Are Unflappable Englishmen Actually Just Complacent? (2012), by D.J. Webb

Share this

Are Unflappable Englishmen Actually Just Complacent?
by D.J. Webb
Published on the LA Blog,
15th April 2012 


England, and especially the political élite, has long cultivate a rather admirable cultural style. I call it unflappability. It is a kind of sang froid that dates back to the days when England ruled the waves. Our current prime minister, David Cameron, exudes unflappability partly because of his upper-class, Eton and Oxford roots. His class were born to rule—to rule one-quarter of the earth, and not just England—and many members of his class retain a serene cultural style, which means that he performs well in a crisis, debates well in Parliament and gives a good account of himself in front of a television camera.

Of course, like all political élites, our élite experiences dramas and crises, which are what the political narrative of government is all about. I remember one television drama set in the 1950s that used the phrase “there’s a flap on in the War Office”: the phrase appears almost self-mocking, as if we shouldn’t really give in to flappability even if there is a flap on. A flap is a temporary interlude of people running around like headless chickens, before serenity is resumed. The phrase SNAFU also encapsulates the deprecating attitude towards panic that the serene, unflappable Brits, born to rule, are meant to look down on.

The fluttered folk

Other nations are not quite as serene as imperial Britain. The wild and excitable nature of non-European peoples in particular was described in Kipling’s If, where they are referred to as “fluttered folk and wild/, Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/ Half-devil and half-child”. The subject races were childlike due to their excitability. Clearly the Sudanese tribesmen following the Mahdi were less calm and collected than the English.

This is in part a cultural difference. Take China for instance: the Chinese have a habit of “throwing their toys out of the cot” in response to slights. In other words, they are behaving like fluttered folk. A great example was the late 2007 decision of the Chinese not to allow the USS Kitty Hawk to dock in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving, following the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington. The decision appeared petty in Western eyes, and was reversed under pressure from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, albeit too late, as the Kitty Hawk was well on its way to Japan by the time. A more recent example is China’s continuing series of diplomatic slights of Norway following the 2010 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese democracy activist.

These examples appear to prove, to Western observers, that the Chinese behave in an essentially childish and childlike manner. Face cultures, such as those of the Orient, do not rise above slights. They are not serene or unflappable; they exhibit no sang froid. In our eyes, their behaviour is inferior, like that of a child. Of course, it would violate the first rule of our serenity to say that we viewed ourselves as superior—such wild talk is the province of political obsessives, people who have cast aside their serenity to indulge in crude language—but the serenity of the British élite gives it an unstated sense of cultural superiority on the world stage.

In contrast to countries like China, Britain rises above insults. It is considered beneath our dignity to even notice insults, let alone give the insulting party what they want by over-reacting to them. Much of our foreign aid budget is spent in countries whose regimes are openly anti-Western, including Zimbabwe, the Sudan and Palestine. We make a large net contribution to the EU, despite the fact that “our European partners” often appear to pushing their immigrant populations over the Straits of Dover and are targeting the UK-based financial services industry for higher taxes to solve eurozone problems. The US is another ungrateful diplomatic partner, whose many slights, serious and trivial, have all been ignored and taken within our stride.

Her Majesty’s Government tries not to do pettiness on the international stage. It is an interesting question how widespread this cultural phenomenon is in the West. We can cite US aid to North Korea, or even the economic engagement of the whole of the advanced Western world with Red China, thus building up a strategic rival, or our collective refusal to see the Islamic world as a foe. But it seems there are Western societies that do have a greater penchant for pettiness than the Anglo-Saxon countries. French spitefulness lay behind the Versailles Treaty after the First World War—and ultimately led to tens of millions of deaths in the Second World War—and a great deal of EU wrangling revolves around the need to assuage the hauteur of the French, who suffer from a Napoleon complex, unable to accept the reality that they are no longer the most powerful state in Europe. The insistence of French leaders on arriving for summit meetings 10 minutes late also bespeaks a pettiness of character—people who are truly important don’t need to play such games.

An Anglican style

Clearly the serenity of the Anglosphere is not uniformly found across Europe, and this is partly why England is the least europhile country in Europe. The overly ideological grandiose schemes of the European project strike the English mind as appealing to a French-style bureaucratic hauteur. We were only ever interested in the free trade aspect of the European Union, and have simply gone alone with the ideology and windy rhetoric of the Continent, internally sneering at much of it, but signing up to it all the same.

The connection between serenity and unflappability and the pragmatic, empirical, non-ideological approach of the English can be seen in the cultural feel of the Church of England. Whereas on the Continent, the thoughts and beliefs of the population were determined by the political élite—in Sweden, membership of the Roman Catholic Church was punished by the death penalty under King Gustav Vasa—it was accepted as early as Elizabethan times in England that the state would not “make windows into men’s souls”, and following the English Civil War, the national church was never fully reimposed. Dissenting chapels, as well as congregations of Jews, Quakers and Unitarians, were taken in its stride by the Church of England, which looked down on “enthusiasm” or fanaticism in religion. This was partly the reason why the Methodists broke off from the Church of England: Methodist preachers who were rounding up large crowds to attend the services of the Established Church were seen by the Anglican clergy as overly zealous or fanatical.

The CofE at an early date removed itself from the business of laying down highly doctrinaire interpretations of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. As Queen Elizabeth (Gloriana, and not the current frumpy throne-warmer) said, “’twas God the Word that spake it/, He took the bread and brake it/, and what the Word did make it/, that I believe and take it”. As a broad church, the CofE is apparently utterly uninterested in attracting its flock to any particular form or style of worship. As Roger Scruton pointed out in his England: An Elegy, Anglicans only half-believe the Creeds. In fact, they look down on those who really do believe as some kind of extremists.

It is this scepticism, this refusal to promote any definite creed, that underpins England’s erstwhile serenity. Just as Roman Catholicism was seen by the English as being an overly superstitious interpretation of Christianity, Eurofanaticism strikes the English as a little, well, un-English. If the French wish to think up grandiose plans of the unification of the whole of Europe into one country run out of Strasbourg, it is taken as a little bit of a joke by the English, who simply want to trade with Europe. In this way, our unflappability dovetails well with our pragmatism. Ideologies and grand schemes seem to us to be the projects of slightly silly Continentals, who don’t really how absurd they sound.

The political angle

Then there is the political angle. Unflappability and pragmatism means that the English take little notice of fringe political parties who are calling for major changes to the status quo. While the EU seems an absurd project to what is probably a majority of Englishmen, the eurosceptics seem too swivel-eyed, too obsessed, to most of those people too. Political obsessives, with a detailed knowledge of the breaches of the constitution occasioned by EU membership, are simply people who are in a flap or fluttered folk, people who are failing to approach the key issues with the correct leavening of sang froid. Liberals actually look down on those who oppose the EU and multi-culturalism, because their serenity gives them a sense of superiority, not only against other nations, but within the English nation itself, against those who take a less “measured” approach to politics.

I think it is in this light that the Euroscepticism of people like David Cameron is to be seen: they are sceptical of the more obsessive and ideological claims made by the Europhiles, but essentially they view it as something of a hoot, and go along with most of it on pragmatic grounds. The centre ground is an approach characterised by support for membership of the EU, while ignoring the obsessives on either side of the argument. Similarly, people who are against multi-culturalism or immigration are, in the view of many English people, people who need to have a lie down, people who are getting agitated over something that that it is not necessary to approach in strident terms. This is what unflappability and pragmatism means. My own Conservative MP, Edward Leigh, told me during my visit to his surgery that it would not do to close down the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as it was always best, on pragmatic grounds, to give these vested interests a bit of money, rather than antagonising them.

Other European nations, with less of the culture of opposing political flaps, are more able to openly angle for their own political advantage. The French opposition to any EU budget changes that would affect their own economy contrasts greatly with Britain’s smiling handing away of most of its budget rebate and its willingness to hand over its fishing-grounds and much else. I strongly doubt, had Britain been in the eurozone, that Britain would have imitated the Finns in insisting on collateral before bailing out the Greeks. As far as immigration and multi-culturalism are concerned, the French are able to deport Third World criminals almost immediately, while we are patting ourselves on the back over our support for human rights and due process, while our Third World criminals remain in situ for years on end. Policies such as the French ban on the wearing of the Islamic veil are unlikely to make headway in the UK, as they would be seen as coming from the more obsessed parts of the political world.


I suppose someone could argue that our civil service has become politically obsessed with fringe causes, such as multi-culturalism and European integration. If we are empirical and pragmatic by nature, why have we allowed the panoply of workplace discrimination tribunals to be set up? Why does our civil service “goldplate” European directives in a way that magnifies their disruptive effect? Are we becoming ideological?

I think it is undeniable that a political commissariat has been formed where there was once an independent, non-political civil service. Many have identified the Blair administration as the key period when the independent traditions of the civil service were finally brought to an end. The introduction of the Human Rights Act has also led to a politicisation of judicial decisions, with an accent on extremism in the tone and import of the judgments handed down.

The country feels like a land under occupation by a foreign power, such is the bewilderment occasioned by the behaviour of state officials in a less free country. But these extreme causes did not become the “political centre ground” over night—this was the work of decades—and the way in which these causes have become the default assumptions of our rulers means that they are now able to dismiss opponents of these causes as “cranks and obsessives”. Just as the centre ground means to people like Cameron support for the EU, while laughing at both the grandeur and self-importance of the Eurozealots and the anger of the Eurosceptics, our rulers seem to see multi-culturalism as simply middle-ground territory today, lying somewhere between the fringes of Respect and UKIP.

An objection may by made that the state’s approach is actually not in the middle ground at all. The state has fully signed up to full European control. The state now openly discourages the integration of people who come to this country. The state now openly hands down harsher punishments for crime where it is argued opposition to minorities may have been a motivating factor, and ignores similar hate crimes (much more numerous) done by members of the minority “communities”. There is nothing centre ground about the approach of the British political/administrative élite today.

However, unflappability/pragmatism is just a cultural style. While pursuing extreme politics, the state and its functionaries have adopted a cultural style of non-extremism. David Cameron is an almost perfect model of the style: such people simply turn away in embarrassment or disgust at real conservatives “getting worked up” over the same old list of issues. “Calm down!” or “go and have a lie down!” is what such people would really like to say to conservatives “ranting” on Europe or immigration or multi-culturalism. Why didn’t these people tell the Europhiles to calm down? or the multi-culturalists? or the environmentalists, with their industry-inhibiting regulations?

The only way I can interpret it is that unflappability or serenity—the traditionally calm approach of the English—leads directly to complacency. Clearly, some times the War Office does need to be in a flap, e.g., when the country is being attacked. There are times when the national interests need defending more robustly on the world stage. Mrs Thatcher did this, but she was viewed as “too strident” in tone by the cultural élite in England. We always seem to be trying to win points from each other for being smug and self-satisfied, and this is what serenity has shaded into today.

After decades of pursuing the current political line, there are key vested interests in all the policies we are pursuing. For example, the police would prefer to make money from speeding motorists rather than cracking down on the criminal underclass, which requires a bit of effort. Having allowed a problem to emerge gradually, we have all become accustomed to the crime and social decay around us, and so those who want to see a proper restoration of decent society are easily painted by the vested interests as people getting a bit too hot under the collar over some issues.

This country therefore presents a curious image of itself as one that cannot bestir itself to defend any of its interests. A similar image is presented by the US in its relations with China, where the laughing and smiling occupants of the White House have looked on benignly as millions of jobs disappeared to China, while looking down on those senators, “fluttered folk”, who were seeking to impose controversial sanctions on China for preventing its currency from appreciating. Ironically, the current global economic crisis would not have happened had the White House been less complacent.

We have gone from effortlessly running the world to effortlessly managing our decline, all the while sneering at those who would seek more radical policies. We don’t do radical policies in England. Everything has to seem calm and urbane, with little in the way of rocking the boat. I am not sure how much mileage there is left in this approach; our élite draws great internal strength from its cultural style, while gives it, in its own eyes, a right to rule. Stridency disqualifies opponents of the élite from power. But economic crisis has the ability to impose change on the government. Complacency only works as long as things are ticking over just fine. They are no longer doing so.