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Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

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