The British Character
City Journal, Autumn 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
When my mother arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, shortly
before the outbreak of World War II, she found the people admirable. By the
time she died, two-thirds of a century later, she found them rude,
dishonest, and charmless. The human qualities that people valued and
inculcated when she arrived had become mocked, despised, and repudiated.
My mother had admired the people's manner. The British seemed to her
self-contained, self-controlled, law-abiding yet tolerant of others no
matter how eccentric, and with a deeply ironic view of life that encouraged
them to laugh at themselves and to appreciate their own unimportance in the
scheme of things. The English were polite and considerate, the
self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid, and even the
most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean
Appearances in Britain could deceive. The British
despised intellectuals, but were long at the forefront of intellectual
inquiry. They were philistines, yet created a way of life in the countryside
as graceful as any that has ever existed. They had a state religion, but
came to find religious enthusiasm bad form.
The orderliness and
restraint of political life in Britain also struck my refugee mother. The
British leaders were not giants among men but they were not brutes, either.
The nearest they came to the exercise of arbitrary power was a sense of
noblesse oblige, and the human breast is capable of far worse sentiments.
Politics was, to them and the voters, only part of life, and by no means the
Many remarked upon the gentleness of British behavior
in public. Homicidal violence and street robberies were vanishingly rare.
British pastimes were peaceful and reflective. Vast sporting crowds would
gather in such good order that sporting events resembled church meetings.
British behavior when ill or injured was stoic. I remember working in a
general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his
house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from
his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. "I didn't like to
disturb you, Doctor," he said. "I know you are a very busy man."
found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of
self-esteem, nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a
tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead
an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from
being all-important. It was a moral requirement that emotion and sentiment
should be expressed proportionately, and not in an exaggerated or
self-absorbed way. A man has to think of others, even when he is dying.
Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British
restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture,
vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and
absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now. To control oneself for
the sake of the social order, let alone for dignity or decorum, is seen as
both personally and socially harmful.
I have spoken with young
British people who regularly drink themselves into oblivion, passing first
through a prolonged phase of public nuisance. To a man (and woman), they
believe that by doing so, they are getting rid of inhibitions that might
otherwise do them psychological and even physical harm. The same belief
seems universal among those who spend hours at soccer games screaming abuse
and making threatening gestures.
Lack of self-control is just as
character-forming as self-control: but it forms a different, and much worse
and shallower, character. Once self-control becomes a vice to avoid at all
costs, there is no plumbing the depths to which people will sink. The little
town where I now live when in England transforms by night. By day, it is
delightful. By night, however, the average age of the person on the street
drops from 60 to 20. Charm and delight vanish.
By no means
coincidentally, the young British find themselves hated, feared, and
despised throughout Europe, wherever they gather to have what they call "a
good time." They turn entire Greek, Spanish, and Turkish resorts into
B-movie Sodoms and Gomorrahs. They cover sidewalks with vomit, rape one
another, and indulge in casual drunken violence. In one Greek resort, 12
young British women were arrested recently after indulging in "an outdoor
oral sex competition."
No person with the slightest apprehension of
human psychology will be surprised to learn that as a consequence of this
change in character, indictable crime has risen at least 900 percent since
1950. In the same period, the homicide rate has doubled, despite the fact
that the proportion of the population in the age group most likely to commit
crimes has fallen considerably.
Before the English and British became
known for self-restraint and an ironic detachment from life, they had a
reputation for high emotionalism and an inability to control their passions.
The German poet Heinrich Heine, among others, detested them as violent and
vulgar. It was only during the Victorian era that they transformed into
something approaching the restrained people whom I encountered as a child
and sometimes as a doctor. The main difference between the vulgar people
whom Heine detested and the people loathed and feared throughout Europe (and
beyond) today is that the earlier Britons often stood in the forefront of
The moralization of the British in the nineteenth
century was the product of intellectual and legislative activity. So, too,
was the reverse movement. For 100 years or more in Britain, the popular view
was that public drunkenness was reprehensible and the rightful object of
repression. Several changes then came: officials halved the tax on alcohol,
intellectuals attacked the idea of self-restraint, universities
unapologetically began to advertise themselves as places where students
could get drunk often and regularly, and the government claimed that
increasing the hours of availability of alcohol would encourage a more
responsible drinking culture.
So I say to Americans: excoriate sin,
especially in public places.
AR Quite right too. Excoriate drunkenness as
mercilessly as drug addiction, or smoking.
The British Riots
City Journal, Autumn 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
The outbreak of looting and rioting that convulsed London in August 2011
triggered some foolish reactions.
Time magazine suggested that we can
understand the riots by looking at the Gini coefficient indicating how
equally (or unequally) income is distributed across a population. In this
measure, Britain fares worse than almost every other country in the West,
assuming that more equality is better and complete equality best. Time
printed a table of Gini coefficients with Portugal heading the list as the
most unequal of the countries selected, with a 0.36 coefficient. Next
followed the UK and Italy, both with a 0.34 coefficient. Toward the bottom
of the list, France had a 0.29 coefficient. In 2005 similar riots swept
France, even though its Gini coefficient was lower than Britain's.
The Ping-Pong theory of youthful misdemeanor suggests that if only the state
provided enough services for potential rioters they would behave better. The
theory suggests that it is government's duty not merely to keep the peace
but to keep the population happy and amused. People who claim that service
reductions provoked the riots do not see that if this were so, the problem
would be not the removal of services, but dependence on them in the first
place. In any case, the effects of the proposed spending reductions have yet
to be felt.
A more plausible explanation of the riots is resentment,
though a population's general level of resentment is not a phenomenon that
one can easily analyze. Britain has been far more unequal in the past
without suffering widespread riots, so we cannot understand people's
behavior without referring to the meanings that they attach to things.
One rioter told a journalist that his compatriots were fed up with being
broke all the time and that he knew people who had absolutely nothing. The
rioter considered being broke not merely unpleasant but unjust and
anomalous, for it was these qualities that justified the rioting in his mind
and led him to suggest that the riots were restitution. The rioter believed
that he had a right not to be broke and that this right was being violated.
When he said that he knew people with nothing, he did not mean that he knew
homeless, starving people. Nor did he mean people without hot and cold
running water, electricity, a television, a cell phone, health care, and
access to schooling. People had a right to such things, and yet they could
have them all and still have nothing, in his meaning of the word. Somehow,
people had a right to more.
Tangible benefits, on this view, come not
as the result of work, effort, and self-discipline: they come as of right.
Apparently, all that is necessary for people like the rioters to live at a
higher standard of living, equal to that of others, is for the government to
decree it as their right — a right already inscribed in their hearts and
This doctrine originated not with the rioters but with
politicians, social philosophers, and journalists. The notion of having
rights to tangible benefits was once unknown to the population, even during
severe hardship. But now these evidently desirable things are rights that
nothing can abrogate. It never occurred to the discoverers of these rights
that their propagation might influence the personality of the people
destined to become increasingly dependent on exercising them; and it
required only an admixture of egalitarianism to complete the dialectic of
ingratitude and resentment.
As for unemployment as a cause of the
riots, the current British unemployment rate is not especially high by
European standards. And in the boom days before the financial crash, Britain
already had high levels of unemployment among the unskilled young, even as
the country imported large numbers of unskilled immigrants to work. For
every 20 unskilled jobs created in the run-up to the crash, 19 immigrants
found work in Britain, while millions of natives remained on welfare.
Three reasons explain this seeming paradox:
1 Foreigners found
the wages for the jobs on offer sufficiently enticing to accept them, but
for natives on welfare the financial difference between working and not
working was insufficient to get them into the workforce.
2 Many of
the young foreigners possessed qualities superior to those of their British
counterparts. In most jobs, especially in the service economy, such
characteristics as punctuality, reliability, politeness, and helpfulness are
important; but these qualities were not much in evidence among the young
British population. And young migrants to Britain are rarely as uneducated
as young Britons.
3 The existence of subsidized public housing
discourages recipients from moving to find work. Because the benefit is not
transferable, moving would mean paying a higher rent. Many young people
become attached to their lodgings by the subsidy. That is why public housing
in Britain so often resembles a prison and why the riots had some of the
qualities of a prison riot.
The rioters and the social class to which
they mainly belong thus have good reason to feel aggrieved. In the name of
equality and redistributionism, the state has provided them with an
expensive education that is nearly useless, entrapped them in de facto
prisons, and driven up the cost of their labor so far by means of welfare
subsidy that it is worth no one's while to employ it. At the same time,
their minds have been filled with notions of entitlement that can only breed
The state has failed these Britons in one other respect.
The British police catch the culprit of just one robbery in 12 and that just
one in eight convicted robbers goes to prison in the UK, so it is no
surprise that the young and criminally inclined should believe in their own
impunity. They may not be able to do arithmetic, but they can certainly
recognize long odds when they see them. They have respectable society on the
run when judges complain that too many Britons are sent to prison and that
such sentences should not be administered to first-time burglars. Crime has
been normalized as a way of life.
The riots might herald a positive
change. The magistrates have imposed much stiffer sentences on the rioters
than anyone expected. The liberal press viewed this sentence and others
handed out after the riots as disproportionate. Few in the media seemed to
recognize that any disproportion here was because the system was too lenient
before, not too severe now. So the rioters may have done a service to the
country by awaking it to its past follies.
AR The riots are the expression of the
character. Something is sick at the heart of Albion.
A Tale Of Three Cultures
By Theodore Dalrymple
City Journal, January 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
Ireland was flourishing until about 2000. It had easy access to the largest
market in the world, a low rate of corporate taxation, colossal foreign
investment, and a young, educated population. The government ran a budget
surplus and everyone was happy. When the pyramid crumpled, the government
guaranteed the solvency of the Irish banks and there was almost no social
unrest. The Irish had enjoyed the party while it lasted. They may be poised
for a quick recovery.
Greece was another matter. The government
borrowed simply to bolster its public sector. When this pyramid collapsed,
the Greeks fought to hold on to their excessive pay and consumption. But
didn't they know that tax evasion was standard practice, that much of the
employment in the public sector was bogus, that their retirement conditions
were unearned and unsustainable, and that their politicians and
administrators were liars and cheats?
The German political class
thought they had hit the jackpot with the euro. Europeans bought more German
goods than they could afford. Germans worked hard and held wages steady,
savings rose, and Germany became the China of Europe. Now it has a trade
surplus larger than the trade deficits of France, Italy, and Spain combined.
Germans demand fiscal rectitude but other Europeans want to inflate debts
away by issuing more euros. The European spending spree has produced a