Sunday, 28 January 2018

Quora Question:
What are the differences between continental European and British mentality?

Questions inviting sweeping generalisations are all right if you don’t take them too seriously. For example, how much sense does it really make to argue that Swedes, Swiss and Spaniards all share a common European mentality, without even beginning to ask the same question of the heterogeneous British?
We might shed a very little light if we consider a few of the less outrageous over-simplifications regarding how the political, cultural and economic environments differ. Please forgive an element of English drollery in what follows. If you don’t detect any, please forgive its omission.
1. To begin traditionally, as they say, at the beginning. An island tends to be harder to conquer than part of the mainland. For almost a millennium (with the arguable exception of 1688) Britain has not succumbed to invasion. The Swiss have managed something similar by living in the inaccessible Alps, but foreign armies have marched and counter-marched over much of the rest of Europe. I suspect this may influence Europeans towards being more willing to co-operate with each other in order to avoid such things in future. The British are understandably less worried about something that never happens anyway.
2. Many European countries have for historical reasons adopted Roman Law. This system lays down in great detail what citizens may do and forbids everything else. It is far too much trouble for them to enforce this system in the same detail and they usually don’t. By contrast British Common Law assumes that the citizen may do anything the law doesn’t specifically forbid, and the relatively few forbidden things things have historically been policed quite rigorously. Sadly during The UK’s EU membership these two systems became mixed up, so we now have very detailed Romanesque regulations policed with typically-British vigour. This is the worst of both worlds and, amongst other calamities, makes it impossible for replica Edwardian sweetshops to sell humbugs by the quarter.
3. In the UK the Agrarian Revolution, including the Highland Clearances, preceded the political revolution we call democracy. Accordingly Britain has no numerically-significant peasant class. In much of Europe this process was temporally reversed, peasants got votes before losing their land and consequently numerous very small landholders still have a lot of political clout. Rural people (not to be confused with commuters) don’t think like urban people.
4. In the UK the Industrial Revolution also preceded democracy. As a result a well known German exile in the British Museum reading room wrote a book predicting the British capitalist system would be overthrown by the workers. However the British intelligentsia read the book and decided to forestall the revolution by inventing social democracy, passing Factory Acts, introducing compulsory education for all, social security, the NHS etc. As a result British workers decided they now had too much to lose and wouldn’t have a revolution after all but would leave that sort of thing to Europeans.
5. Despite point 3 above, Britain curtailed the power of absolute monarchy at, by European standards, a very early stage of its history, emphasising that government required the consent of the governed, or at least those of the governed who had lots of money. By contrast much of Europe has only recently emerged from the grip of totalitarianism or dictatorship and has relatively shallow democratic roots. From this side of the Channel it sometimes looks as though Europeans tolerate more nonsense than they should from the powers that be, with the honourable exception of French small farmers (see 3 above) who are even better than the British at not tolerating it.
6. The English invented Anglicanism so they could reject the authority of the Pope without having to be protestants either. As a result they became merchants instead and gave up religion except on Sundays. They pressed this reform on the rest of the UK with incomplete success. The rest of Europe however fought lots of wars about religion and hence take it very seriously.
The above are, as Jerome K Jerome might have said, a few idle thoughts of an idle fellow and I refuse to go to the wall for any of them.
Except the inalienable human right to sell humbugs by the quarter.

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