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Illustration Jethro Nepomuceno

Nation of bootlickers: Why do English people love oppression?

From the Medieval feudal system to the present day, the English have always been happy to be ruled over

The first English republic began with a murmured prayer, the sound of an axe falling through the air, and a collective gasp. Charles I was a textbook tyrant, whose reign came to a violent end after Parliament tried him for violating the rights of the people, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death by beheading. The monarchy was subsequently abolished in one fell swoop, making England one of the first countries in Europe to make such a radical political change.

But just 11 years later, Charles’ son returned from exile to sit on the throne. 360 years on from that, we’re still in the monarchy’s thrall, and have recently welcomed our third King Charles.

There are myriad reasons why the monarchy came back in 1661. The leader of the republic, Oliver Cromwell, was deeply unpopular – turns out banning Christmas wasn’t a great idea – but it wasn’t just down to him. The English actually missed the monarchy too. There were political fringe groups – namely the Diggers and the Levellers – who had the imagination to see the moment as a time for radical, egalitarian change, but they were firmly in the minority. For the most part, people wanted to reattach the king’s head to his body and go back to the way things were – even though they knew the oppressive, hierarchical system valued the lives of the masses as less important than the life of the monarch.

To be fair to our early modern counterparts, maybe the mid-17th century was too early for radical, revolutionary politics in Britain: the French did away with monarchy for good much later in 1848; the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsars in 1917, the Germans forced the Kaiser to abdicate in 1918, and the Habsburg monarchy was abolished in 1918. There was no blueprint for us to follow and no real vision for what life without a king could look like back in 1649. But for us to still be under the monarchy’s spell in 2022? What’s our excuse now?

There seems to be something broken within the soul of the English people (and I mean English, because at least the other British nations aren’t quite as submissive as England). We’re a country of bootlickers: it was evident in the simpering return to monarchy in the 1660s, but it’s more evident now: in the people who said we should stop picking on Boris Johnson for breaking his own lockdown rules; people shunning worker solidarity in favour of arguing that everyone else’s pay should be as meagre as theirs; people asserting that you shouldn’t have had kids in the first place if you were going to end up using a food bank. It’s most obvious in the refrain so often levelled at anyone who dares criticise this sceptred isle – “if you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave?” – a question which serves to stifle any meaningful discussion about the possibility of things getting better in Britain.

According to Dr Tabitha Baker, a lecturer in political psychology at Bournemouth University, it’s possible that the English really do enjoy suffering, which can occlude the possibility of us coming together in solidarity. “Some argue there is a pleasure in suffering. Fintan O’Toole calls this a sadomasochist fantasy where the English are often seen to be indulging and taking pleasure in pain for ‘the greater good’,” she explains. “We saw this with Brexit; when I’ve interviewed voters in the past they have told me things like ‘it will hurt but it will be worth it in the long run’.”

Baker theorises that this inclination towards suffering originates from nostalgia for post-war austerity. “We have not lived through a struggle like the WWII generation – which is so often harked back too in politics and more widely in British culture – that I wonder if people want their own version in order to feed their feelings of heroism and grandiosity,” she says. This much was clear during the coronavirus pandemic, with people eagerly invoking “Blitz spirit” and “keeping calm and carrying on” at the first opportunity. 

“There is a pleasure in suffering... [there’s] a sadomasochist fantasy where the English are often seen to be indulging and taking pleasure in pain for ‘the greater good’” – Dr Tabitha Baker

Historically, our society – like many others – has been hierarchical. Notably, the feudal system was introduced following the Norman conquest in 1066, as William I needed a way of quickly consolidating his control over the people. He created an effective top-down system, where he would give swathes of land to the nobility in exchange for their unwavering loyalty to the crown. Peasants, meanwhile, were expected to work the land and defer to their ‘superiors’ in exchange for ‘protection’ – even though they made up over 90 per cent of the population. Though the feudal system was officially abolished in the 17th century, society was so stratified by deeply entrenched class disparity that it essentially made no difference. We’ve absorbed the lie that the upper classes deserve to be above us by virtue, that they are somehow different, that it really does mean something to have “blue blood” or to be “well-bred”. This culture of deference lives on, even now, as we can see clearly in the spectacle of grief that’s currently unfolding.

In many TV interviews with people standing in the queue to view the Queen lying in state, large groups of mourners explained that they’d come down simply because they felt they had to do something to mark the occasion. Elsewhere in the country, people saw meteorological omens: rainbows and clouds shaped like the late monarch. Analysts and commentators pored over the coverage, trying to unravel and explain the whole thing. But the meaning everyone has been searching for in the wake of the monarch’s death simply does not exist – people are grasping at something which isn’t really there. The marmalade sandwiches and the heaps of flowers all serve to obfuscate the truth: that underneath all the pageantry, monarchy is entirely meaningless. But maybe at this point it’s easier and more comforting to believe that those with more social power than you really do deserve it. Arguably the reality – that the royal family are just people, no better or worse than the rest of us – is a harder pill to swallow.

Dr Tony Taylor, Professor of Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University, explains that the intensity of feeling in many mourners makes sense given how long the Queen was on the throne. “Elizabeth II had reigned for so long that [...] people can map their own life experiences onto key moments in her reign – in other words, they’re seeing their lives reflected through hers,” he explains. “Less about deference, I think, and more about the emotional connection people feel they have with a long-established institution. In that sense, Elizabeth has always been a symbol of constancy.” Grief is complex and personal, granted: it doesn’t make sense by design. But as important as it is to not invalidate anyone’s feelings, it’s equally important to acknowledge that this is exactly how the royal family hold on to power. As Alan Bennett says in The History Boys: “And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember [...] there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”. Bennett is talking about the world wars here, but his point still stands: pomp and spectacle often serve to obscure rather than illuminate.

“Elizabeth II had reigned for so long that [...] people can map their own life experiences onto key moments in her reign – in other words they’re seeing their lives reflected through hers” – Dr Tony Taylor

Rory Scothorne wrote in the New Statesman last week that the English are “a People... that quite simply does not know how to speak for itself, and which sees almost every attempt to do so as dangerous and sinister.” Time and time again, English people defer to the ruling power – be it Prime Minister or monarch – instead of stopping to consider that they might have more in common with their fellow plebeians and that it might be more worthwhile to ally with them instead.

According to Dr Baker, this attitude is inextricably bound up in our national identity. “All subscribe to a narrative [which] informs psychologically powerful experiences of nationhood, and can involve processes of blind followership and attachment,” she says. “But we should seek to be able to identify and understand nationalist myths as narratives which oversimplify, dramatise and most importantly, selectively narrate the nation’s past. We must think critically about what is remembered and forgotten, by whom and for what end.”

“We need to move towards a more constructive, progressive patriotism, rather than the uncritical patriotism we see dominate political culture, which often involves an unwillingness to accept or give criticism to a nation and in this case, its monarch,” she continues. “There is nothing wrong with loyalty, but we must allow ourselves to be critically loyal. This allows one to question and criticise, and enables them to positively improve the country for the better.”

Of course, we do have a history of rebellion and revolt: there was the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt; the aforementioned Diggers and Levellers; the successful suffrage movement in the early 20th century. But it seems to take a seismic effort to get the English to see and remember the power in collective action – a stark contrast to the French, who will happily set a car alight as soon as they get a whiff of injustice. Where individuals are brave enough to refuse to bow down in the current situation – like the man who called Andrew “a sick old man” or the woman who held a sign reading “Fuck imperialism, abolish the monarchy” – the majority do nothing.

There’s also a sense of a moment in history passing, and people want to place themselves in that historical context,” Dr Taylor says, speaking of the crowds gathering in London to file past the royal coffin. Herein lies the problem – people see history as something that just passively happens, something that is done to them. Do those swarming around Westminster Hall to gaze at the coffin not see themselves as agents of change, in control of their own destiny? Do they not realise that they’re in the very room where monarchy effectively ended 373 years ago, as the people seized power back from a corrupt king? Perhaps not. And so we do nothing, idly wondering if there will ever come a day when nobody’s head is on our coins, without grasping that the answer to that question lies with us – the people.