Having left off last time with our intrepid group poised to undertake the National Three Peaks Challenge, I’m pleased to report that the hike was indeed successfully completed (two of our party did manage to get up and down all three mountains within the twenty-four-hour time limit by dint of literally running the entire Snowdon trail, whilst several more of us – myself included – at least staggered to the top of every peak before the deadline expired), and that your generosity helped comprehensively smash our fundraising target and collect over £12,500 to commemorate Paul McClean. There’s much that could be said about the trip itself, which involved battling against multiple injuries, Saharan temperatures, and (worst of all) rural drivers on narrow Lake District roads, but in all honesty much of it passed in a sleep-deprived blur and I’m not sure I could provide a coherent account if I tried. Besides, a potentially more interesting question was rattling round my head throughout the whole process, never more so than when sat in a Snowdonian B&B the morning after, waiting for a Scottish waitress to bring me a traditional English fry-up which she nonetheless insisted was the Full Welsh Breakfast: namely, what exactly was ‘national’ about the whole thing anyway?
In one sense, the ‘National’ Three Peaks Challenge takes its name rather prosaically from the fact that Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowdon are the tallest mountains in the three nations of Scotland, England, and Wales respectively (and not – as is commonly assumed – the three highest peaks on the island of Britain, which are all in Scotland). But looking deeper into names suggests that none of the peaks fit very straightforwardly into local national traditions. Ben Nevis overlooks the town of Fort William, named not for any Scottish hero but for Duke William of Cumberland, the Anglo-German ‘Butcher of Culloden’ still widely reviled north of the border. Scafell Pike derives its name from Old Norse, and shares more of an etymology with the settlement of Skaw in the Shetlands than with any of its English neighbours. Snowdon, meanwhile, is an English moniker with no semantic link to what the Welsh continue to call ‘Yr Wyddfa’.* Given these entangled linguistic histories, are the three peaks just ‘national’ in isolation, or might we be able to connect them all to a common sense of Britishness?
Certainly, it could be said that there is something peculiarly British about arbitrarily setting oneself the task of climbing tall bits of rock. Modern mountaineering was essentially invented by the Brits in the 1850s, when members of the world’s first Alpine Club in London set about organising expeditions to scale various Continental European mountains which the locals had been content to live alongside for centuries without ever feeling the need to stand on top of, and then writing books about it with absurdly Boy’s Own titles like Scrambles Amongst the Alps. But anyone can assemble a list of activities and things that are believed to be somehow quintessentially British (queuing, warm beer, the Queen, lawn cultivation, fish n’ chips, complaining about the weather etc etc) without this adding up to anything more than a grab-bag of tourist stereotypes that don’t say much about deeper issues of national character. If I’m going to decide in what sense the Three Peaks Challenge is authentically British, surely I’m going to have to advance a more systematic definition of what I think Britishness is?
At this point the mountains themselves are dwarfed by several enormous caveats heaving into view. Large swathes of modern historiography, and indeed previous posts on this blog, have been devoted to questioning the very existence of national character at all. Certainly, it bears repeating that the idea of national populations having certain personality traits coded into them by genes or geography is bunk; academic consensus has long since accepted that nations are cultural constructs or “imagined communities”, artificially woven together from disparate elements to create a myth of collective identity. Nonetheless, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind the response of Albus Dumbledore (himself created to embody a particular British archetype) to a question from Harry about whether a vision of Kings Cross Station during a near-death-experience is real or imaginary. “Of course it is happening inside your head”, comes the reply, “but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” To an extent, nations function in the same fashion. Although they exist only in the minds of those who believe in them, this still gives them the power to affect people’s real-world behaviour in hugely significant ways. Indeed, there is something wondrous and terrifying about how the fragile national consciousnesses pieced together by nineteenth-century Romantics out of folk songs, postage stamps, and coloured bits of cloth took on life and potency of their own, to the extent that by the mid-twentieth-century they were able to level cities and hurl armies across continents.
Just because national characters – or perhaps more accurately national cultures – do exist in some sense, does not mean that they are easy to pin down. One can find in Blackwell’s bookshop whole tables of works attempting to analyse the soul of Britain or its component countries, usually with dustjackets that hint gloomily at the difficulties and ambiguities involved in the task (Brit(ish), Hunting the English, and so on). Certainly, I am not going to be able to surpass these authors’ carefully-researched efforts in a solitary online essay, and even if I had all the time and knowledge in the world I doubt that it would be possible to isolate a single compelling formula for Britishness. Our national identity, just like that of every other country, is founded on a set of hopeless contradictions. We pride ourselves on being a nation of loveable eccentrics, and also on our no-nonsense common sense. We are simultaneously stubborn anti-authoritarians and mustn’t-grumble conformists, tea-sipping introverts and beer-swilling hooligans, backwards-looking traditionalists whose scientists and explorers built the modern world. This is the land of both Bake Off and Love Island, and whichever traits one chooses to elevate from the inconsistent morass to the status of ‘definitively’ British can only be maintained as such by heavy use of the No True Scotsman fallacy. With this in mind, the following three values which I’m going to identify as British are freely acknowledged to be a subjective personal selection; in effect, what I’m doing here is defining Britishness as I would like it to be rather than attempting a categorical verdict on what it actually is.
On the subject of not being a true Scotsman, at this point it is customary that I (as an Englishman) should try to clarify the relationship between Englishness and Britishness, and reassure my Celtic readers that I haven’t forgotten the difference between the two. The trouble is, I’m not sure I can actually do this. It is quite easy to come up with alleged Scottish and Welsh attributes that differ from those of the stereotypical Briton, such as Scottish fiery tempers and fiscal prudence or Welsh melancholy and inherent musicality. It is quite hard to do this for the English; my earlier list of activities and things seen as ‘quintessentially British’ could function equally well as a list of things seen as ‘quintessentially English’.** Most learned commentators on our national identity have wrestled with similar problems, but their solutions don’t entirely convince. In his essay ‘On Being English Without Being British’, the writer John Fowles attempted to draw a distinction between “the red-white-and-blue Britain” and “the green England”, with the former being the focus for imperial nostalgia and jingoistic patriotism of the Last Night of the Proms variety, whilst the latter was built around privacy and Robin-Hood-style opposition to authority. Some more recent analysts such as Jeremy Paxman have endorsed this, whereas others such draw almost the complete opposite conclusions; Britishness is open and inclusive, they argue, whereas the English identity is associated with angry white working-class nationalists (hence the lingering association of St George’s flag with racism, and why the majority of England’s population of non-European descent choose to identify as British and not English). Both schemata seem to me too simplistic. If neither common stereotypes nor deeper analysis can put much daylight between the two identities, what, then, is Britishness reduced to? Just Englishness minus the cricket? I have no answer to this question, so I’m simply going to move on (although there are still more caveats needed, which I’ll address later) and give my list of three values that in my mind represent the Anglo-British ideal.
As a crude rule of thumb, I usually tell foreign visitors that they can understand large chunks of British politics, economics, and society as simply the midway point between the twin poles of Continental Europe and the USA. One notable exception to this is self-deprecation, the British addiction to which often baffles Americans and Germans equally.*** It is rather hard for me to comment on this at length without getting tied in knots, because if I am going to claim this as a virtue, and at the same time as something which we British possess, then I have already effectively disproved my own assertion. I suppose the easiest way out of this bind is to deny that it is a virtue, which may well be quite true. People from other cultures might legitimately argue that the unwritten British rules that No Compliment Goes Unchallenged and Lights Must Be Hidden Under Bushels At All Times are just abstruse false modesty, and that instead of ritualistically doing ourselves down we ought to simply accept praise where it is due and be open about achievements that make us proud. Be that as it may, I do value self-deprecation, and found the relative lack of it one of the hardest things about being outside Britain or British social circles.
It should be noted that the British are rather less good at practising this collectively than they are as individuals, hence our inability to shut up about the war and similar faded glories (and possibly this blog post). However, even at a national level a streak of self-mockery often prevails. The recent World Cup is a case in point. The English in particular often get stick for overestimating the prowess of their national football team, only to have this hubris punished by inevitable defeat. There was a fair bit of this in evidence during Russia 2018, but in fairness, the England squad got almost as many plaudits for having a polite manager and taking the piss out of themselves with inflatable unicorns as they did for actually winning matches. Even the soundtrack of the summer, ‘Three Lions’, spends more time mulling over the dispiriting experience of “thirty years of hurt” than it does proclaiming English sporting supremacy (as an article in Der Spiegel noted with some puzzlement), and had the fateful semi-final gone the other way, it is difficult to imagine Harry Maguire replicating Croatia’s Dejan Lovren’s claims to be “one of the best defenders in the world”; instead, the Leicester man’s main off-field contributions to the tournament were a meme about his naff chat up lines and a good-natured response to being nicknamed ‘Slabhead’. When the whole thing was over, I can’t have been the only one to breathe a sigh of relief that this uncharacteristic bout of sporting success was finished and that we could now look forward to comfortably bemoaning our mediocrity during the inevitable disappointment of Euro 2020.
Britain is the land of mild weather, bland food, and the world’s most dreary national anthem. Our national colour should probably be beige, and if we had a national temperature it would be ‘lukewarm’. Before you fall asleep with boredom, I will attempt to argue that our devotion to middle-of-the-road averageness can be beneficial as well as merely dull. The British mistrust of extremes is most clearly of benefit in the political sphere. The near-total failure of radical ideologies such as fascism and communism to gain any purchase in Britain’s mainstream political life even during their mid-twentieth-century heyday is sometimes cited by smug Britons as proof of our freedom-loving abhorrence of tyranny, but the reality is likely more prosaic: our ancestors were simply too apathetic and averse to making a fuss to involve themselves in such uncompromising political projects. Even this lazy instinct for conflict-avoidance has been romanticised to an extent, spawning stereotypes about the British genius for ‘muddling through’ and the myth that the British Empire was only conquered “in a fit of absence of mind”. Nonetheless, statistics do lend substance to the idea that there is something in British culture that makes us unusually good at not killing each other. It is a remarkable fact that ever since the aforementioned ‘Butcher Cumberland’ put down the final Jacobite Rising at Culloden in 1746, mainland Britain has not undergone a single revolution, coup d’état, genocide, civil war, or even a significant rebellion. According to these terms (and with the possible exception of Denmark), Britain has a reasonable claim to be the most politically stable country in the history of the world.
The focal point of this compromise culture is the British constitution, one of a tiny handful of uncodified constitutions in the world, which consists of an unwieldy jumble of statutes, legal judgements, book-length commentaries, and unwritten rules. Again, I do not mean to claim that the British are unique in forging a political system based on ad hoc pragmatism rather than rational planning. One of the reasons I like the EU is because rather than functioning as an efficient centralising force (as its architects hoped and its detractors fear), it largely runs on a hodgepodge of hybrid systems, negotiated exemptions, and live-and-let-live arrangements, all of which have sufficed to keep almost everyone on board and the continent at peace for seventy years. The EU is often subject to historical comparisons with the Holy Roman Empire, and indeed the latter also has some telling similarities with Britain. After generations of condemning it for being insufficiently ordered and logical, historians have slowly come to the realisation that the Old Reich was actually quite effective as a framework for maintaining public peace among its subjects. Often, it was able to do so not because it possessed efficient dispute-resolution mechanisms or the power to decisively crush troublemakers, but for the precise opposite reasons; its multi-layered, ambiguous structure meant that there was always another authority whose permission had to be sought, another meeting to which hard decisions could be postponed, another diplomatic avenue to be explored, confounding militants’ attempts to cut the Gordian knot with violence.
The British constitution benefits from some of the same attributes, and all the time that we spend puzzling over legal grey areas and complaining about pointless anachronisms is time that we don’t spend shooting at each other. Moderation does not necessarily mean conservatism, of course, and the informal, flexible nature of our political system offers ample scope for rules to be bent into new shapes that more properly fit the times, provided one is willing to be patient. Probably the single greatest achievement of modern British political history is to have transformed the monarch from a powerful hereditary dictator into a harmless gilded puppet, all without a shot being fired and so imperceptibly that many people didn’t notice it was happening. It is to be hoped that such gradualist improvements will in time produce such necessary reforms as a more representative electoral system, an overhauled House of Lords, and perhaps the final sunset of the Crown itself.
All this is not to say that I wish to resurrect Whig History, which deified the British constitution and its supposedly inevitable progressive development from the Magna Carta onwards. Our fortuitous habit of moderate government dates at the earliest from the fudged settlement following the 1688 Glorious Revolution (largely effected by Dutch invaders), and even then this favourable political culture would probably have been unable to keep the peace were it not for a couple of other stabilising factors; firstly, the existence of the Channel as a bulwark against both disruptive foreign invasions and the need for a sizeable army, and secondly, the prosperity created by massive colonial appropriation of resources from the non-European world. Obviously, neither of these things are much to be proud of. Nor do I wish to encourage complacency about Britain remaining forever free of extremism, though I do think a broad perspective cautions against excessive pessimism on this front. There has been much concern lately about increasing bitterness and political polarisation in Britain and across the western world, some of which is well-founded; nonetheless, it is worth noting that whilst anti-establishment surges have effectively smashed the traditional party system in France and Italy and put a populist in the White House, in last year’s General Election Britain’s the two mainstream national parties got their highest combined vote share since 1970, whereas fringe outfits like UKIP and the Greens were all but wiped out. Almost alone among Europe’s major social-democratic parties, Labour has managed to keep leftists and centrists in a bad-tempered union, rather than seeing the former mount an independent challenge on the model of Podemos, Die Linke, or La France Insoumise. Although I don’t wish to offer up further predictions as hostages to fortune (as a general rule, history students should stick to commenting on the past rather than prophesying about the future), suffice to say that the British tradition of compromise and making do is alive and well. If you don’t believe me, look at the two main parties’ attempts to cobble together a coherent policy on Brexit; plainly, we can still fudge things with the best of them.
The energy that Continental cultures put into the elaborate architectural facades of Baroque and Rococo, the British put into building our own personal emotional facades, which are every bit as intricate and artificial. The result is a society which foreigners often find confusing and contradictory; we are commonly praised for our civility and good manners, but condemned for our habit of being aloof and standoffish. Here, at least, I think there is actually no inconsistency. Being polite but cold (as opposed to, say, the Americans, who are as a rule rude but friendly) is a function of the general British tendency toward emotional reserve, whereby personal feelings both positive and negative are kept to oneself, and the world is dealt with from behind a carapace of courteous detachment. The value placed on privacy and stoicism is encapsulated in various stock phrases such as “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and the much-abused “keep calm and carry on”, to which I might add my personal favourite “a problem shared is a problem squared”.
Before I go any further, here I must stop to address the most urgent and important objection to my placing ‘British reserve’ on any kind of pedestal; surely it (and indeed all the other values I’ve identified) was created by and for white upper-caste males, and only makes sense as an ideal to those from a background of narrow privilege? This is often very true. The British cult of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and rigid self-control is historically associated with a particular form of class-conscious masculinity, and frequently proved toxic both for the mental wellbeing of men forced to suppress their most powerful emotions, and for everyone else who had to live with the consequences of this bottled-up angst. Nowadays we understand more about the vital importance of being able to admit to vulnerability and share the burden of negative feelings with others, and I would never wish to argue that those in need of support should withdraw inside themselves and attempt to tackle their demons alone.
Nonetheless, I still think there is a role for reserve in promoting, rather than stifling, a beneficial emotional environment in the twenty-first century. As modern culture pushes us towards the opposite extreme, where personal privacy is eroded and we are encouraged to post every passing thought and emotional ‘reaction’ online, we face a situation where genuine cries for help can get drowned out by the white noise of over-sharing, and things are revealed that we later wish could be retracted. Moreover, although behavioural codes of politeness and decorum may be rightly accused of tone-policing the self-expression of the marginalised, the breakdown of those codes has the potential to unleash yet worse consequences. Nothing I have yet seen in the online world – where the ability to hide behind usernames and the comforting illusion of distance often suspends the normal taboos on rudeness and expressing strong emotion – has dented my conviction that when the gloves come off, it is bigots, bullies, and the far-right who are the biggest winners in the ensuing bare-knuckle fight. Anxiety about Fake News and post-truth politics is everywhere at the moment, but in some ways the biggest problem in contemporary discourse is an excess of truth-telling, not a lack of it; the moment when people no longer feel the need to keep a lid on their anger and hatred but become proud to express it openly is a moment of danger for us all.
Consider the #MeToo movement as an example of how traditional reserve and progressive politics can overlap to a significant degree. A complaint about this movement which has been endlessly raised by right-wing critics is that it will ‘take us back to the Victorian era’ by making people more cautious and inhibited in social situations. I think they are right, but I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Whilst I don’t wish to initiate a sexual counter-revolution per se, I would like to point out that the Victorian period was the height of Britain’s economic and cultural creativity; world historians writing in future centuries will almost certainly identify it as Britain’s golden age. The problem with it, of course, was that this splendid edifice of intellectual innovation and steampunk aesthetics was founded on a climate of crippling social inequality, which denied the benefits of that golden age to women, colonised peoples, the LGBT population, and the working classes. But the new culture of respect for others’ boundaries and dignity promoted by the likes of #MeToo is of course specifically designed to combat discrimination and enforce rules for decent behaviour that encompass everyone fairly. ‘Victorian Britain, but without the inequality’ sounds like a pretty decent formula to me. Reserve, interpreted properly, can function as another way of saying ‘a safe space for all’.
In a similar vein, I think it is possible to counter comparable objections to the other values I’ve put forward. Political moderation (it might be said) is all very well for those who are comfortable under the established system and can afford to wait for gradualist change, but might not the desperate and the disenfranchised have derived greater benefit from a radical revolution or two? This question cannot be definitively answered without digressing into counterfactual speculations, but for my part I can’t help but be sceptical. Studying the history of war and conflict, the things I read every day reinforce a simple point: violence is really, really rubbish. This is a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s still rather easy to overlook, or at least there’s a kind of basic selection bias at work which encourages us to downplay it. The accounts of revolutions and civil wars which we read are all, for obvious reasons, written by people who were not (yet) killed by them. Those who remain have a natural human need to believe that the results of the struggle justified the horrendous sacrifices made by their friends and comrades, whereas those who actually paid the highest price are automatically forever silenced. This is not to say that I am a pacifist who believes bloodshed in the cause of liberation to be invariably unjustified, but where opportunities for non-violent reform exist (as I think they do under the British system, for all its flaws) we have sufficient cause to be glad of 272 years of internal peace.
Even self-deprecation is not immune to concerns that it is a reactionary force. In her show Nanette (recently released on Netflix to near-messianic acclaim) comedian Hannah Gadsby launches a devastating critique of the very notion of self-deprecating humour, asking her audience “do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who is already in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” From a very different point on the political spectrum, it is worth paying heed to the words of Neo-Nazi propagandist Andrew Anglin. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not”, he advises would-be writers for his Daily Stormer website. “There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humour – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.” It seems perverse to defend self-deprecation in the face of this apparent confirmation that it functions as a tool for anti-Semites to mislead people and for minorities to collaborate in their own oppression, yet I think it can be done.
In accordance with my earlier points, it is probably preferable that fascists still feel the need to hide behind self-mockery rather than thinking themselves free to express their ideology openly. Moreover, it may be significant that Gadsby comes from Australia and Anglin from the USA, both countries where self-deprecation is less firmly entrenched as a universal social norm than in Britain. I think the value of British self-deprecation is in its omnipresence. If we encounter self-deprecating humour predominantly in limited contexts and from certain people (e.g. stand-up comics, or marginalised groups under pressure to appear humble and non-threatening), the more likely we are to miss it or be misled into taking it at face value. If self-deprecation is practised by everyone at all times, the possibilities for discrimination and deception recede. As anthropologist Kate Fox puts it in her book on English mores, “we all do this, automatically, all the time [and] among ourselves the system works perfectly well: everyone understands that the customary self-deprecation means roughly the opposite of what is said.”
Readers can make up their own minds about whether self-deprecation, moderation, and reserve are genuinely compatible with modern egalitarian activism; I have argued that they are, but can only do so from my privileged perspective which may not be of great use here. Nonetheless, Fox’s point is a key one, and leads us on to what is perhaps the unifying thread between the three aspects of Britishness I’ve highlighted. As I’ve said already, the foregoing is largely a defence of Britishness, or rather a depiction of what I find to be the better side of our national identity; hence I haven’t dwelled upon less flattering traits such as our insularity, our materialism, and our inability to install proper taps.**** Yet if I were to encapsulate my vision of Britishness in a single word, it would probably be one that is most often thrown at us as an insult: hypocrisy. All the three values I’ve identified are essentially based around saying one thing and doing another. Self-deprecation isn’t genuine humility, it’s a performative ritual designed to allow for a degree of light-hearted boasting provided one pays lip-service to the ideal of modesty. Moderation and political compromise are largely the art of pretending to agree with people you dislike for the sake of larger interests. And reserve, of course, is all about concealing the truth of your personality behind a screen of politeness. I don’t necessarily agree with his typology of Britishness and Englishness, but John Fowles hit the nail on the head in a line from a later novel The Magus, of whom one character says “we could outperfidy his perfidy, and precisely because we were English: born with masks and bred to lie.” Perfidious Albion indeed. Yet in a world increasingly intolerant of ambiguities and grey areas, where unfiltered emotions are weaponised to hurt people, there is something to be said for the small falsehoods which help us all rub along together. Lying is not necessarily a sin when done with creativity, with kindness, and with wit; at the very least it may explain why the British are quite good at writing fiction. Long live Britain as the Kingdom of White Lies.
After all that, I can at last attempt a response to my original question; namely, is there anything fundamentally ‘national’ about the ‘National Three Peaks Challenge’ after all? The answer is probably ‘not much’. For all that mountaineering may be a British invention (though one which, I note, the original Alpinists expressly chose to do outside their own island), our particular experience of it didn’t really demonstrate many of the attributes I’ve just outlined. The essence of the Challenge was to promise to perform a rather extreme task, persuade people to donate by bigging up the nature of that achievement, spend a while talking about the raw emotions caused by the loss of our friend Paul, and then straightforwardly go and do what we said we would. This isn’t to say that the Challenge is a bad thing; to state the obvious, most of the best things in life aren’t especially British.
If you are still hellbent on finding ‘peak Britain’ (did I mention the British like puns?), however, you could do worse than visit the Peak District, as I did a couple of weekends later. The website of the National Park is keen to downplay the area’s popularity, anxiously assuring readers that “it is NOT the second-most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji” as some people apparently believe. Its most notable historic site is Eyam, the ‘plague village’ which became a byword for anti-social stoicism during the epidemic of 1665 by voluntarily quarantining itself from the rest of the world and arranging for all villagers to stand several feet apart during church services. The landscape feels inherently mild and moderate, a succession of gentle rolling uplands located slap bang in the middle of the country. And above all, the name itself is a falsehood; there aren’t actually any peaks (in the sense of hills with pointed summits) at all. Thus, to end on a vaguely heartening thought, the most truly ‘national’ way to go hiking in this country may not involve hauling yourself up multiple mountains after all, but rather pottering around rural Derbyshire in search of a Bakewell tart.
Unless, of course, I am lying.