Paul Greenberg

England swings like a pendulum do

Bobbies on bicycles, two by two

Westminster Abbey, the tower of Big Ben

The rosy red cheeks of the little children

—Roger Miller

There’ll always be an England, so they say. But you might doubt it after reading about the latest controversy in Parliament. To quote David Stringer’s AP dispatch from London: “British lawmakers have been granted the power to move to the head of the line at restaurants, rest rooms and elevators inside the Houses of Parliament, angering those assistants, researchers, janitors and other workers who must stand and wait.”

Shocking. But perhaps not because of the reasons Mr. Stringer emphasizes in his story, which paints this dust-up as being about Britain’s attachment to democratic equality, or maybe as just another labor dispute: “The workers warn that Parliament is in danger of appearing decidedly undemocratic in allowing the lawmakers, in British parlance, to ‘jump the queue.’ ”

But if there’s still an England, it’s not the undemocratic aspect of what we Americans call line-breaking that outrages our British cousins, but the break with tradition, with custom, with the unwritten laws of England, high among them: Thou shalt not jump the queue.

The AP’s correspondent may be getting warmer when he traces the cause of this difference to the British respect for time-honored ways rather than any allegiance to democracy: “The dispute strikes at the heart of a peculiarly British observance — the sanctity of waiting patiently in line for buses, trains, coffee stands, deli counters — anywhere there is a crowd.”

Compare that example of British reserve to the way New Yorkers almost come to blows over who’s going to get the next taxi on a rainy night. Or, for that matter, the way privileges are meted out in our own Congress. For a supposedly classless society, there are few places on Capitol Hill where the Honorable Members are not given precedence. American congressmen are assured of their own elevators, dining rooms, entrances and exits, and, of course, their own rest rooms in their own offices.

For all the fine rhetoric about democracy and equality in this country, few institutions are so hierarchical as the Congress of the United States. And yet in Britain’s legislative body, even with its separate House of Lords, bewigged officials and ceremonial swords, jumping the queue is simply not done. It’s not … cricket.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.