My friend Bob Patterson from Kansas has kindly sent me a cartoon that sums up the British sense of order.
It’s true that the British are marked by a terrible respect of rules and conventions. I’ve noticed it in myself.
For years I never wore seatbelts in cars. I just didn’t like them. Then it became a legal obligation. The very next car trip, I conscientiously buckled up and have done so ever since.
Similarly, in the days when not all hotel rooms had hairdryers, I carried a small one with me. Mine had ‘do not wrap cable round dryer’ printed on the side and I carefully followed the injunction, though I resented it, knowing that it was making the job longer and harder. One of the reasons I’m glad to have adopted a much shorter hairstyle is that it makes a hairdryer unnecessary, and lets me avoid this existential tussle with my conscience.
Of course, the British don’t always obey the rules. Last year’s looting in various English cities proved the point. But the level of shock that those events generated testifies to how exceptional they are.
Respect for rules may be an amusing and even endearing characteristic of the British. Sometimes however it becomes depressing. We’ve just emerged from a long weekend the government decreed to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. A few hundred republicans demonstrated against the event; a million took part in London alone.
That’s fine. There isn’t so much to celebrate in life that one should turn down the opportunity for a good party. It’s just sad that it has to take this form. All these royal pageants are opportunities for people who owe their status to birth or wealth (and often both) to disport themselves for the adulation of others. It’s always us watching them.
And what about the person at the centre? I’m constantly told the Queen does a great job, but what is that job? Keeping her mouth shut on politics? She certainly does that well. Unfortunately, politics also requires people who open their mouths and occasionally take difficult decisions. Those people we call politicians and we generally loathe them. But they’re the ones with the real job.
The other side of her work is to head the royal family. There her record is lamentable. She forced her sister Margaret to abandon a love match and into a miserable marriage that ended in acrimony. Both her daughter Anne and her son Andrew had failed marriages. Most spectacularly of all, she drove her son and heir Charles away from the love of his life (who’s back with him now, as it happens) and into a marriage with a fairy-tale princess, and we know how badly that ended.
Indeed, if there was one point where the British seemed to have lost all faith in the Queen, it was following the death of Princess Diana. The depth of sorrow that followed that event was surprising; what’s galling is how quickly it’s been forgotten.
But it isn’t just because she’s done so little to merit all this deference that I’m unhappy about it, it’s because the attitude spills over into real politics. The British tend to be obsequious to those they see as ‘betters’ even though, when we inspect their behaviour, we find there’s nothing superior about it.
Take David Cameron and George Osborne, our present Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. They’re running one of the most incompetent and least compassionate of governments in living memory.
Following the 2008 crash, the worst since the great depression, Labour had Britain back to growth by the end of 2009; Cameron and Osborne have taken us back into recession and it looks like being a long one. They’ve done that despite harsh measures against the most vulnerable in society: the sick, the handicapped, the old, the poor.
They’re phenomenally wealthy, they were born to privilege – Eton, Oxford, open doors at top levels of the economy – and have never had to strive for anything. One of the most common criticisms of them from people who know them is that they’re lazy – they’ve never had to work hard so they haven’t developed the habit.
But that high birth, that privilege are to a great number of people the very characteristics that qualify them for high office, as if it were their birthright.
That all fits with the inclination to take the royal family so seriously. In turn, the fixation with royalty seems closely associated with our excessive respect for rules. That’s funny when it makes it impossible to wrap a cord around a hairdryer; it’s less amusing when it leads to handing political power over to a pair of self-centred dilettantes.
Still, I can’t go on. It’s time for tea. I’ve got to leave you. Don't want to be late getting my cuppa ready.