The politics of leisure

In 1193 a chronicler warned London on May Day was overrun with drunken “stage-players, druggists, lu

The Opposite of Work – The Case for a New Bank Holiday

There have been fitful surges of enthusiasm for a new Bank Holiday over the past few years, the latest manifestation of which has seen almost half a million people sign an online petition, on the 10 Downing Street website, for the creation of a Remembrance Holiday, on the model of the American Veterans’ Day.

There is also a parallel campaign, led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the TUC, for an Autumn ‘Community Day’ Bank Holiday to celebrate voluntary work and community activities. Alongside this, the travel agents Thomas Cook, in a particularly canny and populist bit of marketing, have launched a campaign of their own for an additional holiday, garnering a further half million signatures.

One also hears sporadic demands, from more traditional and reactionary quarters, for an October ‘Trafalgar Day’ Holiday (although the mind boggles at the thought that what 21st Century Britain needs is to commemorate a battle of the Napoleonic Wars); and last Summer saw Ministers Liam Byrne and Ruth Kelly, immersed in impeccably worthy Brown-speak, calling for a new national ‘British Day’ holiday, designed to “celebrate our civic values”.

This motley crew have one thing in common. Despite their inconsistent motivations, they’re all completely correct on this: we certainly do need a new Bank Holiday. In fact, we need a hatful of them, alongside a number of other measures to readjust our work-life balance and to redistribute control over discretionary time. A new Bank Holiday – whatever it gets called – is just the tip of the iceberg of a sensible, human and egalitarian approach to the ‘politics of time’.

With only eight per year, Britain has an abject paucity of public holidays, both by historical standards, and by comparison with our European neighbours. As the historian Dominic Sandbrook has pointed out pre-industrial Britain had vast numbers of days off from work, with huge varieties of saints’ days and religious holidays all given over to public festivities: indeed, as late as the 1820s the Bank of England still observed 33 annual public holidays.

Indeed, today’s public celebrations are a pale cousin of their historical forebears, as becomes clear when one considers that in 1193 a chronicler could warn against visiting London over May Day, because it was crowded with drunken “stage-players, buffoons … druggists, lustful persons [and] extortionists”. This certainly sounds like a lot more fun than the Brownite ‘British Day’!

The current lack of public holidays can be traced to the Gradgrindian reforms of 1834, when they were slashed down to 4 per year.

This has left us as the poor man of Europe when it comes to time off from work: the Italians enjoy twice as many public holidays (16) on which to enjoy la dolce vita, whilst the Icelanders have 15 days of public holiday per year, including the nicely paradoxical ‘Commerce Day’ on 7 Aug every year. The Spanish and Portuguese also manage 14 days of national public holiday per year, alongside a dizzying multiplicity of local and regional holidays and ferias, celebrating everything from the Reconquista to the humble tomato, as at the riotous La Tomatina festival in Valencia on the last Wednesday of August.

Clearly, we’re missing out on a lot of potential fun. But there are deeper arguments for supporting some additions to our roster of national holidays. More statutory time-off would go some way towards addressing the problems of work-life balance: it gives us more time with our families (especially if new Bank Holidays were sensibly to be placed during the half term breaks), and more time to spend on our cherished personal projects, whether they involve volunteering, civic engagement, or just the great British suburban religion of DIY.

More time off from work has the potential to lead towards greater substantive autonomy for everyone. Cutting down on time spent at work allows us to spend more time figuring out what we think is valuable in life, and then getting on with pursuing it.

Anyone with a concern for social justice should care almost as much about the distribution of ‘discretionary time’ as they do about the distribution of income and wealth. As political theorist Robert Goodin and his colleagues argue in their excellent new book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, if we care about individual freedom and autonomy, then we need to pay very close attention to the amount of control that people have over their time, for control over time is every bit as important to living an autonomous and meaningful life as is access to money or other resources.

One of the great benefits of a new Bank Holiday is that it would involve an egalitarian redistribution of discretionary time. It grants the same additional packet of free time to each person, but this amount will be of much greater benefit to those who are ‘time poor’ than to those who already have a lot of control over their schedule.

Moreover, in a time of increasing mental health problems, family breakdowns and social dislocation, there are many social arguments to be made in favour of more time off. Breaks in the unending grind of work have stress-busting benefits and, alongside this, they encourage the creation of social capital and the integration of atomized communities.

The arguments against more Bank Holidays are feeble. Boringly, the business lobby typically drones on about lost productivity and the ‘cost to the economy’ of more time off for workers. These arguments don’t stand up. Firstly, if taken to their logical conclusion, the CBI’s knee-jerk response to such proposals would suggest that we ought, perhaps, to go so far as the abolition of the weekend, and a return to the traditional Victorian working week. If the business lobby want to resist that absurd conclusion, then they need to tell us what’s so special about the current, arbitrary number of days off per year.

Secondly, it is not at all clear that more time off really does lead to lower productivity per worker. A healthier, less-stressed and happier work force is much more productive than a lumpen mass of miserable ‘presentee’ workers. Moreover, Germany, France and Spain all have substantially higher per-worker productivity than we do here in the UK., despite working far fewer hours. This alone suggests that we’re currently getting things badly wrong.

Thirdly, many sectors of the British economy would benefit from our having more time off. The tourism, restaurant, hospitality, leisure and, of course, retail sectors of the economy would all gain if their customers spent less time cooped up in offices, warehouses and factories. After all, Thomas Cook has thrown its weight behind current moves and one could be fairly confident that their motivation isn’t wholly unselfish in doing so.

Fourthly, it would be crazy if we thought that the only measure of collective gain and loss was the pure financial measure of GDP. Even if (which I doubt very much) there were a small loss in economic output associated with more holiday time, this would be more than compensated for by gains in civic engagement, social capital, control over discretionary time, and individual autonomy. Money does matter, of course, but it isn’t all that matters, and a small loss in economic performance would be a small price to pay for social gains of all these other kinds.

The case for a new Bank Holiday is overwhelming. Indeed, the case for another 4 or 5 days is pretty strong as well. The fact that such diverse groups are agitating in its favour clearly shows that it’s an idea whose time has come. If the CBI remain unhappy at the prospect of a happier, healthier and more autonomous workforce, then perhaps they could be placated if, following the splendid example of the Icelanders, we called our new holiday ‘Commerce Day’.