February 5, 2008 5:59 pm

Freud’s Law and the angry English

Are you feeling angry? According to one of the newest ambassadors at the Court of St James’s, you are.

This new observer compares the English scene today with the time of his last posting in Britain 10 years ago. He says the English have changed. They have a shorter fuse, are quicker to lose their temper. In short, he says, they are “angry”. Is that true?

Certainly the English seem aggrieved. In surveys, a majority say that the country has got worse and that they don’t expect it to get any better. But “angry”? Why?

Some blame New Labour: high hopes dashed. Others blame the opposition – for not providing an inspiring alternative.

Is that it? Or is it the high taxes? Or the high prices? The teenage crime perhaps? Or the poor public services? Or the poor private services – the trains, the airports etc.?

All these age-old problems might induce a weary cynicism. But can a whole country be “angry” because the trains do not run on time? There must be more to it. Something deeper.

Freud’s Law of Ambivalence explains. Before Sir Laurence Olivier gave his definitive performance as Hamlet, the universal man, he went to see Professor Ernest Jones, who described the workings of Freud’s Law. The law states that it is possible for human beings to love and hate the same object at the same time; and that these contradictory feelings lead to frustration, which leads to anger.

Perhaps the English are victims of Freud’s Law. Today, whether the Englishman contemplates the UK, Europe or the world, he is confronted by deeply ambivalent emotions. In three sensitive areas – devolution, globalisation and immigration – he is trapped by unresolved dilemmas. It is not that the Englishman knows what he thinks about them and does not know how to express it. It is that he does not know what he thinks. In accordance with the law, he is ambivalent.

Take devolution. Like humans everywhere, the Englishman is patriotic. He rallies to his country’s flag. He is distressed to see it at half mast. He is overcome with feeling when it flutters to the sound of his national anthem. It chokes his breath to see it draped over the coffin of a hero or heroine. As Stanley Baldwin, a former British prime minister, put it: “These things strike down into the very depths of our nature ... our innermost being.”

But for the Englishman today, which flag is supposed to touch his heart? The Englishman is the only man on the planet who is asked to salute two flags. When he encourages his football heroes in the World Cup, he rallies to the Cross of Saint George. But when he cheers his athletes at the Olympic Games he hails the Union flag.

The Englishman loves his Union flag. He fears that his United Kingdom might be cut up into bite-size pieces. But, on the other hand, why should the Welsh and the Scots not have more say on their own affairs? That is only fair. Result? One country. Two flags. No other society on earth inflicts such schizophrenia on its citizens.

Or consider globalisation. Ever reasonable, the Englishman can see that he should not oppose this. It is not just big business that demands international co-ordination. He can see that Europe has kept the peace for 50 years, and that good things, such as the environment, need international co-operation, with all the loss of sovereignty that this entails.

The Englishman has grasped that globalisation makes it more efficient for companies to merge their activities across regions or across the whole world. He sees mega-mergers and global corporate alliances every day. He has worked out that if nobody can stop the globalisation of companies, the globalisation of countries in Europe cannot be far behind. E pluribus unum – one out of many.

But on the other hand, all Englishmen consider Europe the scene of their finest hour. As every English schoolboy knows, one beautiful May morning in 1945, the King of England drove in his carriage from Buckingham Palace to visit Winston Churchill, the prime minister, in Downing Street to congratulate him on his great victory over Germany. Now the English find that the Germans, of all people, count for more in Europe than they do – recent treaties giving more voting weight to Germany than to England.

So, on the one hand, the Englishman is distressed not to be the natural leader of Europe. But on the other hand, why should 100m Germans not have more votes than 60m Englishmen? Why should Europe not move from “One Country One Vote” towards “One Man One Vote” – the triumph of postwar German diplomacy. That is only fair, isn’t it? Professor Anthony King captured English ambivalence towards Europe: “They prefer co-operation to integration, but integration to isolation.”

Meantime, of course, the Englishman hears those who complain about immigration and how it puts pressure on the public services, housing and the health service. Naturally, the Englishman also worries about his language, his culture and so on. But the fair-minded Englishman is ambivalent – he also sees the other point of view. Immigrants bring wealth; immigrants do lowly jobs; immigrants built America; and, against all odds, immigrants often rise to great heights – a feat much admired by all good Englishmen.

Hamlet’s ambivalence led to death and destruction all around. Let us hope the ambassador is wrong, and that the Law of Ambivalence does not apply in England’s green and pleasant land. Or else, perhaps we could all go on one of those anger management courses?

The writer is executive director of M&C Saatchi

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