By Vexen Crabtree 2004
To improve, you must first learn what your failings are, and see what other people think of you. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that if a person searches for truth too timidly, "I wager he find nothing!"1. To make Britain great, our youth must be brought up differently, and better, than before.
“England's binge-drinking habit is one of the most entrenched in Europe - even Roman invaders wrote about it with horror.”
I am patriotic and committed to my country but honest enough to know that like every other country, mine also is engaged in a struggle to improve its people and governance. This aim of this website is to encourage all of us to help overcome our weaknesses.
Although I am attempting to compile worldwide opinion on what the failings of Britain are I will undoubtedly cloud the picture with own personal dislikes. As long as I also include the international criticism we receive, my personal additions will do no harm.
The USA and the UK are frequently criticized together, especially in the last twenty years, but this page tries to concentrate on the criticisms of the United Kingdom that are distinct from criticisms of the USA. I also ignore condemnations that are given of advanced countries in general. So the criticism that "You, as a Western power, commercially exploit third world countries", although generally true, is not a specific criticism of the UK so won't be dwelt on.
The British themselves are some of the biggest critics of Britain; a nation of apparent nay-sayers towards their own establishments give a much worse impression than things actually are. Where opinion polls show that most people believe the UK economy is in permanent decline along with the employment rate, in reality the UK has experienced the longest period of stable growth and decreasing unemployment for many decades.
“The British love to moan, especially about the supposedly decrepit state of their nation's infrastructure - dirty hospitals, draughty schools and doddery transport networks.”
Our armies and antics during our colonial times were not admirable. The United Kingdom was the most powerful extended empire in the world. Our army was the most developed, scoring a series of victories that set the scene for British dominance of most trade in the world. India, Australia, much of America, Africa and dozens of islands were all sovereign British territory.
But with this came military oppression, intense racism, a continuance of the Slave Trade and commercial exploitation. Being ruled by an empire offered stability, safety, security, funded education and upgraded country-wide infrastructure developments, but at the expense of long term economic viability. The countries that were swallowed up by the Empire-builders all suffered under various rulers, i.e., France, and all empires suffered the same types of atrocities and oppressions, the British Empire was one of the longest-lasting and therefore draws some of the worst criticism.
Thankfully in modern times we British know that our imperial years were as corrupt, sometimes better and sometimes worse, as our "barbarian" neighbours and competitors. Since those days, the British government has treated the present-day populations of ex-colonies mostly with respect and care, so that largely the "anti-colonialism" criticism of the UK is outdated and misguided, but nonetheless it occurs.
Recent moves by the Government to consider returning the annexed Southern-most piece of Spain to Spanish rule revealed a fact that the British know: That all the civilians of Gibraltar consider themselves British and do not want to become part of Spain. Spain periodically motions that it would like Gibraltar back, but I believe that this is culturally impossible. It may not be "fair" but the fact is that Gibraltar is irreversibly British. It was captured from Spain 300 years ago. For this unmoving attitude, the British have received occasional complaints from Spaniards. To return it would be to create conflict for no gain.
The Falkland Islands are a British Dependent territory a few hundred miles from the coasts of Argentina (and known there as "Malvinas"). Argentina wants the Islands back, and once after a short invasion in 1982 claimed the islands before being repelled. Argentina frequently disputes ownership and Argentinians ridicule Britain for its odd insistence on ownership of the islands. The basis of the Argentinian claim to ownership is that after Spain withdrew from the islands in the eighteenth century, Argentina then owned them. But like Gibraltar, the occupants consider themselves utterly British and to surrender them to Argentinian rule is a move the British government will not make.
Despite the best wishes of the majority of government, the people of Britain have stubbornly resisted anything European. "No" is almost an automatic response, no matter how beneficial the policy, if it means Britain moves closer to Europe. Brits are paranoid and scared of what "Europe" means. The xenophobia is only partially hidden, and most Europeans consider Brits to be a rather moody, unsophisticated, scornful neighbour. In Europe, the Brits are hated most of all European citizens.
Brits are infamous for their insular attitude towards foreign languages. Whether it is a symptom of speaking the most widely used language or not I could not say. Throughout Europe most people are multilingual. A continent with a hundred languages has spawned a beautiful network of language and fascination. But not for the English. Every country in Europe complains the British do not bother to learn their language when they visit. It is true.
The worst aspect of this failing is that when challenged, the British are frequently ignorant and shockingly narrow in their responses, saying they don't "see the point" and "can't be bothered" to even pick up phrasebooks in order to know the polite basics, let alone grace the country with some personal effort to learn how to communicate. We are not even polite about our lack of knowledge of foreign languages.
The Venerable Bede, the founder of modern footnoted scholarship & Britain's first great historian at the dawn of the written word in the West, writes critically on the English on this very point, despairing of the "English" that our Churchmen do not know Latin, and that English in total "are lazy in learning foreign languages". He wrote this during his life 673-735CE, 1300 years ago! Jeremy Paxman, author of "The English", examines the fact that we are an island nation, and concludes that this is responsible for some of our ignorance.
The USA is the world's most hated country and as a result of our closeness with the USA, the UK is caught up in the anti-USA finger-pointing. Our support of multiple Washington led unilateral moves has led to a widespread international dislike of the UK. We've supported the USA against the UN and against Europe and it has confused many how a once wise country is now following the lead of a seemingly short-sighted country. Nearly all political experts have issues concerning the foreign policy of the USA, across the world it is widely acknowledged that the UK is following the USA's lead economically and politically, especially militarily in recent years, Iraq is only the forefront example.
Often, criticism is heard of the "English" that is not meant for the United Kingdom as a whole but just for England. The United Kingdom comprises of its kernel, England, and a multitude of lands and islands. English are from England, Welsh are from Wales, Scots are from Scotland.
Northern Ireland is a portion of the island of Eire that has remained under British rule since, when in the 1920s, the rest of the Island was granted independence as Britain dismantled its empire. The Protestants of Northern Ireland refused to part, claiming by majority that they would remain part of the UK despite the mainland's wish to leave. The resulting conflict has had the British government pinned down, with feelings running very deep on all sides and militant actions by freedom fighters, terrorists and even government forces all stirring the "the troubles". Sometimes intense criticism of Britain comes from Irish voices who either want us to leave Northern Ireland completely, sometimes it comes from those who want to stop us leaving. It's a no-win situation. At its worst, it's a civil war, at its best, such as during 2003-4, peace reigns and final solutions look close.
“The 'troubles' began in 1968 when a civil rights movement created by the Roman Catholic minority flared into violent protest in Londonderry. [...] The IRA's campaign extended even to the mainland, where not only army establishments, but civilian targets too, were attacked with bombs.”
"Conflict in Peace 1963-1999" by John Strawson (1994)4
“One of the characteristics of the English which has most enraged the other races who occupy their island is their thoughtless readiness to muddle up 'England' with 'Britain'. It is, to listen to some English people talk, as if the Scots and Welsh [did not exist]. The English would do well to mind their language.”
Wales forms the Western landmass of the British Isles, Scotland the "highland" Northern lands and islands. There is sometimes tension between all three nations, each having a distinct identity. The Welsh (and historically parts of South West England) kept their own language and are always criticizing the English for cultural bullying and ignorance towards Welsh history. Many Scots dislike the English, one of the most frequent criticisms being that the English are only self-aware, never taking into account other nation-peoples within the borders.
The Scots and Irish criticize the English for using words like "English" when "British" should be used and complain that government is ran from too far away taking into account only local, English, problems. Devolution in Scotland has given them a government assembly of their own to run their own affairs, but now criticism comes because this bureaucratic overhead frequently makes things less efficient and more expensive.
There are many criticisms in return of the Scots, Welsh, Irish and other subunits within the UK, but a too detailed look at internal quarrels isn't suitable here, I will keep this page on what outsiders see as criticism of the United Kingdom as a whole, not what Brits themselves see as their failings.
“Trash Culture is specifically British. It is the mainstream culture across all of the central lands of the United Kingdom. It is characterized by binge drinking, smoking, stupidity, the active hatred of intelligence & responsible behaviour, fashion-conscious youths, ignorant uneducated adults, misbehaviour at school, petty crime, organized crime, violence, homophobia, racism and xenophobia. Its greatest social monuments are pub culture and football.
That long list of negative words is the central feature of the mainstream culture in the UK. Its principal proponents are peer pressure, uneducated parents, alcohol, the enslaving television and trash tabloids.”
The Institute for Public Policy Research reported in 2007 that as a result of teenage misbehaviour and habits of binge drinking "Britain is among the worst places to grow up in the developed world. Unicef claimed earlier this year that British children were among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in Europe"6. My page on Trash Culture is a guide to such central British culture.
Two extremes. Football is a sport of popular culture supplying cheap and quick thrills, Cricket is an upper-class sport requiring patience. The only thing they have in common is that both bring ridicule of the UK.
It is frequently joked that this English sport is the worlds' most boring, but not only that but that "you invented it, and you always lose at it!". However true this may be, the sport is still a multinational one and its players are skilled sportsmen. That it is a long game devoid of most cheap thrills is a good thing; in a world of mindless adrenaline cricket can be a vague force for good, encouraging longer-term attention spans and such-like. Most criticism of cricket is itself ignorant or purely rhetorical with no serious substance. But the other British sport, however, is a much more serious issue.
“Football has become an institutionalized sport in England. Major matches are almost national holidays, with nearly all employees and their bosses finding ways to, almost religiously, watch the game live. It is the trademark of English yob culture. Our fans are the most violent, least respectful, most disruptive and worst behaved in the world. It seems that it attracts the worst types of people, frequently sending them abroad en masse, crowding them together in the worst possible ways. But worse of all the culture around football doesn't only attract these personality types, it seems to develop them. It has become a self-indulgent sport of national moral decadence; around football you will find the worst violence, hatred, racism, xenophobia and homophobia. The most ignorant people will be commended in their stupidity, the entire culture of football is the tallest tower that trash culture can manufacture. The attitudes surrounding football have become an ugly monstrosity that overshadows what would otherwise be a sport concentrated on tremendous skill. But English trash culture, stupid, irresponsible, uncaring and violence, has made this sport its mascot and its primary recruiting ground. English youths are pressurized into football culture by peer pressure as much as they are sucked into trash culture; the two are both symptoms and causes of an inherently dysfunctional central-mass of the English populace.
Major international distrust of the UK, and our culture, comes from our pitiful public displays during football matches, especially abroad.”
Britain is one of the least fit countries in Europe, we are the European country that is most close to USA levels of obesity and ill health. As such we tend to disgust, for subconscious and simple reasons, the rest of Europe. We eat unhealthy, are addicted to fast food and atrocious home cooking, whereas the rest of Europe has nowhere near the same levels of USA-style culinary abuse.
Michael Yardley in his essay titled "Towards the Future" and compiled in the Oxford History of the British Army, says that "Entrants from abroad tend to be mentally and physically tougher than locally harvested recruits and highly motivated to boost their skills and academic qualifications". Abroad in this case means such diverse people such as Fijians, Somoans, Tongans, black Africans especially from Ghana, Caribbean entrants, white Southern Africans and Gurkhas. Note it is not just physical fitness but also mental hardwork and attitude that sets these people above our native recruits.
The British public recycle more household waste than ever - 14.5% in 2002-2003, up 2% from a year before. On 2004 Sep 30, the BBC reported on another government drive to get the public to recycle. "Britain recycles only 14.5% of its household waste - far less than nearly all other European countries. [... Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture] figures show household rubbish accounted for 88 per cent of municipal waste in 2002/3, at 25.8m tonnes". In other words: Most waste by far is household waste. We recycle less than one quarter of the waste that Netherlands does, and are one of the worst countries in Europe for failing to recycle and for dumping waste.
Despite all this, our pollutant emissions levels have shown impressive improvement and there is little room for real criticism, but, many European countries have developed their green economies more than we have. We emit more than a fifth of all of Europe's CO2. For its level of development, only one other established developed country, the USA, is a worse polluter. We could do with further developments towards environmentalism.
Recycling rates are lower in deprived neighbourhoods7. But once this was accounted for by researchers, another unexpected trend emerged: ethnic minorities are better recyclers7. The core British populace, especially the poor, need to be re-educated and motivated about waste, rubbish and the environment we live in, and hopefully some of that inspiration will come from the fact that other countries and nations have done somewhat better than us in this regard.
We are called "the dirty man of Europe" not only for our recycling record but for our littered streets and cities. A Radio 4 report quoted officials who squarely blamed the bulk of the litter to be the discards of that associate of trash culture: fast food. Compared with other modern countries, the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden, and most of the rest of Europe, and even the USA, all have cleaner and tidier city streets. Our major cities are covered with trash, carrier bags, food, discards and every kind of litter. It is confusing that adults and children in most the rest of the developed world are capable of keeping their own litter under control, but Brits cannot.
Ann Widdecombe, an MP from Britain's Conservative Party, complained about "people who think it's all right to just drop litter where they stand. It's unhygienic and unsightly"8. Many people do care but too many do not, both adults and children.
Many of the disputes that the UK is involved in are a result of colonial wars. Gibraltar has a population of 30,000 and is tiny, the Falkland Islands are about 200 mostly uninhabited islands, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland involve essentially only hundreds of militants, in short many post-colonial disputes are relatively tame, small-scale disputes. The UK only receives limited aggravation from these because most people the world-over cannot see the point of contesting, holding on to or getting wound up about small places they're unlikely to know of other than for the fact that Britain is associated with them.
The more serious problems for the future are the cultural ones associated with trash culture, drinking, ignorance and the squalor of the anti-Europe, insular masses. This horde is presenting increasing problems, generating widespread criticism for its crime, violence and disturbing behaviour overseas, from the relatively harmless refusal to learn foreign languages, to outright violent xenophobia and racism. That most countries have this internal quagmire of ignorance is no consolation for a country that prides itself on politeness, correctness and intelligence. These values, as they fall, cause the British to fall also in the estimates of the rest of the world.
The final most striking criticism of the United Kingdom is our deference to the USA, the last five years has seen the UK abandon many European commitments and motions in order to follow an increasingly estranged USA. Europe is learning to hate the British, and fast, for our continued support of the superpower that thwarts the attempts of all other modern countries for worldwide peace, fair economy and environmental sense.
The British are building up a catalogue of European dislike and worse, do not seem to care. Through cultural ignorance to wilful obstinence, the Brits are appearing as a misbehaved nation of confusing xenophobes, who are abandoning civility for drink, football and USA-style nationalism.
We could probably summarize most of British problems in one new phrase: Britain is a nation with a responsible government but an unresponsive populace.
The present Labour government, under Tony Blair, has implemented a multitude of bills designed to reform smoking, drugs, drinking and anti-social behaviour, and continued endeavours like these will eventually curb some of the fundamental causes of trash culture. In the future we are potentially back on track to being an educated, polite, civil country. Let's continue on this path
Acceptance of Europe and acceptance of the need to learn foreign languages & cultures would remove much of the animosity between the British and the culturally diverse Europe, and enrich our countries stagnant imploding culture
Support international wisdom, not the USA's unilateral politics. Traditionally we are a political and wise nation, but our acceptance of USA military and economic aggression has led us to abandon sensible world development in favour of confused war. We need to learn that when most countries are against us, it is because we are probably wrong about something
Become interested in doing environmental concern rather than just being concerned - the scientific and responsible communities in Britain and outside of Britain are disgusted by our hypocrisy, being the breeding-ground for many large conservationist movements yet being the worst recycler in Europe
Hatred is never a solution, neither is small-minded pointless criticism of individuals. Have patience, be sympathetic and calm with British rudeness and stupid youth culture. Have understanding and try to aid people become more worldly and less ignorant; discord will generally induce the British xenophobic response to the world & Europe.
Current edition: 2004 Nov 25
Parent page: United Kingdom: National Successes and Social Failures
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
ESRC. The Economic and Social Research Council
(2009) Britain in 2010. Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council.
(1998) The English. Paperback book. Published by Penguin Books.
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