Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Soviet Union was wasted on the Russians; the British would've done it better!

I remember reading Bill Bryson's "Notes From A Small Island" when I was younger. One of the excellent and pointed observations that Bryson made about the UK and the British is he thought that the British have a national psyche that fits in well (better than in other nations) to the psychology necessary for Communism to function.

In other words, he thought the British would've made a "better job" of Communism working properly, as intended. It was a pity, so Bryson thought, that Communism got its revolution in Russia - the British would've made sure it was done properly. Furthermore, behaviour that the British think of their national virtues are exactly the same mentality needed for Communism to flourish.

He mentions a few points to support his theory: that the British are fastidious in following the rules; looking to follow advice from "authority figures" (people in uniform, a tannoy announcement, etc.), is natural to them; the British sense of "making do" is second nature; "mustn't grumble";  the British are easily pleased by things other nations think of as ordinary (like a simple cup of tea sending them into raptures of joy); the modest culinary tradition of Britain lends itself to modest expectations of life in general; the British love of queueing; and so on.
These are Bryson's thoughts; I'd like to indulge a thought experiment and continue this line of thinking. Because I think Bryson was bang on the money in describing the British psyche: in many ways, the British are inadvertent Communist "thought-criminals". Even though Communism has never worked in any country it was implemented in, there is a sense that had the revolution ever come to Britain, we would have made a good job of it; because we're British.

Britain after WW2 was a quasi-Socialist state, until the '70s. The British love of the NHS is undiminished, even well into the 21st century; there is nostalgia for the "good old days" when things in life were more certain.

The British as a nation have many positive and negative characteristics. What is interesting is that those characteristics (either positive or negative) are also commonly found in people and conditions that are in Communism. You can check out British people's fifty most common characteristics here.

Bill Bryson said, jokingly, that the British dress like East Germans. What he means is that the average Briton has little or no dress sense. The British, on the whole, wear clothes for comfort rather than style. Although this has changed over the last twenty years, it's still more than true on a general level: rather than going to Camden Town, or the fashionable parts of cities, but go to a small provincial town, and you'll see people who are not in the slightest bothered about how they look; in some towns, "shell suits" are still being worn; plenty of people still wear shapeless things that belong in the bin. I rest my case.
Then there's the food, and British people's attitude towards it. British food can be very enjoyable and tasty, but ordinary British food is very bland for foreign palates. British people see food in a functional way; enjoyment is secondary. Conversely (but also consequently), because Britons have such a limited range of flavours in their food culture, anything slightly tasty can send them into raptures. This sense of small things making people disproportionately happy is what a Communist regime would kill for.

Then there's the British virtue of "making do". Any Communist government would love to have a population whose natural state is "making do": it makes their job easier if the population naturally makes a virtue of getting by through limited means.
Whenever I've been to "Argos", I've often thought "this is what Britain would be like under Communism". The catalogue shop, a mecca for those of limited financial means, is organised like a shop from government central planning: go to the catalogue and check if its in stock; go and take your ticket to queue for the cashier to pay; take your receipt to wait for your order; pick up your order from the counter. The whole operation is like something from Minsk in 1979; and yet, the people all accept this process with often stoic calm. It's a Communist government's dream.
Also, there are the "pound shops"and "charity shops" that proliferate in working-class suburbs and small towns, and exist in such numbers in no other country in the world (as well as car boot sales). This is another part of the British psyche - another symptom of the concept of "making do", the second-hand culture that would normally exist only in wartime or austerity, but exists as second nature in Britain. It's as though British people are "closet Communists" in denial. The British seem to have an odd fetish for making the most of the least; a national psyche built on frugality and self-denial.

This laudable behaviour, the sense of selflessness and consideration of others, is what makes the British so unique, as well as eccentric (compared to other nations). This puts more meat on the bones of Bryson's thesis. There are also the less laudable parts of British behaviour which people will recognise when I mention them, that fit in with people living under Communism.
The British love to moan, but hate complaining. What I mean is, they love a "good nag" to their relative, friend or neighbour, but hate public confrontations. They would rather eat tasteless, watery soup, and say "The soup's lovely!" when asked by the staff, rather than complain for poor service.
Apart from this habit (which you would normally find in people living under totalitarian regimes), the British also have a liking for nosiness. Called "twitching curtains" in the "50 most common characteristics" this is one of the more unpleasant parts of British behaviour. No wonder then, that Britain has the highest rate of surveillance in the world, if nosiness is considered the norm!
Then there's enjoying other people's misfortune (number 14 on the list). Does this mean that if Britain were a Communist state, it would encourage people to "do one over" on people they didn't like? Let's not get tempted!
There's also "stiff upper lip" - a euphemism for being unable to express our feelings; linked to that is when we do the opposite - not saying what we mean. Civil-service-speak is also our second nature, as well as being overly polite.

So you get the idea. Combining the positive and negative characteristics of the British, you get the feeling that Communism is therefore our natural psychological state, seeing as so much of it matches to what you would usually find in people living under a Communist regime.
Except that we're not living in a Communist regime. And why is that? Maybe "Communism" never grew to greater popular support because the British already have "Communism" living inside their heads much of the time - so why bother putting into practise what is second nature anyway?

If you want to experience what Britain would be like under Communism, you don't need to go very far to experience it. Go to the local charity shop; to "Argos"; watch DIY programmes on TV; above all, go to a traditional British seaside resort (preferably one that hasn't changed in the last twenty years; there are many of them, to experience restaurants where "customer service" and "tasty food" are unknown concepts); or, even better, the "Adelphi" Hotel in Liverpool - said to be the worst hotel in the UK, though it still has an official "four star" rating.

Communism exists in Britain everywhere; you just have to know what you're looking for.

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