October 13, 2019

Sullen, Lonely, and Unfriendly in the UK

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I’ve noticed it before while boarding flights from the UK to America—once you leave the seating area by your gate in London’s Heathrow airport to traverse the walkway to the plane, you sense a palpable change in the atmosphere. By the time you are seated, strapped in, and those American chimes pipe in over the speaker system, the transition is complete: the weight begins to lift. Upon boarding my last flight back to the US, following a three-week trip back home in the UK, my typical sigh of relief was even greater than usual.
America may be seething with indignation, judging by most of its popular commentary, but I’ll take it over the prevailing mood I encountered back in Britain. People there seemed so damn miserable and defeated. I love my family and fantastic British friends; I love quirky British ways, bus drivers who call you “duck” or “sausage” as you get on, the country’s pub culture, the conversational nuance, the irreverence, the train journeys through verdant valleys, the lapwings diving over a farmer’s ploughed field. There’s no country like it, and I will forever be awed by what this small isle and its adventurous people have achieved. But too often during my recent visit, the atmosphere felt genuinely suffocating, leaving me pining for the reprieve of the American alternative.
I actually landed just as President Trump did, and it was dispiriting to see the self-righteous reaction of so many Brits to the democratically elected leader of our most important ally. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Trump was visiting us as the representative of America and its millions of people. If Brits can’t remember the name of Omaha Beach, then how about those images from the film Saving Private Ryan? Americans died in droves alongside us in the fight to topple Nazi Germany. But seemingly that fact was relegated to the status of ‘notwithstanding’ for many Brits. If you didn’t like the American president, then your personal animosity about that “beastly man” overrode everything else. The UK, about to leave the European Union, really needs America right now—it’s our biggest export market, and that’s before you even get into the shared history, the Marshall Plan, et al. So, great timing to cock a snook to the American president–one who appears to have, whether you like it or not, a real fighting chance at a second term. Fortunately, the Queen and various others did the sensible thing and acted the gracious host to President Trump.
Brexit is certainly part of what’s driving British malaise, with many understandably worried and shocked by what’s transpired. But America went through, and is still going through, its own Brexit equivalent—Trump’s jarring election—and it appears to be bearing up much better at the individual level. Yes, there are rightful concerns about the United States’ fraying social fabric, set against the increasing political polarization under the current administration. But at the same time, at least most ordinary Americans remain civilized to each other, displaying dashes of spirit and friendly pluck, making everyday life bearable and often even a pleasure.
By comparison, the Brits appear moribund, unable as they engage with the world to put aside what seems like a national sulk, which some would say started at the end of the British Empire (and hence could really do with being gotten over). We have lost our sense of humor, it seems, as evidenced by what I see on our TV comedy shows, whose jokes seemed more snide and coarse than usual—such “wit” ever the refuge of the anxious malcontent, projecting the darkness lying within.
This atrophying of our national sense of humor hasn’t been helped by our nanny state becoming more politically correct and intrusive. As I’ve previously noted at The American Conservative, I’m a diehard fan of our National Health Service, as well as other blessed elements of Britain’s welfare structure (I think the lack of maternity leave and support in the United States is a national disgrace). But I can’t help noticing that the longer I am in the U.S., the more I find myself bridling at the unnecessary government intrusion in the UK, accompanied by a hearty “back off” that, these days, even has a slight American twinge to it.
Such dubious nannying was recently evidenced by a governmental ruling on new guidelines to prevent adverts that promulgate harmful gender stereotypes: a nice idea in theory, but will in practice make discerning where to draw the line exceptionally hard. Furthermore, it will likely suppress the employment of any advertising-related humor. America is often taken to task for harboring a latent fascist streak, but I think the UK matches, if not exceeds, it on this score. Brits are far less willing than Americans to tolerate overall lifestyle risk and are more willing to sacrifice their civil liberties in the name of security.
Matters aren’t helped by how certain unwelcome societal traits that have always existed in the UK appear to be getting more pronounced. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” The malice and contempt accompanying class envy in the UK appears strong as ever. I have the sort of accent that draws such opprobrium, which is immensely tedious when trying to navigate the churn of each day—further, it hamstrings our capabilities as a nation. In his fine and useful 1982 book The British, A Portrait of an Indomitable Island People, the American writer Norman Gelb noted that “the antagonisms and cussedness their divisions have stoked up are responsible for Britain’s costly inability so far to cope with today’s world.” Of this, we clearly haven’t taken note, nor of his warning over what he called the “English disease,” the symptoms of which include “self-destructive self-interest, developing into despondency and indifference.”
In addition to the apparently nefarious effect of my vocal chords, another problem that I bring back to the UK are certain American habits I’ve acquired. More often than I used to, I’ll greet strangers if we cross paths, or try for a quick chin wag with someone at a shop till or with other waiting customers. When people either refuse to acknowledge such a greeting, instead opting for a stony, lifeless countenance, or look at you like you might one day be released from the asylum, it’s hard to feel much pride for one’s fellow countrymen. And I don’t for a moment buy the usual British critical response to such “Americanisms”: that they are superficial. You could apply that to almost everything one does or says in life. The cogs of society and almost all human interactions are greased by the “superficialities” of manners and displays of civic care and decency.
Admittedly, I wondered whether it was just me being overly touchy and judgmental. But in discussing this topic with my editor at The American Conservative, he remarked how Casey Chalk, another author, had said after visiting the UK, that the British seem even lonelier than people in America. Chalk hits upon a crucial point, I’d vouch. The British, especially the English contingent, have always been reticent and prone to public insularity. But traditionally these habits have been mitigated by the communal spirit engendered by the local pub, the church, and the family network. Such purveyors of kinship, however, are fraying in the face of the combined effects of the Internet, social media, secularization, and changing marital and childrearing habits. These modern trends are affecting everyone, admittedly. But I fear that the British, because of their particular cultural attitudes and mores, are particularly vulnerable.
The UK is in a spot of bother, both in terms of Brexit and deeper down in its national psyche. “Energies that should have been devoted to exploiting British ingenuity for the good of the country have been squandered on paralytic and ruinous social posturing and group greed,” Gelb wrote. Leaving aside whatever personal opinions I may have about the character of the current American president, I hope that he remembers his mother’s Scottish ancestry and my strange little island in another time of need. And I hope that all you readers do too, even if we Brits can seem rather ungracious when we are not at our best.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.

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