Sunday, 25 January 2009

Gloom and Good Manners.

This week we learnt two things that although not necessarily important are none the less interesting. Britain, if the New Economics Foundation is to be believed at least, is the thirteenth happiest country in which to live and our famous politeness might, at least during the Edwardian era, have had some deadly consequences.

Good manners suggest that I should address the issue of, well, good manners first. According to David Savage, a behavioural economist at Queensland University of Technology, British people of the 1910’s were more ‘gentlemanly’ than the more ‘individualist’ Americans of the same era.

Speaking to the BBC he said this week ‘The American culture was set up to be more individualist and the British culture was more about gentlemanly behaviour.’

As an example he cited the behaviour of First Class passengers on the Titanic, which famously sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York with the loss of some 1,500 lives, who, having escorted their wives and children to the lifeboats went ‘to the back of the boat to have a cigar, stand around and be chummy, while basically the boat went down.’

To anyone who knows the British character this will be something less than a revelation, rather it will be received as an example of out national obsession with queuing being taken to its furthest limit.

No other nation free or enslaved; rich or poor demonstrates an enthusiasm for standing in line to match that shown by the British, queuing is a habit that crosses divides of class and generation, and so long as British people retain the ability to stand in line without having to be marshalled by someone with a loud hailer and a riot stick all rumours of our national decline will continue to be exaggerated.

If queuing is one British national obsession then being grumpy is certainly another and, according to the National Accounts of Wellbeing survey conducted by the New Economics Foundation which measures factors such as self esteem, vitality and sense of purpose in twenty two countries it is not doing us any favours.

The survey puts Britain in thirteenth place on its league table of national wellbeing, too far away from the happy Swiss and Norwegians; too close for comfort to the gloomy Bulgarians and Hungarians.

The report accompanying the survey cites rising levels of personal debt and the long hours worked by many Britons as having dissuaded individuals and families from ‘pursuing activities that would best promote personal and social wellbeing,’ prompting Nic Marks of the NEF to comment that ‘governments have lost sight of the fact that their fundamental purpose is to improve the lives of their citizens’ and have instead become ‘obsessed with maximising economic growth to the exclusion of all other concerns.’

In its, or rather our, defence the government hit back this week by claiming that in a survey it conducted 94% of young people, a group that featured prominently in the NEF survey, felt happy with their lives and included in society.

The NEF has a point, Britons have become more individualistic over the past quarter century of so and yet they seem to be painting a rather more gloomy than necessary picture of life in the UK at the start of the twenty first century, not, perhaps such a surprise, since there is and always has been a limited market for good news.

Taking a broader view individualism is a more or less good thing, particularly at a time of economic crisis when it is the people who are willing to stand out from the common heard who will lead the recovery, be they politicians, business people of just ordinary men and women who refuse to say die when the chips are down.

As for the rest of the NEF’s concerns, namely that ours has become a harsher and more selfish society that it was a generation or so ago, well, so long as we can queue for a bus, or a lifeboat, in something like good order, we might just about muddle through.

No comments: