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.

“It’s part of the culture here,” said a visiting Frenchman who was interviewed while waiting at a London bus stop. “Jumping a queue is just not very British.” Well, of course not, old chap. It goes without saying, and it is the unarticulated imperatives of a society that say most about it — in this case something good. Nothing need be said to justify it. No appeal to reason or egalitarian virtue, or the Rights of Man is necessary. Or even relevant.

English liberties rest not on some blinding insight or abstract code but, like the English common law, they’re a product of development over the ages. The result: Some things are simply not done. Bad form, you know.

George Orwell tried to explain — well, describe — such folkways in his little essay, “England Your England,” which was first published in February 1941, when no one with any realistic grasp of power in this world would have expected old England to survive the Blitz and the onslaught sure to follow. Orwell began his essay with typical English understatement, noting almost matter-of-factly: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me….” That wry observation led him to wondering why nations are different, and why the British are so different:

“Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavor of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

In a politically correct age, it may no longer be permissible even to wonder whether there’s still an England or any other national culture. Aren’t they all supposed to be absorbed by the new, faceless globalism? And yet national traits persist. They are palpable even if we sometimes attribute them to vague abstractions (Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!) rather than the everyday habits of a people.

It is continuity in the seemingly small things that over time creates the complex underpinning of any society. It explains why in England the law may be respected simply because it is the law, and in other countries laws will be widely ignored because it’s expected that only fools will follow the rules.

Edmund Burke understood, which is what made him suspicious of sudden, violent changes in the social order like the French Revolution, which was going to produce a whole new society, even a new man. The usual results of such utopian visions followed — first terror, then tyranny.

It isn’t an abstract allegiance to democracy that makes the British so British but custom — the accumulated layers of habit, constraint, manners and mores that form the British character in matters great and small, from standing alone against what seemed an unstoppable threat during the Battle of Britain, or at the approach of the Spanish Armada in another time under another queen named Elizabeth, to … simply not jumping the queue.


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.