NS Essay - Whether it's sex, drink, schools or culture, the English are extremists

England doesn't deserve its reputation for moderation. Where else do you find, in the same country,

Smitten with a howling toothache as a student in Moscow, I took my place in the queue at the university's polyklinika. Sorry, tovarishch, the fat lady "tooth-doctor" sighed, she was too hard-pressed to help. But she could do me privately. In her flat, she drew her purloined equipment from beneath her bed and fixed the tooth. I paid her (I think) 100 roubles, a smallish sum to a foreigner. If I need NHS treatment in Britain today, I wait a week to see a doctor, normally to be told that nothing can be done for months but they can recommend a private consultant. So I pay my £100 for 20 minutes. The difference is that, here, it's legal.

The British national health service is an advance on Soviet Russia's, but ultimately no more able to deliver on its promises than was the communist regime. For us, as it was for the Russians, an NHS free to all comers, centrally funded and administered, is a rigid ideological tenet. No comparable western country operates this way, and most have more effective systems. Why can't we change? Because we are a nation in thrall to extreme modes of thinking and behaviour, beyond logical analysis and closed to serious debate.

The English reputation for pragmatism, flexibility, compromise and common sense is our national myth. How we get away with it says as much about other countries' fixation on historical stereotypes as it does about us. Foreigners living in Britain quickly spot the gulf between myth and reality. A few months is enough to make comparisons, some to our benefit, others not, especially when our national habits run to wild excess.

In which other capitals do humdrum houses in not especially favoured locations cost a million dollars? In which mature democracies do semi-sentient bloodstock from the aristocratic classes form part of the legislature as of right, as some lords do up to this day? At the other end of the scale, who boasts the biggest underclass in Europe, a good fifth of the population largely composed of undereducated slobs? And how many small towns in Germany, France or the US erupt in a mayhem of brawling and puking youth every Friday or Saturday night?

Britain's social extremism shows up in the figures, our moderate society way out there on the statistical edge. Family break-ups? More than anywhere except Denmark. Prison population? The biggest in Europe. Schools? The best in the world at the moneyed top; at the bottom, better not ask; the gap in achievement, according to the OECD, is greater than in any other country. And now we learn from a new London School of Economics study that, in social mobility, the country famed for its decency and fair play has gone backwards.

For the moment, all this does not translate into a weak economy, but some facts and figures suggest a precariousness about our recent success. Disparities of income are greater than in continental Europe. Manufacturing industry in many western countries is under pressure, but here it has long been in vertiginous decline. Personal debt is higher even than in profligate America. I once asked a chancellor of the exchequer and an economist the reasons for this. Cultural, they said, shrugging. Namely, the extreme propensity of our mature, prudential nation to spend with giddy abandon.

Then there are the aesthetics of daily life. European countries have their nightmare cityscapes, but the overall impression is not dispiriting. In our green and pleasant land, the discriminating traveller hops between oases of elegance (Bath, Edinburgh, parts of London, etc), avoiding the vast tracts where the bulk of the population live lives more cramped and compacted than anywhere outside Holland, in surroundings that are not so much deprived as of unredeemed hideousness.

Asked about the architecture of the new Shell building on the South Bank, John Davies, a Tory minister in the early 1970s, replied: "What's wrong with it? It works, doesn't it?" The same is true of our high streets, efficient in their tawdry, standardised way, though hardly evidence of the English charm and diversity on which we pride ourselves. Meanwhile we are enjoined to ignore our visual squalor, lift our eyes to the Angel of the North and, like the Soviet proletariat with their Lenin statues smiling down on them, feel uplifted.

There is patchy progress, but once the new bridge/concert hall/art gallery is opened, how many of the southern slickers who exalt them as new wonders of the world hurry back to Newcastle, Liverpool or Manchester in the way a Parisian might happily spend a weekend in Lyons or Bordeaux - even if they can afford the exorbitant train fare, face the motorway, or pay for extravagantly overpriced restaurants and hotels?

Never mind - beneath this unpromising exterior beat English hearts of gold, do they not? We may be too tolerant about our surroundings, but tolerance is a virtue, one that must surely equip the English better than others to deal with sensitive social issues, such as immigration. One or two riots in the north apart, where is the evidence of extremes here? In a large, haphazard influx of immigrants over a brief historical period, I would suggest: a cultural quake whose implications were never thought through, and which has produced a climate of extreme political sensitivity.

Balance is another supposedly English virtue, and the immigration debate is balanced all right - on such a tightrope of trepidation that it is seen as evidence of intolerance to raise the issue at all. Even defenders of our policies are reticent in the extreme. Yet why be shy? If the economic rationale for importing labour and skills is sound, the numbers here exaggerated, the benefits of diversity clear, the startling exodus from London nothing to do with "white flight", and talk of population pressures or cultural gaps or security risks overdone, then these are surely reasons for admitting many, many more? Let those who believe it state their position boldly. If we are so confident in our unique good sense, what is there to fear?

National attitudes to sex and drink are similarly hard to square with our moderate image. The English invention of intercourse in 1963 was a welcome innovation; what is extraordinary is that we have gone on reinventing it ever since. There is such a thing as a Puritan hysteria of liberation, and we suffer from it in its extreme, recurring form. Like drinking with meals in preference to drinking on the pavement, sex never seems to come naturally, even when we go at it like dogs. As for alcohol, eight pints in eight pubs used to make a man of you; today, it takes twelve to make you a lad.

Never mind. A man's gotta do what the culture says he must, and women must be at liberty to emulate our little excesses. All I ask is that we should not feel bound to commend them for it; drinking and fucking can be fun, but they are not especially clever. To listen to the contemporary Englishman, you would have thought that no one had ever pulled a pint or a girl before.

Each extremity engenders its equal and opposite fatuity. As an MP, I cared nothing about hunting, and therefore declined to vote against it; my equanimity as to the fate of foxes got me into trouble with both sides. The badgering of the hunters, who wanted my positive endorsement, preferably by attending their meets, stopped only when I told them that if it didn't, I would vote against them.

However, it is culture, as always, that is the clincher. First, a fable. My wife restores Old Masters. One winter's day she came home from the studio, chilled to the bone but smiling. The radiators had gone wrong and someone had called a plumber. An affable fellow, he inspected the 16th-century picture she was retouching, all angels and cherubs, and asked if she was a famous painter. Not at all, she said. Well you will be, he replied encouragingly, because your picture is very good.

A plumber is not an uneducated person. You might have expected him to know that artists today do not paint crackly images of angels on worm-eaten bits of wood, and it is hard to imagine a skilled workman in Spain, Germany, Italy or Poland asking the same question. Why did he? Because of our extreme cultural polarisation, and because we are an extremely irreligious nation, which is fine if you are an unbeliever, but not so fine if you think that, atheists or not, people at all levels should have some nodding acquaintance with their inheritance.

Part of the problem is that the English have no understanding of tradition. Tradition means doing something you have always done, not through inertia or affectation but for a purpose, such as commemorating historical events or the illustrious dead. Through poverty of imagination or sheer posturing phoniness we tend to gather the bric-a-brac of the past into an unsightly heap, good, bad or - like the ten-minute rule in parliamentary debates, begun in the 1880s to curb Charles Stewart Parnell and recently reintroduced - patently idiotic. Worse, we invent traditions (the kilt), the better to invest them with social or tribal status. And when our underclass casts all tradition aside, the good is abandoned along with the phoney, leaving a cultural wasteland in its wake.

Excessive attachment to the past encourages overreactions; when the tedium becomes insupportable, we lurch, desperate for change, to the opposite pole. The result, more often than not, is the excruciating spectacle of granny dancing the cancan in a frenzied effort to keep up with the times. Sir John Rothenstein, director of the Tate until 1964, had woefully conservative tastes, which is why its current collection of modern art is so mediocre, and those at Beaubourg and MoMA so much better. In Britain the pendulum swung in the postwar era, when the great period of innovatory 20th-century art became enfeebled - at which point the Tate threw up its skirts in rapture at the sight of anything new.

The rest we know. Previously immovable in our complacency, now we are smug in our daring. Never mind that before the First World War Russian artists were running about naked, with painted bodies. To the easily impressionable English (our imperturbability is another myth), always liable to replace one form of conventional-mindedness with another, a century after its inception modern art remains fantastically, sensationally novel. And as with sex, now we, too, can do it.

Meanwhile Prince Charles constructs his 18th-century villages. The idea that his tastes should matter is extravagant in itself, but never mind. The point is that, moonstruck by lost tradition or infatuated with the tradition of the new, we are invariably behind the beat. The truth - that the prince and Damien Hirst are freres ennemis, each as passe as the other - can on no account be told, because that would destroy the entire outlandish English game.

Why does this national predilection for extremes infect our politics as little as it does, leading only to a few thousand political punks on the racist right, and a handful of born-again class warriors and Trotskyist luvvies? The explanation, I suspect, is that extreme positions tend to balance one another, and in our genteel English way, an unspoken agreement exists to leave this balance intact. You have your NHS, we have our private doctors; you have your comprehensives, we have our independent schools; you have your mock-proletarian pop stars, we have our authentic 21st-century duchesses and princesses. The English social settlement turns out to be not so unlike that of the French: an uneasy accumulation of droits acquis.

To disguise our evasion of fundamental questions we work ourselves into a froth about piffling issues: hunting, the smacking of children, faith schools, the royal family. "Pushing on the periphery", the tactic was called when I worked at the Foreign Office. There it was a conscious diplomatic ploy, the game being to throw up a bit of dust on minor matters now and again, the better to avoid problems that, boldly confronted, could bring the house down.

How did we arrive at these un-English extremes? I can only guess. Partly it is the contradictions of late, decaying Protestantism, where protest (or its simulacrum) becomes a way of life; partly it is inherited class resentments. Partly also it is a perversion of our literal-minded, step-by-step Johnsonian habits of thought: we think while we are looking downwards, the better to watch our steps, without questioning where they are taking us, and before we know it we are way out there on the fringe. (The excellent David Hume touched on this in his theory of causation, but then he was a Scot.)

Never mind. Excess can have its charms, as well as its quixotic aspect, such as our extreme readiness to become involved in conflicts such as Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq. As for our personal behaviour, it pleases us to believe that we are merely reverting to a pre-Puritan condition of unconstrained, free-born Englishmen, the new Elizabethans and all of that. And perhaps it's true. Maybe today's extravagances are the adolescent phase of a new national character in the process of formation, one that will be less socially and sexually self-conscious, more sensually and intellectually mature, and genuinely (rather than self-applaudingly) creative. We can only hope. The last thing we want is a return to the more recent past; that is how we got to the present, and a country that lived up to the letter of its reputation for compromise, balance, sobriety and the rest would be a tedious place to live. Not that there is much risk of that in modern Britain.

George Walden's most recent book is Who's a Dandy?: dandyism and Beau Brummell (Gibson Square)