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The English National Character

Review by: Antoine Capet University of Rouen (France)

The English National Character : The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair , Peter Mandler, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 348 pages

It is impossible to do justice to such a rich monograph in a review of limited length. As he explains in his Acknowledgements, Dr Mandler’s magnum opus is in fact the result of a long process of addition and elimination, following many conference papers and discussions with specialists of the subject. His self-assigned task was not an easy one, as anybody who has ever had to teach a course on the United Kingdom – its formation and possible current break-up – will know from experience. The main title, The English National Character, immediately suggests a number of hopelessly difficult questions: the difference between “English” and “British” and the distinction between national “character” and national “identity” foremost among them. “Why not British National Identity?”, the reader is evidently tempted to ask before opening the book – and Mandler, fully aware of these difficulties himself as he repeatedly explains, does his best to pre-empt the question by constantly justifying his choices.

The first choice which he has to defend is that of the starting point. Why start with Burke? An unpromising decision if one is to take Mandler’s judgment of p. 25 literally: “Burke had remarkably little to say about what distinguished the English from others. […] In addition to being historically shallow, Burke’s vision of Englishness was also substantively narrow”. But then – and this is a constant sub-text of the book, not unexpectedly considering the theme – what counts are perceptions, not reality: Burke was “seen by Victorian successors as laying a blueprint (not followed up) for depictions of Englishness”.

And with Mandler being of course a prominent specialist of the period, Burke’s Victorian successors receive a magnificently extensive treatment. The chapters on the “long” nineteenth century constitute a veritable textbook on the history of political and constitutional ideas, 1801-1914. Some names will be familiar to most readers: Bagehot, Dilke, Seeley, Samuel Smiles – to name but a few. But there were many others – largely forgotten today outside historians who concentrate on Victorian thought – who had plenty to say on “the English national character”, both in the narrow sense and in the wider conception of Empire. Thus we are initiated into the sometimes arcane, but always fascinating debates between (among others) H.T. Buckle (History of Civilization in England, 1857-61) and J.F. Stephen (“National Character”, 1861) or John Mitchell Kemble (The Saxons in England, 2 vol., 1849) and Macaulay at second remove. The chapter on the Anglo-Saxons, with its sub-chapter on ‘Teutomania’ (i.e. the “[c]elebration of the German origins of the English” [p. 87]) is a little gem – introducing us to the “fervently Teutomaniac” (p. 89) writings of Edward A. Freeman (“The Continuity of English History”, 1871), J.R. Green (A Short History of the English People, 1874) and William Stubbs (The Constitutional History of England in its Origin and Development, 3 vol., 1874-78). The superb Table 5, “English traits as a compound of the Celtic and Teutonic, as seen by Thomas Nicholas in The Pedigree of the English People (1868)”, which opens the sub- chapter on “Teutonic virtues”, sums it all up.

By 1914, evidently, all this talk had become slightly embarrassing and, we are convincingly told, “On the eve of the First World War, attitudes to the English national character remained deeply muddled” (p. 141). The war was of course fought by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (shortly to become Northern Ireland), not by England and this, we are given to understand, added to the muddle – which continued in fact after the war: “The ‘England’/‘Britain’ semantic confusion was never greater” than during the inter-war years, Mandler argues (p. 148). But then, “[t]he years between the world wars were the heyday of the idea of the English national character” (p. 143). Mandler makes much of Strube’s “Little Man”, the familiar caricature in the Express newspapers from 1920 to 1947 – and why not? Parallels with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who incidentally published a collection of speeches entitled On England in 1926, are perfectly apposite.

The only weak point of the book seems to reside in its failure (at least in the eyes of this reviewer) to convincingly explain the sudden transition in public support in May- June 1940 from the Little Englanders to the flamboyantly adventurous Churchill with his inflated vision of England’s world role (though he always made an effort to speak of “Britain” in public). “Muddling through” is a phrase which rightly appears repeatedly in the book, as one of the traits most often associated with the English national character – but it is arguable that in 1940, during “their finest hour”, Churchill did not call for “muddling through” but for a deliberate and seemingly irrational “risking their all”. What made them “rise to the occasion” (another favourite trait) and accept to fight under Churchill when they had enthusiastically supported the appeasers and the national humiliation at Munich? However that may be, the post-1918 “‘England’/‘Britain’ semantic confusion” was not dispelled by renewed victory in 1945.

On the one hand, Mandler tells us, “[t]he outcome of the Second World War seemed to vindicate the English national character – both the idea that nations did have a character and that, in the English case, it was made of the right stuff” (p. 196). But on the facing page we read that “[o]ver half a century after the end of the Second World War, it is widely felt that 1945 marked the last point at which Britain enjoyed true national unity”. What won the war? The English national character or the British national character? An idle question after the debacle of Suez in 1956, and even more so after the cultural changes of the 1960s, which “further undermine[d] the idea of national character, perhaps even delivering the coup de grâce” (p. 221). Poor Margaret Thatcher faced an uphill struggle trying to restore values which perhaps never existed: there was new hope following the Falklands War, but it lamentably foundered under John Major. “Thatcher tried three variants, Blair six [all thoroughly discussed in the book, of course]; anyone for nine?”, Mandler mockingly concludes (p. 237).

It appears impossible to write the “definitive” book on such a complex subject, and Mandler gives more insights (a wealth of them, in fact) than answers to that hopelessly elusive question, What is the English national character? What he does – admirably – is give the reader a state-of-the-art panorama of what answers, proposals or suggestions have been offered since (at least) Burke. Also, the 33- page Bibliography will be found a most useful tool for further advanced research.

It is to be deplored that in a high-class academic work of this nature, with its excellent copious notes, the poor reader should be submitted to a constant toing-and-froing between the text and the end notes. Yale should align itself on the better University Presses in this respect and provide the more user-friendly footnotes which scholars now expect.

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