Modern Britain is far from brutish

Guest post by Will Brewster, Account Director at Flagship Consulting, Peppercom's strategic partner firm across the pond

2012 is a big year for UK. Not only is London hosting the Olympics but in June we’re also celebrating the 60th year of the Queen’s reign with plenty of British pomp and circumstance. London will be full of people visiting us for the first time. The question is, will they like what they see?

No-vistirosIf you believe Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, then no, they certainly won’t. If you believe him, then they’re likely to be greeted with litter-strewn streets and hedgerows, loud obnoxious youths on busses, and a population that would happily get on the first plane out of here. 

Dalrymple’s view is particularly worrying as we open our doors to the world. Already Londoners are starting to panic that we won’t cope. That public transport will grind to a halt and leave people stranded, that the weather will conform to stereotype, that busy Londoners will come across as rude and uncaring. Could he be right? Are we a bunch of uncivilised, individualistic, uncaring Neanderthals as he suggests?

I am unequivocal that the answer is “no” and I’m confident that come September, when it’s all over, Londoners and Brits in general will have done themselves very proud.

Yes, we certainly have our problems, and Dalrymple is right that many of us feel frustrated by certain sections of society.  Many young people (and some older ones), especially in cities, can be rude, aggressive and lacking in respect for authority (witness the riots last summer). We have large sections of society who drink too much (I’m not sure we’re alone there though)  and, be it through fear or a growing sense of despair, the civilised majority are now less prepared to stand up for what it right and confront people for doing wrong.  ‘Walking on by’ as litter is dropped, as fights develop or as disrespect is shown is common and worrying.

To suggest, however, as he does, that 50% of the population is eager to leave the country to escape the other 50% is absolute rubbish. If indeed half are seeking to flee, then it’s more likely to be house prices and the weather that is driving this, not the behaviour of youths on the bus or litter in bushes.   Our population keeps growing, so someone, somewhere, must enjoy living here!

A visitor to the Olympics this year will not find the Britain that Darymple describes in his piece. They are more likely to notice that here people wait patiently in line for the ATM, for the ticket machine, and even at the bar; that personal space and privacy is cherished and respected and people are allowed to live their lives largely the way they want.

Even many of the perceived failings of Londoners (a standoffishness and lack of interaction with strangers) are actually borne out of a strength – that of respect for privacy. We only ignore fellow Tube travellers, for example, because we find the thought of sharing such a small space with compete strangers quite scary. So we pretend we’re not there and hope it will be over soon!

Visitors will also notice the quiet (you can often hear almost complete silence on the top deck of a bus).  They’ll notice the mutterings of “sorry, sorry” as people manoeuvre past each other on the street. They’ll notice that, if they ask for help when lost, the British people will go to great lengths to help them find their way – the trick is to ask!

The majority of Brits are kind, charming, caring and welcoming to others. We’re a private people that happen to live on a very small island and, in London, a very congested city. The fact that we rub along so well is actually pretty remarkable.

As we welcome the world this year I think that Dalrymple’s England will not be what visitors find. It does exist in pockets, but all societies have their extremes and I hope that no one is put off visiting by the dystopia he paints.  

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