Paul Greenberg

“It’s part of the culture here,” said a visiting Frenchman who was interviewed while waiting at a London bus stop. “Jumping a queue is just not very British.” Well, of course not, old chap. It goes without saying, and it is the unarticulated imperatives of a society that say most about it — in this case something good. Nothing need be said to justify it. No appeal to reason or egalitarian virtue, or the Rights of Man is necessary. Or even relevant.

English liberties rest not on some blinding insight or abstract code but, like the English common law, they’re a product of development over the ages. The result: Some things are simply not done. Bad form, you know.

George Orwell tried to explain — well, describe — such folkways in his little essay, “England Your England,” which was first published in February 1941, when no one with any realistic grasp of power in this world would have expected old England to survive the Blitz and the onslaught sure to follow. Orwell began his essay with typical English understatement, noting almost matter-of-factly: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me….” That wry observation led him to wondering why nations are different, and why the British are so different:

“Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavor of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

In a politically correct age, it may no longer be permissible even to wonder whether there’s still an England or any other national culture. Aren’t they all supposed to be absorbed by the new, faceless globalism? And yet national traits persist. They are palpable even if we sometimes attribute them to vague abstractions (Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!) rather than the everyday habits of a people.

It is continuity in the seemingly small things that over time creates the complex underpinning of any society. It explains why in England the law may be respected simply because it is the law, and in other countries laws will be widely ignored because it’s expected that only fools will follow the rules.

Edmund Burke understood, which is what made him suspicious of sudden, violent changes in the social order like the French Revolution, which was going to produce a whole new society, even a new man. The usual results of such utopian visions followed — first terror, then tyranny.

It isn’t an abstract allegiance to democracy that makes the British so British but custom — the accumulated layers of habit, constraint, manners and mores that form the British character in matters great and small, from standing alone against what seemed an unstoppable threat during the Battle of Britain, or at the approach of the Spanish Armada in another time under another queen named Elizabeth, to … simply not jumping the queue.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.