The British Disease

It's sanity.


How many cities are remembered for their taxis? A lot, probably; certainly London. When I think of the British, I recall a London cabbie who rumbled in circles through the maze of Westminster but could not find the place I wanted. When I finally got out to ask my way on foot, he might have wished me luck and driven away. Instead he spent three minutes meticulously giving me "directions." I say "directions," in quotes, because he had no more idea where the place was than I did. "Try going left, walk around that way." Yes, I said, thanks. "Or," he continued pointlessly, undaunted by my meaningful glances at my watch, "look over there–it might be just around that corner to the right."

There was something of his country in that sadly ineffectual yet touchingly helpful cabbie. Britons are decent people who try much harder to be good than to be successful. They make a sporting effort but rarely come out on top, and never expect to. They lose at cricket to small former colonies. They lose at geopolitics to a large former colony. John Bull: underachiever.

Most peoples boast and preen, often in inverse proportion to their gifts. Americans bellow and blast, God-blessing Our Great Nation three times a day before breakfast: for are we not God's gift to the universe? The Japanese, in this time of recession, may doubt their luck and their leadership, but they never doubt their specialness. The Canadians, whose culture contains nothing whatever of distinction (had any good Canadian food lately?), nonetheless manage to spend most of their time congratulating themselves for not being American.

Not the British. From the way they speak and write, you could imagine they have no story to tell and have done, recently, nothing. They are collectively (which is not to say individually) depressed. In a Gallup poll of 18 countries last year, the British ranked in the bottom two-thirds for satisfaction with their standard of living and their democracy–a level of unhappiness on a par with India's. What do the British want? They want to leave. Thirty-eight percent told Gallup they would rather live in another country. The British beat the Chileans and Dominicans to the exits. Only Venezuelans–Venezuelans!–are more eager to get out.

Now, I think this is peculiar. Brace yourself for a shock, but Britain is not actually a Third World hellhole. Certainly it is poorer than it should be: Its per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing-power parity, the best way to measure) is only just inside the world's top 20. Yet if you consider quality of life slightly more broadly, as the United Nations does in its human-development index, and add adult literacy and life expectancy to the standard income measures, then Britain matches Germany and only slightly trails the United States. Is that so terrible?

I recently lived for a year in London, where I worked for The Economist magazine as a guest writer. While I was there, I spent a lot of time thinking about Britain's boredom and depression, and about America's manic effervescence. Britain is more successful than it seems to believe. In some notable respects, it is more successful than America. Why, then, does it so palpably lack anything like America's sense of mission and magic? Because, I suspect, the British are sane, and you can be a good and decent country if you are sane, but not a great and exuberant one.

Well, so much the better for the Brits. A year with them convinced me that sanity, for all its obvious disadvantages, is perhaps not such a bad thing.

And Would That Be…Bread?

There is, of course, a formidable downside to good sense, reasonable ambition, and a realistic attitude toward life. To see it, stroll with me along a typical British High Street. Here, in what one supposes is a bakery, a few forlorn bready objects sigh in lumpy desolation on dusty shelves. Here is a little grocer, decently stocked but ill-lit, shabby, cheerfully oblivious to the past four decades of progress in the science of retailing; here a tumbledown fabric shop, in which the old proprietress sells bric-a-brac in bits and pieces, all of it, even the new stuff, looking used. And yet here, too, is a Tesco supermarket, a Marks & Spencer department store, a Boots drug store: cutting-edge retailers, world-class, with computerized inventories and just-in-time everything.

Curious, how these third-rate and first-rate economies sit beside each other as though the last, say, 30 years were nothing more than a fad which many businesses did not happen to go in for. Britain impresses as a place dragging itself toward modernity with shudders of reluctance. Middle-class people in Japan–the other foreign country I know fairly well–positively must have the latest gizmo. Middle-class Americans obsessively replace everything that is movable and renovate everything that is not. Middle-class Britons, by contrast, seem to regard tattiness as an inevitable feature of life.

In the modern British bathroom, the space-age principle of mixing together hot and cold water within a single spigot, thus producing a stream of adjustable temperature, is barely conquered. Americans do not even bother to name this technology, but in Britain the so-called mixer tap remains an exotic fixture. And let us not speak of showers, or the lack of them. Or of Russian-made refrigerators that try to walk across the kitchen. The plumbing-impaired, appliance-challenged British seem unconcerned by such archaisms.

Yet–here is the funny thing–Britain has one of the world's highest rates of home-computer ownership. Britons can do technology. They just seem to prefer not to.

A hundred explanations have been offered for Britain's failure to keep up economically with America and, until recently, Europe: economic mismanagement, unions' truculence, aristocratic disdain for commerce, and so on. What is harder to explain is Britons' acceptance of failure, as though it would be churlish to want better. But then, they accept a great deal.

My sports club in London once formed a daring plan: open for business on Sundays. It applied for permission from the local governing council. Hearings were scheduled, boards notified, and procedures initiated; and, in due course, a neighborhood lobby laid in an objection. Too noisy, it said: The club's music might shatter the Sunday calm. At first, that did not seem an insurmountable problem. The club volunteered to play no music on Sundays. It would enfold itself in sepulchral silence.

Not enough! cried the neighborhood group, which by now was enjoying its ill humor. Thus an official noise investigation was deemed necessary before Sunday permission could be granted. But the officials in question determined that they could not conduct a noise investigation until there was a specific complaint to investigate. Unfortunately, there was no such complaint, because there was in fact no noise problem to begin with.

Every month or so, I would ask the club manager, "Any chance of Sunday hours yet?" He would always say something like, "We have another hearing in two months." To get Sunday-opening approval took a year's pleading.

Wake Up and Dream

I tell that tale not because red tape and arbitrary restraint of commerce are unique to Britain. Far from it: If anything is universal, it is the bureaucratic runaround. The interesting thing, rather, is that such tales are so often recited by the British in a tone of defeated resignation or stoic amusement, as though one could expect no better. Presented with an obstacle to greed, Americans are amazed and enraged, Japanese doubly industrious. Britons are more likely to shrug.

As the Germans and some other people have learned to their displeasure, Britons respond with stubborn ferocity when confronted with a head-on assault. On the other hand, their attitude toward daily life is annoyingly passive. They prefer waiting for a challenge to making one. Scratch an ordinary American, and you find a man with a dream, a scheme, a plan. He will save the world or get filthy rich or, usually, both. Generally, of course, his scheme is crackers, but isn't that part of the fun? Ordinary Britons, by contrast, prefer to go from one day to the next. This is not to say that some of them, indeed many of them, do not dream grandly and scheme absurdly. But the schemer, as a type, is not an icon; the survivor is.

Grandiose daydreaming is silly. It is also economically indispensable. Look around the world. In Hong Kong and China and Hollywood and Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial vigor is the generator of cultural energy. Now, it is true that the Victorians were fantastically energetic. No society ever achieved so much, so quickly, as they. But their achievers were an elite class which crumbled. In today's world, it is the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people that make societies sparkle. The raw greed of the man in the street is today's grand engine of social progress.

Americans both adulate and abhor the businessman who is wildly successful, and thus brilliantly greedy: Bill Gates is both dazzling innovator and fiendish monopolist, Sam Walton both retailing genius and downtown destroyer. The British, for all of the Labour Party's class-warfare rhetoric, seem rather bored with tycoons. Brilliant businessmen either exist or they do not; where they come from is not particularly interesting, and where they arrive not wildly enviable. Has Rupert Battleax become chairman of Glaxo? Yawn. That's nice. Ah, but he has also been created Baronet of Frognal–now that is impressive! Sir Rupert, to you! This, a great many Britons notice and care about.

I exaggerate, but to make a point. To me, that a grown person in 1996 might in all seriousness go about calling himself Lord So-and-So is vaguely pitiable. That it goes on today says something, I believe, about the misapplication of British greed. Personally, I have more use, and thus more esteem, for a plumber than for a duke, and still more esteem for the plumber who becomes a big plumbing contractor and then diversifies into real estate. Whereas, according to opinion surveys, the British rank entrepreneurs no higher than plumbers as contributors to society. A very sorry regard, when you consider the state of British plumbing. Indeed, the low state of British plumbing and the low status of British entrepreneurship may have something to do with each other.

Whatever else she got wrong, I think, Mrs. Thatcher was right about this: What Britain needs is visionary greed. But then, she is Baroness Thatcher now. Lady T., to you.

Mad Uncle Sam

Well, enough finger-wagging. The British do all right. They have strong and decent core values, and maintain them without the bluster and insecurity of Americans. British politicians are honest enough so that scandals are typically about sex rather than money (of how many countries can that be said?). Notwithstanding the soccer yobs, domestic peace and tranquillity generally prevail. The crime rate has risen, but most people are physically quite safe. There is nothing like the routine savagery of America.

Something else is greatly to be prized: From an American's point of view, race relations, specifically black-white relations, are enviable. Not perfect, certainly, but better, by a long shot, than in America, which is supposed to be a melting pot but which cannot, and may never, retire its racial debts. One does not feel, in Britain, that blacks and whites speak past each other across a cultural divide that deepens even as it narrows. One does not feel that every conflict between a black party and a white one must sooner or later erupt into molten insinuations about race. Britons manage to be remarkably tolerant, and what is even nicer is that they do it with so little fuss. They do not make a fetish of "multiculturalism" and "diversity" and the rest of the sensitivity industry. They just get on with getting along.

That comes from what is worst but also ultimately best about them. The Brits put one foot ahead of the other. It is true that they are not disposed to dream and scheme; that is why their culture is so terminally dull and pervasively mediocre. But they also are not lunatic. And there is something to be said, in the end, for not being lunatic.

American culture is vibrant because it is mad. Possessed of a good idea or a worthy impulse, Americans invariably drive it to ludicrous extremes, until it breaks down, runs out of control, or curdles to toxicity. We are a people dedicated to the proposition that any sound idea can be transformed into dangerous craziness, if one only tries a bit.

Should justice be scrupulously fair? Then let there be the O.J. Simpson circus. Should youth aspire to fly? Then put a 7-year-old in the cockpit. Should biodiversity be preserved and the handicapped helped? Then let the law say that not a single species may ever be allowed to die off, and not a single theater seat or city bus or public toilet may be inaccessible to wheelchairs. Should women be accorded equality and respect? Then proclaim that to kiss without asking is rape, and turn eye-color compliments into "workplace harassment." Is self-defense a worthy right? Then let everyone own semi-automatic rifles and buy handguns by the carton, preferably through the mail. Is ethnic sensitivity a good thing? Then scour the language to get rid of all such words as gyp and welsh. Should people be free, high-spirited, pious? Then let them also be libertine, wanton, cultist.

In America, nothing is finished until it has been rendered absurd. Show an American an interesting idea, and he runs away waving it and touting it and wearing it on his head till you only wish he would, for God's sake, drop dead. America is a land of dreams, and also of dreams run amok. That is why, so often, American wackos are not mere crazies, but crazies in the grip of a theory. The cultist David Koresh with his millenarian ravings, the terrorist Unabomber with his 30,000 word Luddite Theory of Everything, the right-wing "militiaman" who rails against infernal United Nations conspiracies: What makes them so distinctively American is not their dangerous nuttery, but their devotion to some not altogether crazy idea pushed far around the bend.

Dull John Bull

The Japanese are not besotted with theories or driven to every extreme in the American fashion, but they are a bit crazy too. Groups of them will do any conceivable mad thing, so long as they do it together: anything for the team. Every so often, the newspapers turn up something like the Japanese elementary school that requires its students to go naked in the snow, the better to toughen them up. One thinks of Japan and America as opposites, but they are alike in their penchant for weirdness.

The British, by contrast, have about them a quality of flat-footed, truculent empiricism which makes it quite difficult to convince them of anything very stupid. Show them an edge, and they instinctively recoil. Largely as a result, their culture lacks sizzle. Although London is a newspaper town without peer, the British intellectual press, such as it is, is flaccid and lazy. The BBC is a wasteland of mediocrity and tedium, occasionally enlivened by bursts of mediocrity and pretension. Even when American television is ditzy or vulgar, which is often, it understands that its job is to tickle the eye and to entertain, whereas the BBC's theory is that TV is radio with pictures attached.

British cinema lacks passion on the one hand and entertainment value on the other. West End theater, though admirable in its catholicity, has traded much of its former adventurousness for a slick proficiency akin to Broadway's, but without Broadway's past-jewel dazzle. London is a big and important city, but by the side of New York or L.A. (or Tokyo) it has the feeling of a slowpoke: Except arguably in finance, it is rarely at the cutting edge. Culturally, Britain resolutely refuses to fizz.

And that, you see, is because Britain is not insane. It does offer, I admit, the odd bit of agreeably crazy news. There is the occasional murderous middle-class couple burying cut-up corpses in the basement, and the odd monster sighted on Bodmin Moor (a pussycat, as it so Britishly turned out to be); and, it must be said, the British do a sex scandal with panache. There is mad-cow disease.

But try to imagine a British Unabomber, or a British David Koresh, or a British Jim Jones (the preacher who, in 1978, led his followers to mass suicide in the jungle of Guyana). A mad-scientist politician like Newt Gingrich, drunk on his own theories of history, or a cornpone egomaniac like Ross Perot, drunk on himself, finds no quarter in Britain. Screaming Lord Sutch, the leader of Britain's Monster Raving Loony Party (which actually beat the dismal Tories in a by-election last year), basically has his wits about him. Even the Labour Party is reverting to sanity, for lack of anything better to do. You say Lady Thatcher was idea-obsessed and contemptuous of limits? Yes, but look what happened to her. The gray suits swallowed her whole.

The Fountain of Middle Age

I have never been a big believer in character as the root of national difference. Across borders, people, I have always thought, differ much less than the regimes–the governments, policies, and institutions–which they live under. Britain stands as something of a rebuke to that belief. Institutionally, it looks more like America than does almost anyplace else. Under the Tories, its economic and social policies are much like ours. Yet every day I became more keenly conscious of a cultural gulf between them and us. And the main source of that differentness is simply that most ordinary Britons, faced with an array of options, will instinctively draw back from the more extreme ones, whereas a sizable minority of Americans will go for broke.

So the British do not build Microsoft or Apple or whatever. They do not have Hollywood and Las Vegas. They also do not call themselves "Freemen," hole themselves up in a Montana ranch house, and declare themselves at war with the FBI and, come to think of it, the whole damn world.

They reap some benefits in this bargain. Liberty-obsessed Americans preach endlessly about freedom and rights. Yet, at the level of individuals and everyday life, it is the British who are more likely to leave smokers, atheists, and witches in peace, provided such deviants do no harm. The Brits do not rush to view the odd racist or flag-burner as an intolerable social threat, any more than they rush to make him a messiah or a self-help best-seller. They do not shoot abortion doctors or yell about school prayer. They understand, certainly better than we, that moral disapproval need not always be expressed in terms of moral outrage.

God knows, they can be silly and run over the top, especially where royalty and animals are concerned. But they are embarrassed by such excesses. Whereas recently, when the Texas attorney general announced that "history will record the modern-day tobacco industry alongside the worst of civilization's evil empires," he seemed innocent of any inkling that he was ludicrous.

Setting America's teeming madness beside Britain's muttering mundaneness, I could not help wondering whether the British may not, in the end, have made the safer deal. Which is not to say–heaven forbid!–that I would want to be British. I am not even sure, in the end, that I would like to see Americans tone down some of their crazier outrages, because that would probably mean also toning down American exuberance. The whole world benefits by having a very large, very free, and quite mad country smack in the middle of it. Whatever experiments humanity needs to try, it can try here. I feel middle-aged in Britain. In America, I feel young.

Jonathan Rauch's most recent book is Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government (Times Books, 1994).