Before we start, let’s firmly establish my long-standing affection for the United Kingdom. Why, some of my best friends are British. Yet at the risk of overgeneralisation, recent events have exemplified a few shortcomings in the otherwise sterling national character.
Nitpicking pettiness. We’ve whole front pages dedicated to the Labour leader’s carryout curry one evening during lockdown; to between which hours (8.40 p.m. to 10 p.m.) the offending curry was consumed (Keir Starmer’s failure to reveal if it was lamb korma or chicken vindaloo is deeply troubling); and to which other eateries were then still open. Thanks to this rigorous coverage, we all know that Starmer’s hotel was serving food outdoors until 9 p.m. Mind, this follows forensic media examination of how many occasions during lockdown the Prime Minister imbibed alcohol with colleagues, the scandal that some of said alcohol was transported in a suitcase, and the ferocious debate over whether Boris Johnson was gifted with or actually accosted by a birthday cake. (Chocolate with butter frosting or Victoria sponge? We the public have a right to know.) Other weighty recent stories vital to the national interest include exhaustive analysis of the PM’s redecoration of his flat and who paid for the curtains.
The fact that these details are so familiar should embarrass us all. I’m embarrassed. I like to imagine that I place a premium on my time, but apparently I don’t. If I die tomorrow, I’ll have spent a significant proportion of my final days repeatedly watching the same video of an innocuous-looking middle-aged man seen through a window drinking a beer. A small beer, aptly enough.
The pervasive pettiness matters, because we’ve nearly lost a Prime Minister over this stuff and could lose a leader of the opposition. While we pay our police to investigate partygate, beergate and curtaingate, only 1.3 per cent of rapes and 6 per cent of crimes overall are resulting in a charge. UK cops solve 5 per cent of burglaries. If your house is ransacked by drug addicts, your consolation could be Keir Starmer finally being issued a fixed penalty notice for a carryout curry.
This trivia also consumes government energy. While I’ve no problem in theory with fiddling while Rome burns – if your city is afire anyway, someone might as well be boning up on Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – the fact that we’re tippling on the edge of World War 3 might encourage a soupçon of perspective.
Proclivity for looking through the wrong end of the telescope. What made lockdowns objectionable wasn’t officialdom breaking the rules, but the rules. The rules were dumb. And the rules were malign – themselves petty, constantly changing, medically naff and collectively ineffective. That’s what Britons ought rightly to be enraged about. If you were prevented from visiting a dying father, the rules were inhumane, and Boris turning down a glass of Vouvray wouldn’t have helped you. Overreaching government interference in our private lives – right down to how long we were allowed to exercise – violated every civil liberty we’d imagined our birth right, expressed contempt for our common sense and established an appallingly totalitarian precedent that may yet come back to bite us. So never mind the bleeding vindaloo.
Unhelpfully personal relationship to politicians. What matters about politicians is that they make sound decisions. We don’t have to like them or approve of their habits. For Neil Parish, after serving 12 years as an MP, to be forced to resign because he was caught looking at a single porn site on his phone while waiting to vote in parliament is a dreadful waste of political talent, as well as a gratuitous tragedy for Parish himself. I don’t give a toss if he looked at porn. I might care what vote he was casting. What a silly, stupid reason to truncate a distinguished career – and I never heard anyone in the media or in parliament say so.
Obsession with obeying rules for the rules’ sake. No one seriously proposes that politicians socialising with staff alongside whom they worked all day posed any additional epidemiological threat. The quintessentially British indignation is over rule-breaking, period.
Temperamentally, on this tendency I depart drastically from my London neighbours. I obey laws for three reasons: I’ve no choice; I believe in them; or violating them will get me in trouble. I never obey the law just because it’s the law. Horrified?
Case in point. The house to which ours is attached is owned by the council. Since the tenant next door died, it’s been derelict for two solid years. Barely tended to begin with, the ‘garden’ – I use the term loosely – had by last week exploded into a jungle. Towering overgrown shrubbery blocked the sun. Massive brambles with stems as thick as pepperoni had shot into our apple tree, taking root and strangling the foliage. They’d leapt the fence and planted in our property. I never realised before that a garden could be an assault weapon.
My rectitudinous husband warned me that climbing over the fence and addressing this aggressive rat’s nest would constitute trespassing. I didn’t care. I trespassed my heart out. I laid waste to the brambles and reduced the bushes to stumps. A real Samurai operation. I happily broke the law, and because brambles grow back, and our council shows no sign of becoming a responsible property owner, I’m bound to break the law again. Frankly, I should send the council an invoice.
Most Britons wouldn’t climb that fence. In kind, most Britons obeyed every micromanaging Covid regulation, even when no one was watching and the regulation was dumb. Now, governments love for publics to operate at the lowest level of moral reasoning and blindly obey Daddy because the law is the law is the law. In that sense, Britain has the most obliging citizenry on the planet. The only thing more horrendous than No. 10’s high-handed Covid authoritarianism was the joyous alacrity with which so many Britons got with the programme.
Should any of these generalisations seem unfair, please. Go forth and prove them wrong.