This is an odd book. The subject is so compelling, with such rich territory to explore and plunder. Yet by the end of it, and despite the author’s rigorously academic approach, one is still not entirely clear whether there is now any consensus on what the English national character is, or how it differs from its conceptual cousin ‘identity’.
Peter Mandler’s book does what it says on the tin. He presents ‘The history of an idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair’. What we have, therefore, is a review of much of the extant literature on the subject of national character from then to now. This can, and at times does, become tedious. One longs for some authorial guidance and input, a new insight, perhaps even (given the legendary English sense of humour) a joke or two. But the question of character becomes scientific rather than emotional, and grinds on with a most un-English relentlessness.
In his survey, Mandler takes the reader through carefully defined epochs in the making and shaping of the national character. Starting in the early nineteenth century – after a quick and entertaining review of what Defoe called the ‘mongrel nation’ – he looks at the effects of parliamentary reform, and