Skip to main content

This England

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

To those who believe that human nature is static and war a permanent institution, the question “Can England Change?” may easily be answered in the negative. There will always be people who believe that England cannot change, either because they love her obtusely and refuse to see her defects, or because their dislike is so intense that they, prefer to see her keep her errors intact. Such people always ignore the sliding scale of fact and prefer to believe that mankind made one plunge from the arboreal ape into the mechanical engineer, and then became, (as well he might), fundamentally exhausted. They have not been upon the road to Damascus, nor seen the changes religion, science, and the creative powers of love can make in any receptive human being, even well past adolescence. They may be willing to admit that a moron can become normal by the use of a serum, but they do not foresee what such a change implies. Nor do they realise that from the moment killing was accepted as the crime of murder, war was doomed. All that is necessary to cure a fault, even in an Englishman, is that he should plainly see it, and be made to understand its penal consequences.

Why should England change, is perhaps a more pertinent question? English people often see why they should succeed, but they seldom see why they should change; and yet a little careful observation of the feelings of Europe and America (to waive the bitterer question of the more obviously involved Asiatic) should show us that we have not learned the safest lesson for a pacific nation—how to escape dislike. Next to the Jews, we are probably the most hated race in the world; and we have not their excuses. The Jew is disliked because he has been ill-treated and has developed in consequence the unpleasant characteristics of the persecuted; and he was ill-treated mainly because he obtained power without having the force to maintain it. His wits were more solid than his fists, and, if you beat him down, he displayed the revolting quality of rising up a little further on, unabashed and richer. The English, on the other hand, are disliked because they have ill-treated others, because they have been extraordinarily prosperous, and have the bad taste to pride themselves upon it; because they are slow-witted and yet evince a tortoise-like ability to win races. They do not readily see their mistakes, and they have an infuriating habit of taking for granted an excellence in themselves which is invisible to foreigners. English officials are too often unaware of the sleeping dogs of other people, and never fail to arouse them by injudicious prodding; while if their own are touched by so much as a finger, their indignation becomes wolfish in its intensity.

The French have always found us mendacious, hypocritical, and irreverent. We startle them by our lack of form, we annoy them by the vagueness of our minds, and we drive them nearly mad by our assertions of virtue. Americans understand us rather better than the French, and like us even less. To them we are inadmissibly, arrogant, pompous and slow-witted. They would forgive our faults if we saw them, but they cannot forgive us our virtues, which we see with such clarity, whether they are there or not. Americans are far more sensitive than we are to the feelings of others, and they stare aghast and without sympathy at our perpetual failures of tact. At the bottom of their hearts they feel a real affection for us which irritates their judgment. They would like to like us if we made it at all possible, but they literally do not see how they are to set about it.

From the moment a foreigner lands in England he is confronted with a perfected and inelastic system. Close by the dock he finds a very small, and on the whole comfortable train, but it is divided into idiotic compartments, which sometimes expose the traveller to intense annoyance, and always require great unselfishness, presence of mind, and good manners. An army of ungesticulating and unhurried porters await his choice. They place him and his luggage in the train with an absence of definition which in itself alarms him. He is not asked to produce or receive any form of receipt for his luggage. He just gets in, and Providence presumably lays an invisible finger upon his boxes. Quiet, privacy, comfort, independence, and a slight flavour of arrogance fill the air. The train moves without preliminaries, on velvet, out of the station. It is difficult to see the names of the places you stop at, no crude voice informs you reassuringly where you are, either before arrival or at the moment when the train stops. Charing Cross evades even a name. Either you know by a deep untroubled instinct that you have reached Charing Cross, or you learn that it is a terminus by the departure of all the other passengers. Like the Buddhist who refused to interfere with a traveller to warn him of a broken bridge, no English person wishes to infringe upon the freedom of your will in order to save you trouble or expense. You will find your luggage lying out upon the platform without check or receipt, without barriers or guardians, unstolen, immune, protected by the very air; but do not let this deter you from keeping your eye on it hereafter. There is an unwritten standard for London thieves; they crowd about the London stations with the punctuality of swallows making for the South, and they steal everything including luggage—but not on the arrival platforms. There it would be too easy—their sporting instinct preserves your possessions until they are safely surrounded by railway officials and large blue policemen, then indeed beware of everything you have—for you may not have it long. A moderately priced and appropriately sized taxi takes you with astounding celerity to your destination. No luxuries await you whether you go to a first class hotel or to a friend’s house, but solid comfort and unhurried ease are incontestably yours, at the mere price of submitting to the simple ritual of England. Nothing will be done to give you any of the luxuries, hygienic or gastronomic to which you are accustomed. No one will even evince an amiable curiosity as to what they are. In this sense England is adamant: a few of her best hotels submit to French cooking, but you must have as much fresh air, and as frequent hot water cans as she considers necessary; and an American girl on a tour through England found herself living exclusively on bread and butter and claret, because the national way of dealing with its food supply struck her as impossible to assimilate.

English people are an athletic open-air people, and their climate, though disconcertingly variable, is seldom extreme. Her inhabitants share the slight chill of her climate. They do not wish to be surprised, or interfered with, on the other hand they are more than willing to offer and receive casual and tentative courtesies; and as the chill wears off (and all that is required to wear it off is time and a fellow independence) they become, what they are in the main, hospitable and generous, rapidly and even at times alarmingly unreserved, and ready to make their interests your own.

An Italian historian of great repute once said to the present writer, “I doubt if Italians will ever understand English people, they are so excitable.” In spite of his admirable command of English, I ventured to correct him. “You mean,” I said, “that the Italians are so excitable?” “Not at all,” he replied. “Italians are very expressive, not excitable. Their manners are, if you like, operatic, but they don’t let drama swing them off their feet. You must often have observed fierce approaches to a quarrel, between Italians, break off with a laugh? In England heated words lead to blows. Knives are seldom used, because no one can be trusted to use a knife in moderation. The heat of your very romantic feelings is no doubt the origin of your cold manners. The crust is thin, and it is necessary to keep yourselves from boiling over. Take the gambling spirit. Half the crimes in your daily papers are the result of indiscriminate betting. Italians give a regular percentage of their incomes to the State Lottery. They gamble systematically, not with impulsive passion. They see gambling for what it is—a possible profit and a certain amusement. It is not for them Eldorado or ruin. No! no! you have always been a romantic and emotional race! Think of your great Gladstone—a fellow, generous to a fault! Continually losing his head over his own nerves! The Latin races know their nerves for nerves. They do not call them ideals, and lay down their own, or other peoples’ lives, for them!”

A distinguished American critic had perhaps the same characteristics in mind when he said “An you English! how dare you filch ‘John Bull’ from the Dutch and call him your typical Englishman! If you really want to find a character difficult to match in any other race but repeated over and over again in England—take Shelley! I assure you I always see behind the genial, determined, practical figure of a Dutchman, a thin-faced, unstable fanatic with burning eyes—and he to my mind is the typical Englishman!”

The English are afraid of imagination, not because they have so little, but because they have so much. English history teems with these great imaginative figures: Drake, Raleigh, Sydney, Nelson, Wolfe, Hastings, Clive, Newman, Gordon; and nearer in point of time, but with the same maddeningly elastic quality, Lloyd George. Can any of these men be described as stable or even simple human beings? It is true they exist side by side with more solid figures, Wellington, Kitchener, unbudging Bishops, fox-hunting Squires, and slow-witted peasants, who change as little as rocks, and to whom fact is indelible. But these you may match in other countries, whereas few other countries possess so long a line of gallant adventurers. England admires, but she does not always support her visionaries, she is rather too apt to expect them to support her, and she will at any time turn and rend them if their visions interfere with the well-being of her upper classes. To the average Englishman a passion for ideas is still a disability.

Nor are English people as dazzlingly honest as their code implies. Great politicians have been ruined in England because their opponents have been able to expose a moral flaw in their characters, when the same moral flaws would have passed unheeded in politicians whose ideas were more selfish and less dangerous to the sacred possessions known in England as “vested interests!” England is :n many ways a free country. Every one is allowed to think and express what he likes; but let him not approach with any desire to alter “vested interests.” Charles the First did that, and not all the Stuart subtlety or charm could save his “comely head” from the block. Henry VIII was guilty of murder, blasphemy, and even lapses from domesticity, but he was a popular king and died regretted. It is what the French call Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy, and who can blame them? It is true that we have sounder morals than many of the countries of Europe; but we make use of then* soundness at times very unscrupulously. In the abstract we love fair play. We love it so much that we take for granted a universality of practice which sometimes shows serious lapses. We have not always shown fair play to the nations we feel it a sacred obligation to rule, nor towards our own minorities. We do not show it now to women, or the poorer classes; we grudge them sufficient education and a living wage. Fair play is still probably our greatest quality, but a conscience at peace upon a virtue is in danger of turning it into a besetting sin.

We are a slow and inarticulate people. To Americans we must often appear, purposely, provokingly slow; with lapses of interest and attention which can only be an affront to a more concentrated and vivid type of intellect. But if slow, we seldom cease to move. Our pauses are often a mere gathering together of muscular force, more lasting in a race than a sudden spurt, and if our developments are slow so are our mistakes.

We are without doubt lazy; but like the laziness of large slow-moving animals, our indolence both conceals and accumulates power. This gradual unwinding of strength was most noticeable during the war. For the first two years of struggle England was practically unchanged. She faced the German menace, arrogant, unready, astonished, angry, but not very angry; prepared to do what she thought necessary but not ready to do everything. She put herself out slowly, watchfully, with no hint of desperation; while France in twenty-four hours was taut, agonized, determined, despairing, dedicated. France could never suffer herself to believe that the war could last more than a few months. At the outbreak, Kitchener prepared for four years. France rushed into a mould. England never took any mould at all. Wary, unhurried, patient, formless she fumbled on, sending out an army of five million volunteers before she admitted conscription; creating and furnishing nine expeditionary forces in distant parts of the world; supplying her allies; guarding and being guarded by remote continents; searching out her enemy on, and under, the dangerous forces of the seas.

The spirit of war was upon her; but it was different from the French spirit, more formless, less intense; and no less strong. The present writer remembers in the darkest hour of 1917 being much cheered by the remark of a ‘bus conductor upon the road to Hammersmith. One of his passengers was commenting with acute depression upon the last news from the front, when the conductor with a genial leer leaned forward, and observed “I sh’d ‘ardly call those Germans serious, should you?”

One of the greatest obstacles England presents to Internationalism is that she is judged abroad almost wholly by her upper classes. These are her travellers and her speakers; newspapers, the Church and the Army, uphold and express their point of view. The upper middle class hopes to become part of the Aristocracy, or to be at worst mistaken for it, and England—the best millions with no such best pretension—is disregarded and unheard. And yet no one would judge the flora of a country by confining himself exclusively to its hot-houses.

The aristocracy of England are particularly fine and healthy plants. They have made England what she is, but they cannot make her what she should become; for this they have neither the foresight nor the generosity. They have an unyielding pluck—their heart (when you have succeeded in finding it) is in the right place; their loyalties are un-limited and their courteous tolerance of other people’s individualities is given only to those who are certain of their own. It is the calm certainty of their right to power and the exclusiveness of their sense of privilege, which is making the position of the upper classes in England intolerable; and robbing the country of the affection of its neighbours. The English aristocracy are unable to change with a changing world; a small fraction of them are to be found disinterested enough to throw in their lot with Labour and the Intellectuals, but for the most part they want a privacy based upon selfishness, and an Imperalism which is a constant danger to the peace of the world. The international friendships of the present aristocrat are based on keeping his caste on the top. He likes to protect the weak, but only when they are weak enough to serve him. He knows his good nature is being curtailed by new and vulgar forces, and bitterly, even religiously, resents them. He has always been, and always wants to be, a Benevolent Despot. He can be wonderfully generous to his dependents, and is often deeply beloved by them, but the same man who will sit up three nights running with a sick groom—to keep death at bay—will turn out an old and valuable tenant from the home of his fathers, for holding radical opinions.

The trouble with the Aristocrat is not that he is not a fine type; but that he does not represent England, and that his faults and his narrowness of outlook make his representation of her unfair. If you want to find England you must dig deep. You will hear stories of the Tommies in the Trenches which will bring her home to you; you can read what her writers think—and most of her thinkers speak the needs and the thoughts of Labour. These men and the masses behind them for whom they speak are passionately international; not arrogant; keen to know; shrewd to grasp new methods, and to listen to the freer utterances of new countries. They are ready to laugh at themselves, and to learn from their laughter. They are friendly to foreigners and without antipathies. This England refused war with Russia when dragged to the very verge of it by the rash actions of her rulers. But though it refused war, Labor sent over representatives to Russia who poked their way through Bolshevism in spite of its class appeal, and, resisting the thickest curtain of propaganda yet devised, came out upon the other side. This England saw plainly that Communism as it was practised at that time in Russia was not liberty; and did not tend to the welfare of any people. This England longed for American co-operation in the peace, and is ready to meet it, anywhere and at any time. It is ready to prove its sincerity by any sane sacrifice of good-will. All it asks is to be allowed in common with the rest of the world to develop a civilization without handicaps of class, or the undermining threat of war. This England can be trusted to change, because it has never solidified. It does not possess, as the English aristocracy possesses, the highest amount of personal comfort, beauty, and privacy to be obtained in the world, with the least possible willingness to share it. This England has not had its head turned by splendid isolation, nor has prosperity deadened its sympathies. It is not static, suffering from an old and unpractical form of education—after the age of thirteen or fourteen it has generally had to educate itself. The morals of English working people are sound; drink, which is their greatest menace, destroys the worst not the best of their class. They have been brought suddenly towards power, out of centuries of servitude and ignorance. Their party is inexperienced, young, beset with the difficulties of the hour, but not afraid. Can England change? It lies in the hands of sober, sound-hearted and unspoilt workers of England to show the world that it can.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading