The American comedy film National Lampoon’s European Vacation features an American family travelling around Europe, spreading a trail of chaos and destruction wherever they go. In each city they visit they cause some grave misfortune to an English tourist played by Eric Idle, and each time the Englishman apologises, how careless of him to be in the way of their car when they ran him over, and so on.
Idle’s character is a caricature of Englishness, but it makes the point that there is a tradition of politeness and understatement. The tradition of politeness, of being nice, of feeling guilty that you might have caused offence, seems to have come out of the history of the country. England, and then Britain, was held together by a series of compromises and fudges. Giving offence might cause political trouble so offending anyone was to be avoided at all costs
Britain has become a product of this long history of feeling guilty. If there is a disagreement over anything, then not a few people in Britain would feel that their own country must be at fault, despite the fact that the majority of the people in the country were born after the end of the Empire and few of those who remember it ever benefited. Even the notion of a collective sense of guilt is odd, why should an entire population feel guilt over the actions of a small elite over whom the general populace had no influence whatsoever?
Feeling guilty could ultimately undermine the “niceness,” the perception of being a polite and courteous people that many Britons have traditionally cherished. It means a lack of conviction about defending the very values that held the country together down through the centuries, the beliefs in freedom and diversity and inclusivity. Feeling guilty means that when the liberal values of freedom and tolerance are threatened, when respect for the equality of all human beings is challenged, there is a lack of will to fight. John Stuart Mill’s ideas on liberty that so influenced British political thought allowed for an individual freedom that extended to the point where it did not infringe upon the freedom of others, if any group’s claims to freedom inhibit the freedoms of the wider population, then those claims are unacceptable.
Eric Idle’s cyclist must stop feeling guilty. To be liberal he must be illiberal, to be nice has to learn to be assertive. He must stop apologising and start asserting that he will be run over no more.