Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Great British Nay

In his comment below my last post, Madfolly asks, reasonably enough, for an explanation of the strong and persistent strand of negativity and 'can't do' in what might pompously be called our national discourse.
 Well, the first thing to say is that it shouldn't be taken too seriously: we indulge in a lot of 'can't do' moaning because we know that really, when it comes to it, we probably can do - as these Olympics prove. It was the perpetually grumbling, negative Poor Bloody Infantry that won us two world wars against overwhelming odds. Perhaps nations with less confidence - and competence - cannot indulge nay-saying on a British scale (though clearly America doesn't fit this picture).
 Another strand feeding into our great national grumble is a deep-seated distrust of airy idealism - of Big Ideas, especially those of a progressive kind that promise a Better World. We rarely fall for it: the short period after the Last Spot of Bother when we accepted New Jerusalem thinking and got the NHS and the Welfare State (talking of mad folly) was an aberration, as was the Things Can Only Get Better madness that swept Blair to power. Most of the time we empirical Brits love to debunk big ideas, because we know that they are not rooted in human reality - just as we like to bring down the mighty and pretentious, who have similarly lost touch with what they are. This is deep in our cultural bloodstream, at the core of our sense of humour and of the comic imagination that suffuses all our greatest literature, from Chaucer on.
 However, having said all this, I can't help but feel that the Great British Nay is not what it was. Ever since the London Olympics were announced - to whoops and air punches all round - the nay-sayers have been in a minority, and now that minority is dwindling to a rump. There's an awful lot of positive energy around, a lot of affirmation, and it all feels a bit odd and unEnglish - but then there probably always has been. It's just that we Brits like to balance it with healthy doses of scepticism, moaning and debunking humour, grumbling as we get on with it. Long may it be so.


  1. Much has to do with the avoidance of disappointment I think Nige. Yes we know deep down that it likely won't be as bad as we say but when the not so terrible comes to pass there is a degree of relief, nay delighted surprise. As you say the 'Things Can Only Get Better' inanities of the Blair era just don't fit our stoic mind set. Because as Tony showed us, change isn't always for the better but then we knew that in our gut didnt we?.

    As for myself I'm discussing the UK's performance with my American collegues and pointing out that while we may be third in the medals table right now then it won't stay that way once we are done with the cycling and the rowing that we have always been reasonably good at. Things Can Only Get Worse obviously.

  2. sorry to mention the T word Nige, but I can confirm that twitter was a huge vortex of negativism right up to the opening ceremony. Of course this has now completely reveresed into some sort of gloopy love in about how wonderful everything is, hullo birds, hullo sky etc.

  3. So, no more fings ain't wot they used to be / they turned our local Palais into a bowling alley, it's the brave new world and off the Plymouth and a game of bowls for us, as Whymper said to the gathered press pack when asked what spurred him on, "I saw the lion of England before me"

    Yes that's it, medals, bowls, lions. Result, success.

    George Monbiot, Polly Toynbee and the activistas. Result failure.

  4. I'm surprised some old curmudgeon hasn't made the point that it is a mark of our decline that we now need sporting success to justify ourselves as a nation. We used to have a snooty attitude to winning medals - it was what countries who didn't have anything else to feel proud about resorted to.

    The message of the current games: for you, Tommy, the war really is over.

  5. British negativity stems from a conviction that enthusiasm is vulgar and should be avoided. In this the Queen sets a splendid example: she always expresses polite interest but never enthuses. Unfortunately, this conviction seems to be confined to fewer and fewer people. Witness the Proms (and indeed Radio 3 generally) which have become an excuse for presenters to produce hype in industrial quantities; witness the celebrity culture where unremarkable people are praised to the point of believing that they are indeed remarkable. But hype is only one form enthusiasm takes. Emoting publicly is another. Probably the most shocking example of this in recent times is the competitive grieving that took place when Diana died. As the National Compost Heap outside the gates of Kensington Palace grew ever higher, so public gushing became more and more extravagant. Public gushing, public blubbing - it’s all of a piece. Gush and blub by all means, but not in public please. Keep up the negativity, Nige.