Can there ever be such a thing as a national character? Is it really possible to distill the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of millions of people across multiple generations into a generalised concept of a society? Is it fair to represent Britain as a bulldog, France as a cock (erel), and Germany as an accountant?
Of course not. And yet at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves about our national character provide an important insight into the values we aspire to and the ideals we wish to hold. As spurious as they often are, these ideas form the mental landscape that shapes our view of the world, and never are they more important than at a time of national and international crisis.
That’s why, once again, the British are talking about the war.
‘Our grandparents were asked to go to war,’ say all the memes. ‘We’re being asked to sit on the sofa.’
I have a European friend who is bewildered by how much the British talk about the war. For a country that has existed for hundreds of years and once ruled over a quarter of the world, it does seem odd that we choose to celebrate an event when we had our backs to the wall, lost an empire, and had to give up our place at the table to the bigger boys, rather than hark back to the glory days when we were still on top.
What this overlooks is that our celebration of the ‘Blitz spirit’ has nothing to do with war, or fighting prowess, or military might – it’s about standing firm in the face of adversity. The British national character, the character we’re so proud of, is our tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s Drake leading a rag-tag fleet against the Spanish Armada. It’s Nelson sailing at the numerically superior French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. It’s Wellington standing firm against the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. It’s 100 soldiers facing off against 4000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, and it’s Britain standing alone against a Nazi Germany that had conquered the whole of Europe.
Of course, this is just one view of these events, and they were more complicated and multifaceted than presented here, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that this is how we choose to remember them. We’re an island nation perched on the edge of Europe, part of but separate from it – stubborn, independent, outnumbered yet punching above our weight.
It’s no surprise that one of our favourite quotes is from Henry V on the eve of Agincourt (as Shakespeare writes it): ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ If we could pick someone who exemplified Britishness, it would be our wartime leader, Winston Churchill. We will fight them on the beaches, never was so much owed by so many to so few, this is their finest hour.
British culture is practically a cult of the underdog, of keeping our heads when all about us are losing theirs, and persevering come what may. Our unofficial motto is ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and unless you understand that, you’ll never understand either Brexit or our response to coronavirus.
Of course, if I’m being honest, I think the best representation of Britishness isn’t Churchill but Captain Mainwaring, a ridiculously pompous, arrogant character from the sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Now before you accuse me of maligning my country, allow me to explain.
For those who have never seen the endless reruns, Dad’s Army is about a platoon of British Home Guard during WWII, formed from men too old, too infirm, or too malingering to fight in the regular forces. Set in the fictional South Coast village of Walmington-on-Sea, these have-a-go heroes work their jobs by day and stand ready to defend against invasion at night with homemade weapons and makeshift tactics. It’s the very embodiment of the British underdog spirit and has reflected, shaped and reinforced much of how we see ourselves today, even the theme tune: ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old England’s done?’ This is despite the fact that the characters are mostly buffoons.
Easily my favourite, the man who truly represents the spirit of Britain, is the platoon’s leader, Captain Mainwaring. Snobbish, xenophobic, with delusions of grandeur and an inflated sense of his own importance, it would be easy to write him off, particularly as much of the humour is laughing at him, at how ridiculous he is, at how he undermines his own best interests. He is, indeed, every negative thing you can say about the British, if you’re on the outside, looking in.
But beneath all the bluster and pretension, the awkwardness and arrogance, is a man genuinely devoted to his country, trying his best to do his duty, who does the right thing when it matters and is by far the bravest, most decisive character in the show. While Corporal Jones is running around in a flap crying, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic!’ and pessimistic Scottish undertaker Fraser is sitting in a corner moaning, ‘We’re doomed, doomed,’ Mainwaring is the man who steps up and takes control and saves the day. In the 1971 movie, thinking they are being invaded, he barricades the road and prepares to face German tanks with a single shotgun. Later, he confronts a downed Luftwaffe pilot with nothing but guts, risking his own life to rescue a roomful of hostages. While his faults might be laughable, he’s redeemed by his loyality, bravery, dedication and tenacity.
That is Britain. We’re arrogant, xenophobic, stubborn, pompous and slightly ridiculous. When everyone else is going left, we go right through sheer bloodymindedness. You can laugh at us all you want, but don’t ever underestimate us. We’re the underdogs, and that’s the way we like it, and when our backs are to the wall, you’d better not rule us out, because that’s when we Brits triumph.
In fact, I see a lot of Captain Mainwaring in Boris Johnson. People call him dithering, indecisive, slow to act – a buffoon promoted beyond his ability. But cometh the man, cometh the hour. He understands our national character better than anyone. He tells us we don’t need to panic, though many of us will die. He tells us the way ahead is hard, but we can take it. The allusions to the war are because we know that when facing doom and gloom, the British are more than capable of weathering the storm.
From the outside, our response to coronavirus might appear fatalistic, irresponsible, laid-back even. The fact is, we won’t know the effects of our different approaches until way after the outbreak has ended and all the numbers have been crunched. We could try something different, I suppose. We could panic or quarantine; we could do what other countries have done and lock everything down; we could give in to despair and terror.
It just wouldn’t be very British.
Now wash your hands, you stupid boy!
(And just as I was about to publish this post, I see Richard Littlejohn has written a Dad’s Army parody about the coronavirus!)