The British Character

By Theodore Dalrymple
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 of possibility.

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 most important.

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."

I 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 human endeavor.

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

By Theodore Dalrymple
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 minds.

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 resentment.

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 civilizational crisis.