As I've mentioned before, the Oxford graduate population is not particularly British, and so brings home to you the peculiarities of being British, makes you see that certain ways of doing and being that you accept as natural are in fact contingent, even if you could no more shake them off than your own skin. Of course, that cuts both ways: those members of Oxford's graduate population who did not grow up in the UK must find it odd and at least slightly disconcerting to be exposed to people who have different cultural specifities, since that is the understandable reaction to that experience, whether or not you are British. Indeed, it is undoubtedly much more disconcerting, since even if they are not totally hegemonic, typically British norms are dominant amongst that population, and that population is hardly the only one which people coming from abroad to study here will encounter. A foreign graduate student I know, for example, claimed that for much of the first year they were in the UK, they thought that everyone disliked them. They interpreted various forms of reserve, of awkwardness, forms of reserve and awkwardness which could all too easily have only been increased by failures to understand them as generic rather than directed, as a signal that they were not welcome. The turning point was apparently reading Kate Fox's Watching The English, which explained to them that all this apparent disinterest was perfectly normal.
I've not read Watching The English, and so perhaps it doesn't fall into the genre that I suspect it does, although any synchronic study risks doing so, because of the way time-slices ignore what has come before. Here, the sort of thing I'm thinking of is typified by what I remember of Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island, which I recall as being a artfully cobbled together collection of exercises in triple-distilled Daily Mail issue nostalgia, full of the glories of its common sense. As I've said before, this sort of thing, of which I'm sure Bryson's book is not the only example, naturalises existing social heirarchies, obliterates difference and opposition, gilds chains with flowers. It performs what I take to be the classic Orientalising maneouvre, and takes what it discusses out of history, placing a specific set of social relations, which redound to the advantage of those who occupy particular places in that structure, in statis, beyond the reach of change and so critique. It turns those who fall victim to it into patients, incapable of ruling themselves, trapped by their preordained and inescapable role. Unsurprisingly, I don't really like that kind of thing.
In a way, it's present in the attitude that the Labour Party has adopted to the power of the right-wing press in the UK whilst it has been in government. The attitude, notoriously, has been that there is nothing to be done about it, that the political centre-ground is where it is, cannot be moved, and must instead be placated. Achievement of traditional Labour objectives, if they're to be sought at all, is to be done stealthily, so that neither Murdoch nor the Daily Mail notice. Those who read those papers are turned into cultural dupes, and the formidable political resources Labour had at its disposal when it came to power in 1997 - a broken opposition, leaders unburdened by the mistakes and mishaps inevitably associated with a period in government, and not least a period of persistent economic growth - denied. Existing social relations are reified, and the power of particular actors - so obviously central to the long-term political success of Thatcherism - ignored. That failure to even seriously attempt to shift the terms of the political debate, as Chris says in comments here, is 'the great, great failure of the Labour government'.
It's also present in the attitude Paul Ginsbourg describes the leadership of the Italian Communist Party having in the aftermath of World War II in his history of contemporary Italy (and which I think Phil has described the continuation of into the Anni di Piombo and beyond). Terrified by the thought of Allied military intervention, either through proxies or directly, at any sign of communist take-over, Togliatti endorsed a policy of accommodation with the other anti-fascist parties, which seems to effectively meant that De Gasperi and the Christian Democrats got communist support for a series of measures which eliminated the institutional possibility of any serious disruption to the underlying Italian social heirarchies which formed the basis of their support. Land reform was designed to be both as sympathetic to the interests of big landowners as possible and to ensure that there remained a substantial class of small and marginal peasant proprietors, vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, while any idea of worker's control in industry was quickly squashed. More than that, the apparatus of the state and even the personnel manning it remained the same; Ginsbourg shows disturbing levels of continuity between the Fascist and post-Fascist police and judiciary, for example, lasting well into the sixties and seventies. The communists took themselves to be far more constrained by the situation than they were; even well after the peak of their post-war power, a failed assassination attempt on Togliatti was able to provoke a general strike which succeeded in taking over several Northern cities for days. They, like parts of the Labour Party, Orientalised both themselves and the population they found themselves amongst.
What's good about Ginsbourg's book in this context though is the way in which it's a counter to that sort of thinking. After having cast his hands up in the air at the Communists' refusal to make use of the power they had, Ginsbourg goes on to expose exactly the Christian Democrats did make use of the power they had, making sure that Italy had, insofar as they could control it, the character they wanted. Clientelism in the South, and forms of associationism often bound up with the Church in the North; the willed political acts which created those institutions for the benefit of the Christian Democrats in the fifties have shaped Italy since. To take that shape, that set of social relations, out of that history, in which groups and individuals exercised power, and could have done otherwise, is to misunderstand that social structure, to fail to see the ways in which it generated by the interplay of particular social forces. Likewise, Bryson-esque pieces of pop anthropology misdescribe their subject; we need to bring back the history, the history which exposes the way they are formed by political struggles and so the way in which they both encode power relations and can have new power relations encoded on them.