There'll always be an England. But what is England?


The Union may be under threat  - though 300 years of marriage is pretty good going  -  but a certain "Britishness" will still exist even  if Scotland and England go their seperate ways. Shakespeare remains Shakespeare after all.

Yet despite our closeness - and centuries of intermarriage -  there remain remarkable differences between Scotland and England. The English, for instance, are rather better at laughing at themselves than my countrymen. Like many Scots I rather like the English but am frequently baffled by them.

But the question of who the English really are is one that has been waiting to be asked by Englishmen for more than half a century. The English, much more than the Scots, have yet to find a proper role for themselves in the post-imperial era (and the disastrous running down of the armed forces by successive Conservative and Labour governments ensures that the army is in any case ill-equipped to play its part in these neo-imperial days. You may think that a good thing of course).

Still, reviewing a new book, "The English National Character: the History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair" by Peter Mandler, Max Hastings has some fun:

Graham Laidler, the cartoonist Pont, made a famous series of drawings for Punch in the 1930s under the heading The English Character. They bore such captions as: Love of Fresh Air, Inability to Learn Foreign Languages, Hatred of Throwing Things Away, Inability to Make Conversation.

The English middle classes have always loved Pont’s depictions of them. Most identify qualities in ourselves that we ought to blush about, but are rather proud of, such as our reluctance to treat anything entirely seriously. A Pont cartoon of 1940 showed an outraged housewife confronting a German stormtrooper in her garden, saying: “How dare you come in here!” Britain’s reluctance to get serious about Hitler nearly sunk us, of course, likewise our resistance to industrial change, languages, collaboration with Europe, etc. Yet until recently, most of us have been pretty smug about what we think we are — more cultured than the Americans, nicer than the French, prettier than the Germans, funnier than almost everyone, and pretty good at fighting once we get going.

[Incidentally, only an Englishman could cite an Irishman (Burke) and a sort of Scot (Blair, born and schooled inorth of the border) - in the title of a book about Englishness. Another reminder that these are mongrel islands.]