Britain hangs on to tradition with a stiff upper lip

With the end of winter in sight, Londoners are avidly talking about the new Social Democratic Party, soon to appear to an accompanying daily chorus of newspaper headlines and television and radio programs.

Labour Party insiders tell this newspaper the likely date for the official launching of the new center-left party is March 21. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself has begun to attack former Labour Minister Shirley Williams, the popular figure who has already resigned from Labour's National Executive Committee in protest over the policies of the far left.

Mrs. Thatcher charges that Mrs. Williams and her "gang of four" Labour breakaway moderates represent "slowmotion socialism." She told 1,600 young members of the Conservative Party in Eastbourne that the Social Democratic program "was not so immediate a poison as the far left [Anthony Wedgwood] Benn formula, but deadly nonetheless."

Mrs. Williams, in spirited reply, retorted that the Social Democrats are a real threat to Mrs. Thatcher's hold on the political center.

Meanwhile, the far left, led by former Energy Minister Benn, is bitter at what it sees as the British media's refusal to give it adequate coverage. Says one leftist militant: "People are worried about unemployment and moral issues, rather than the sight of four politicians searching their consciences." Mrs. Williams and her moderates now claim more than 100 prominent supporters and a high standing in public opinion polls.

Is nothing safe any more?

Forty years ago, George Orwell wrote in his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" that the distinctive and recognizable aspects of English civilization were "bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar [mail] boxes."

The other day the post office here (now called British Telecom) let slip that it was thinking of painting yet another bastion of Britishness, royal-red telephone boxes, yellow.

The howl of rage that followed could have been heard across the Channel.

The Daily Mail newspaper made the most noise, begging readers to "Join our campaign against the yellow peril" and printing (in red) drawings of the famous boxes with the slogan, "Keep our phone boxes red!"

"One gets the feeling," solemnly wrote columnist Christopher Booker, "that after years of mindless tinkering about with one aspect of British life after another, from our counties [names changed] to our coinage [now decimal] the plan to remove yet another little piece of our national furniture is somehow the straw that has broken the camel's back."

Well, hardly. But the campaign did trigger a response. Telecom's managing director, Peter Benton, was moved to declare to the Daily Telegraph: "Our present policy is that our 77,000 traditional kiosks should remain red."

It turned out, Telecom insisted, that only 90 boxes were to be painted different colors as an experiment and that no final decision had been taken.

All is not lost.

Ah, but I spoke too soon. Something has already been lost: another piece of British (well, Whitehall) tradition -- the famous real leather briefcases with the "E II R" crest and special security locks, once used to transport papers of state by the permanent undersecretaries of the civil service, the faceless yet powerful officials who, some say, really run the country while elected ministers come and elected ministers go.

No more are to be sold at a mere L72.34 ($163) each. They are yet another victim of Mrs. Thatcher's spending cuts. Total spending on official briefcases of all kinds -- from cheap L5 ($56) plastic ones to gussetted leather at L27 ($ 61) each -- is to be held down to L73,856 ($166,914), compared with L80 million ($180.8 million) spent each year on 553 million official envelopes, 71 million address labels, and 25 million postcards.

A quick visit to Paris underlined to me how shabby and old much of Britain's city and suburban transport has become.

Officials here do what they can. But a mere 20 percent of British Rail is electrified. Trains even on prestigious commuter lines out of London are often so old and unstable that reading at speed is often next to impossible.

London underground (tube) trains tend to be dirty and too often infrequent, though still providing welcome service.

In contrast, French metro lines and suburban trains I rode on were quick, quiet, modern, and efficient. Years ago that was not true, but much money has been spent since then.

The French still lack the convenient changemaking, ticket-dispensing machines Londoners use to avoid standing in underground ticket lines. But they have done wonders -- and now British Rail and London Transport want more government funds to upgrade ancient rolling stock here.

Once again the noble lords at Westminster have returned to the defense of such creatures as the bat, the red squirrel, and what is called here the "battery hen" (hens raised in cramped cages to be killed for meat).

It was simply no good, said the Earl of Cranbrook, perpetuating the public attitude toward bats that they were something nasty that got into the hair.

The earl wanted to amend the pending wildlife and countryside bill to prevent homeowners from interfering with bats nesting in roof spaces, cellars, or cavity walls.

Why, he said, all six known colonies of the greater horseshoe bat nested in private houses.

Lord Cragton agreed, saying Britain's bat colonies had already fallen by 38 percent. But Earl Ferrers said it was unreasonable to prohibit a householder from taking action to protect his own house. The amendment was withdrawn.

A fight to save the bushy-tailed red squirrel was rather more successful.

To the battle cry that the squirrel should not "just remain as a character of fiction in Beatrix Potter books," the animal that is so common in the US but almost lost to Britain was placed on the protected list, along with the otter and the natterjack toad. It was one of 600 amendments to the wildlife bill.

But the battery hen's cause was lost. "I am sad about poultry," said Lord Houghton of Sowerby. "The battery hen is the most miserable creature in the feathered world today and the situation is getting worse."

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