowledge of where they can and can't graze means they never stray from their patch of land, and uses it to explain the desire of the English of all classes to keep their little worlds intact.

"Frankly, I didn't believe it when people in Rotherham said they wanted immigrants to fit in. That's not quite right. If you go to Manchester or London, there are Chinatowns that advertise their differences, but no one ever says that 'the problem with these bloody Chinese is that they don't fit in', because there's no threat or no perceived threat. The multicultural agenda is that everyone must respect each other, but I don't think that's possible. We need to be far tougher with the minimal demands that people don't threaten each other and must respect the rule of law.

"On its own, upholding the law won't lessen what people call racism because sometimes threats are inevitable. People who have lived in an area all their lives are uncomfortable if the character changes because of a large influx of immigrants. But that doesn't make them racist. They just want their locality to stay the way it was. No one calls families racist when they object to large numbers of students moving in to their street or says that the residents of Hampstead were racist for wanting to live in an area without McDonald's."

He is far less sanguine about sexism. Watching the way women tried to please men in Rotherham clubs and reading semi-pornographic lads' mags didn't make him think that the reassertion of traditional stereotypes was "natural" or harmless fun. There is, he says, nothing natural or fun about a country where most women say that they are deeply unhappy with their appearance.

Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory. At one point in Welcome to Everytown he says he had to leave Rotherham to visit London. Once in Islington, he couldn't resist the lure of "proper food". He went to an Italian restaurant, ordered pasta, olives and a glass of wine, then buried his head in a book. Minutes later, he looked up to see another man of his age and class come in and order pasta, olives and a glass of wine, and then bury his head in a book. "In Rotherham, I lost a certain sense of superiority I had about food, holidays and the things I did to enjoy myself. I now find it hard to say that liberal middle-class culture is better than looking after your garden, going fishing and watching ice hockey. There's nothing intrinsically less in that than in listening to opera. Some of the world's worst people have been opera buffs."

I was glad to find that he had not overreacted and become an inverted snob. He doesn't pretend that he would like to spend the rest of his life in S66. He's got his world and the mainstream have theirs, and he's not going to play the hypocrite by pretending to be something he's not. But he has relaxed.

After he had finished his breakfast, I asked if he felt more comfortable with his country. "I think I've learned that most people here are fine with you as long as you treat them fairly. I'm very pleased that my book has gone down well in Rotherham, even though I was unsentimental and didn't hide my disagreements. That speaks well of the people I wrote about, and so, yes, I feel more at peace with England."