Did the severe disruption experienced in Britain after the war in any way change British values?
Writing in L’âme des peuples in 1950, André Siegfried explains how the various invasions, the climate, the insularity and Protestantism provide the keys to understanding the British mentality and are the factors underpinning a very particular state of mind.
The influences which shaped British identity
1. Invasions without integration
Britain has suffered numerous invasions (Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans) which have been superimposed over one another without integration, until 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. The Saxon is considered the most national of the British, the Norman the most stylish, and the Celt the most eccentric.
2. Adaptation to the climate
The tough climate requires a constant effort to adapt and has generated some rather special reactions to the natural environment. The more energy you have, the better you can resist; the better you resist, the more energy you deploy. Sport became a necessity to survive.
The British also have a special relationship to nature and animals. ” Naturae non nisi parendo imperatur” said Bacon, you can only command nature by obeying its laws. Being close to nature, the British observe it while the French risk distorting it through analysing it and the Americans may neglect its maturity laws by trying to quicken its place.
3. Insularity and internationalism
Strongly rooted in the British mindset, insularity explains the British yearning for independence. Obliged to live by trading, they have had to look abroad. “The contradiction between insularity and internationalism in business is the very expression of the British personality”.
4. Protestantism and a sense of responsibility
From a moral viewpoint, the British are influenced by their Protestant roots and the fact that the clergy in the Roman sense of the term are not required as intermediaries. Fully responsible for their actions, the British must therefore act according to their conscience. “An Englishman who does his job well demands neither encouragement nor praise from his bosses”. The application of rules, the sense of duty and obedience bring with them no sense of subservience. The individual’s pride in fulfilling the task he has accepted is seen as sacrificing no dignity and displaying no servility. This is the notion of “discipline in freedom”.
A very particular mindset
1. The special characteristics of British intelligence
“Resistant to Cartesian thought, which analyses, distinguishes and reconstructs”, the British are suspicious of brilliant displays of intelligence, intellectualism and logic. They see solutions as being rather precarious in nature, and consider that these must always be reviewed and updated.
“They live with instability, accepting that instability as a fact which cannot be changed and against which all protest is in vain”. A rather boring leader can even appear less of a risk to them than a leader who comes across as being excessively brilliant and eloquent.
When addressing the House of Commons in 1925, Sir Austen Chamberlain said: “I have a profound mistrust of logic when applied to politics, and the whole history of England proves me right on this point. Why, in contrast to so many other nations, have we developed peacefully and not through violence? Why, despite the scale of the changes which have occurred in our country have we not suffered any of the revolutions or sudden reactions over the last three centuries as those experienced by peoples with a far more logical spirit than ours? It is because instinct and experience have taught us, to the same degree, that human nature is not logical, that it is unwise to treat political institutions as instruments of logic, and that on the other hand it is by prudently holding back from taking conclusions to their extreme consequences that we have achieved peaceful change and genuine reforms”.
While the Frenchman defends the virtue of reason, the Englishman points out the failings of reason. “Although the Englishman may admire the brilliant intelligence of the Frenchman, he would not be in any hurry to place his trust and confidence in him.
By throwing off the shackles of logic, the British handle change easily and approach discussions from a very different perspective. “I’ll muddle through” does not mean “I’ll manage” in the French sense of the term, in which we find the idea of brilliantly and resourcefully getting around a problem but rather “I’ll struggle through this as best I can”.
2. Trust and confidence
British life is based on trust, confidence, simplicity, and a sense of observation. The British view people attentively, in good faith, without feeling obliged to draw any conclusions. They didn’t invent credit, but they practice it efficiently and effectively. “This mutual trust and confidence between people living together on the same island” gave rise to a gentleman who stands out for his moral dignity and polite manners.
That said, this trust and confidence does not extend beyond national borders and there is “an inexpressible mistrust of everything which is not Britain” which is perhaps explained by a wish to remain apart. We certainly find this state of mind in the U.K.’s attitude to the European Union.
The British are considered profoundly liberal because they feel that freedom generates wealth and power. They do not seek to impose themselves on others, but instead look for tranquillity and privacy. Similarly, they respect the liberty of others even if this may result in them appearing indifferent, egotistical or scornful. In reality, they are discreet and avoid meddling in other people’s lives. What others think or do in life is of no concern to them.
Far from being a burden, obedience is seen as a source of public-spiritedness, or even of devotion to the public good. “While retaining his characteristic aloofness, the Briton considers that he must be part of the community and take part in social life”. Highly efficient in an organisation which works well he is less at ease in vague, imprecise situations although the Latin excels in such environments, taking pride in his resourcefulness. “These are two concepts of social life, two ways of seeing work, responsibility and efficiency. You’ll get more from the Englishman by appealing to his sense of duty and more from the Latin by appealing to his self-esteem”.
As the British see it, liberty and authority are in no way contradictory, as “liberty does not necessarily mean disorder nor authority tyranny… The government is not a transcendent authority imposing its orders on its subjects but simply an expression of the common interest, a sort of delegation of the community”. Men of state seek to respect the laws of morality but if they cannot and the fate of the nation requires it, an “implicit delegation” authorises them to transcend such laws. Some people would see this as hypocrisy, others as pragmatism
What today remains of this British tenacity?
André Siegfried illustrated British tenacity with expressions such as “man is made to surpass himself” or “it’s thanks to their strength of character that British tenacity often prevails”. He questions how the British are likely to change after the upheaval of the Second World War which has seen the emergence of the notion of equality among the British people, but reminds us that Britain has always succeeded in “putting new wine in old bottles”.
What could we possibly say today to André Siegfried other than the fact that history has proved him right. With changing lifestyles and mentalities, Great Britain has taken a good long look at itself and re-assessed its role and identity. After a complicated transition period during which it was difficult to know which direction the country would take, we have seen a fairly spectacular turnaround, as if the cultural foundations were reasserting themselves once again through and against everyone, aided by values which are strongly rooted in the British psyche such as liberalism, pragmatism and public-spiritedness.
Isn’t this yet further proof of the permanent and continuous nature of cultural foundations, even though habits, lifestyles, behaviour, food, architecture and language itself are changing? All the subtlety and delicateness of the intercultural approach lies in combining deep-seated values with current changes to identify current behaviour.