The myth of lazy Brits, brand NHS and the rainbow cricket team

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

When I was a child, I was taught that the British were particularly energetic because of our bracingly cold climate. In contrast, the soporific heat of the Mediterranean caused Spaniards and Greeks to spend all day ingesting white wine and olives, while the lushness of Africa allowed the natives to wait for ripe fruit to drop from the trees.

Even Tory MPs don’t think that now and, instead, they echo Orwell, who described the English as “actually the laziest people in Europe”. Five Tories say we are “among the worst idlers in the world” and prefer “a lie-in to hard work”. They demand “graft, risk and effort”, qualities they doubtless demonstrated in their pre-parliamentary careers in, respectively, accountancy, business law, PR, financial analysis and advising Michael Gove.

Orwell adduced no evidence for his claims (the man was a journalist, for heaven’s sake, why would he?) and nor do the MPs. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor,” they state. If we compare ourselves to Singapore, which seems to be the Tories’ template, I suppose that may be correct. But within Europe, our full-time employees work longer weekly hours than anybody except Austrians and (much good it has done them) Greeks. Our labour force as a whole (including part-timers) works an hour less than the EU average but the average Briton still toils 42 minutes a week more than the Germans and nearly six hours more than the Dutch. We retire, on average, a year later than other Europeans and three years later than the French. Compared to our northern neighbours, we lag on productivity – surely the result of inadequate company investment rather than workers’ sloth – but still above the EU average.

I advise the MPs to curtail their lie-ins and apply more graft to their homework when writing future studies of British failings.

No bananas


I have no information on Ecuadorean productivity but I know Ecuador ranks above the Tories’ favourite, Singapore, on political rights and civil liberties. My source is Freedom House, which gets most of its money from the US government and may therefore be assumed not overly sympathetic to what the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips calls “a tyrannical banana republic” that is “puffing out its braided and bemedalled chest” in support of Julian Assange.

Does Ecuador deserve quite so much abuse? Its president, Rafael Correa, is an economist and I doubt he has ever worn medals or braid. He is certainly not a model democrat or civil libertarian, having recently acquired powers to control judges and journalists, which, I fancy, our own ministers would take, given half a chance. At least he put them to a referendum that observers found free from significant fraud. True, he used public resources to persuade people to vote the right way. But the enormous deployment of corporate resources to influence US elections reminds us that, when it comes to democracy, nobody’s perfect.

Wealth service

Funny how the Tories, who normally tell us the NHS is an inefficient, rickety old thing in urgent need of a makeover, now say its “brand” is so admired around the world that it should set up profit-making branches overseas. I guess they’re just desperate for money but somebody should tell them that the NHS is admired precisely because it isn’t a “brand”, like Virgin or Pepsi. It is (or was) a public service, focused on making people healthier. Once it loses that focus and falls into the hands of PRs, image consultants and marketing specialists, it changes. Encourage the NHS to look for profit-making opportunities and there will be no end to it. NHS leisure centres, “energy drinks” and cosmetics, anybody?

Where the Sun doesn’t shine


In this digital age, we need more details about the BBC and the Guardian. A Freedom of In - formation request reveals, to the predictable fury of the right-wing press, that, over an 11- month period, the corporation bought 58,829 Guardians (177 a day) against only 42,905 (129 a day) copies of the Sun. But what of online access? How disgraceful and un-British if BBC executives are clicking on Guardian investigations of tax avoidance instead of keeping abreast (as it were) of celebrity adultery and the assets of page-three lovelies.

Rainbow nation

Much as one mourns an England defeat, South Africa’s ascent to the top of the world Test cricket rankings is cause for celebration. Of the winning team (leaving aside an itinerant Pakistani), all but one were born between 1980 and 1985. They are truly Mandela’s children, with few significant memories of the apartheid era. Four are non-white South Africans, with blacks, Asians and “coloureds” (people of mixed race) all represented. In the final Test, one nonwhite made the only century (after a triple century earlier in the series); another took five England second-innings wickets. When such players started their careers, it was widely alleged that they benefited from a quota system and hadn’t earned their places on merit.

South African cricket isn’t perfect: whites are still greatly over-represented. But it is the only multiracial team in international cricket, a sharp contrast to England and Australia, which, apart from one appearance by a Pakistan-born batsman for the latter, contested the latest Ashes series with all-white teams.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?