The United Kingdom is now closed for business. Pubs, restaurants, clubs, leisure centers, and any locations where people gather in groups have been asked to close their doors until the British government has a handle on the COVID-19 outbreak. On the European continent, nations were already in lockdown. Belgium, Italy, France, and Spain had passed measures to force citizens to remain indoors … but not the U.K.
In fact, in what could be described as a very British fashion, Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not “order” these venues to shutter their businesses, but rather asked if they would be so good as to do so. There is a stark difference between the attitudes of European leaders in how they view the citizenry, perhaps best exemplified by BoJo’s insistence that he would never deny the “inalienable right of freeborn British people to go to the pub,” but that to venture down the local tavern would be a very poor show that could risk lives.
The Character of a Nation
You see, the thing about Brits is that although they respect rules and order, despite years under the banner of the European Union, they do not like to be told what to do. It is possibly their greatest vice and virtue. As John Lyly wrote in Euphues and His England, in 1579:
“An Englishman hath three qualities, he can suffer no partner in his love, no stranger to be his friend, nor to be dared by any.”
It seems part of the national character that truculence in the face of demand is not only admired but encouraged. This is a country that may have succumbed in large part to globalism yet still retains the idea of manners and sovereignty as the pinnacle of a civilized society even as they refuse to indulge in either.
The PM struck precisely the right tone in issuing his “suggestion.” If he had ordered businesses to close and people to stay indoors, there would be street parties of defiance up and down the nation, with men and women congratulating themselves on their bloody-mindedness. Yet a polite request, for the good of the country, and folks sign themselves up to Netflix, tweet a friendly message of hope, and put the kettle on.
The Blitz Spirit
During WWII, families were separated, children were sent to the country to avoid the nightly bombing raids that took place all over the country, and times were hard. It was an era of make-do and pluck. Perhaps the British of today do not have that particular spirit in their hearts; cash is king, and it’s every man for himself … at least during normal times.
In 1939, Dame Vera Lynn sang her beautiful yet haunting version of the song, “We’ll Meet Again.” It captured the age in a way that brings tears to the eye even today. Whether one thinks of those young men who went off to war some never to return, or of children being sent far away from the industrial cities, not knowing if they would see their parents again, it evokes thoughts of an era that was truly the darkest of times.
Yet the sun did rise, and things did get better. Dame Vera turned 103 years old this week, and she had a message for Britain. She said: “Music is so good for the soul, and during these hard times we must all help each other to find moments of joy. Keep smiling and keep singing.” Wise words, and perhaps a sentiment that the Brits can take to heart in these trying times.
Read more from Mark Angelides.