Monday, 5 May 2008

The British and Bank Holidays

As I have noted on a number of occasions in the past the UK has 5 fewer bank holidays than any other country in the European Union. We get the following (typically they are given on the nearest Monday following the date itself): New Year's Day (1st January), Good Friday and Easter Monday (which move according to when the Easter holiday is), May Day (1st May), Spring Holiday (26th May this year, anyway the last Monday in May), Late Summer Holiday (a.k.a August Bank Holiday, 25th August this year, the last Monday in August), Christmas Day (25th December) and Boxing Day (26th December). Scotland (2nd January, 4th August) and Northern Ireland (17th March, 14th July) get an additional 2 bank holidays compared to England and Wales. Even the USA renowned for not having long holidays does better than the English and Welsh let alone our European neighbours. Those campaigning for us to have St. George's Day (24th April) as a bank holiday do not want an additional bank holiday they want it simply to replace May Day which they see as 'too Red'. Despite us having so few bank holidays you can guarantee that the news will have some employers' spokesman (and it is typically a man) complaining how many billions of pounds have been lost to the economy by workers having a day off. The British worker typically works longer than any other in the European Union in the average week anyway, surely these long hours more than make up for the bank holidays, but no, of course we must feel guilt that we are not working as hard as we can for the wealth of the company owners. The UK is exempt from the EU's working time directive which limits jobs to 48 hours per week and many people work a lot longer in the UK. Rules are tighter than they were in the 1990s but in the UK you can still work more than 48 hours per week if your average is less than 48 hours per week when seen over a 17-week period.

There is a simple way in which you can tell that the British work so hard, and that is how they respond to bank holidays. Today, Monday 5th May, is the UK bank holiday for May Day and despite the poor weather, rainy but humid (certainly in my part of England) the roads are jammed with people either heading to the beach or to DIY stores. In a country where working hours are shorter and they have more holidays there is not this madness to go places. The roads in my district get packed with people pulling caravans so that they can sit in a damp field looking out of their window at a slightly different scene to what they could see at home. The television companies seem obliged to pack the schedules with old blockbusters in the assumption that anyone sat at home will be slumped in front of the television bloated on a roast dinner as if it was Christmas. Certainly no-one at a DIY (Do-It-Yourself, I know it is called 'bricolage' in French, I have no idea in other languages) store would argue the British are lazy. The workforce at such stores are incredibly busy and people are coming in to buy tons of supplies so that they can work in their own houses for free. British people behave on bank holidays literally 'like there's tomorrow' and that they either must see some windswept beach or paint their spare bedroom or watch a certain film again so that everything is right and proper when they come before God on Judgement Day. It is a pity that Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) who painted Biblical scenes as if they had taken place in his home village of Cookham in the 1950s, did not do one of the Judgement Day as a British bank holiday. So UK employers, stop whining. You have a very dilligent workforce who need to have more of a break than you give them. Do not try to make them feel guilty for the few days' break they get. You work a lot less hard than they do, no matter what you may say about long hours, the average British worker never gets mid-week lunchtime golf games.

Another couple of things came to my attention regarding bank holidays. Karl Marx (1818-83) argued that as capitalism developed further the middle classes would be wiped out and push down into the working classes. To some extent the opposite has happened and manual labour from the UK has been sent to China and instead the working class now wear suits, work in call centres and have middle class aspirations that the middle classes are now finding it difficult to live up to, primarily because house prices (and owning a house was always the stamp of being middle class) have kept rising whilst salaries have stagnated as so much of the inflation in the economy is hidden, though I must say that with fuel and food now rising so quickly it is becoming more apparent. What has happened is that the middle classes have adopted (skilled) working class hobbies. In the 1980s caravans were only pulled behind saloon cars of a man who had worked hard maybe as a foreman and saved for months perhaps years. Now they are dragged flapping from side to side behind the huge 4x4s of company executives (who forget that you are not supposed to drive at 70mph with a caravan, the limit is 50mph and that is why they wave around so violently). Similarly twenty, thirty years ago, it was the workers who would do up their own houses, the middle classes would employ a 'man' to do it. Now DIY has effectively become interior design that you do yourself and the products that are sold are not just the old wood and paint but a whole range of things to 'style' your house. Similarly once gardens and especially ones to grow vegetables were the preserve of the working class; the vegetables supplemented the food on the family dinner table. Now gardening is a middle class activity and vegetables are apparently the new flowers. Again the stores have responded to this and half the stuff in a garden store is not plants but sculpture for your garden; I even saw a water butt in the form of a Roman column selling at £199 (€250; US$390) this week. Then you see the TV gardener Carol Klein (a lovely woman, I do not want to disrespect her) walking through a vegetable garden eating stuff straight off the plant. Now in a household where the vegetables are needed for meals that would be seen as being greedy and unfair to the rest of the family.

The other working class 'hobby' now taken over by the middle class (oh, and I have entirely left aside football (soccer for US readers)) is having families. In my youth middle class families had 1-2 children and that was it. The working class would have 3+ children. Now of course children are a luxury and a status item and so the situation has switched. It appears to be de rigeur for middle class families to have at least 3 children, to some extent, I imagine, so they can justify their purchase of a 4x4, but also so that they can keep demonstrating their wealth by buying designer clothes for the children and signing them up to language clubs, sports clubs, drama clubs, etc. which all cost a fortune and now lock you into long-term contracts like a mobile phone company (when the 6-year old in my house wanted to join a karate club it turned out you had to have standing order to pay the club and you had to give 3 months' notice to break it, a sharp contrast to the 'mat fees' or 'subs' we used to pay and the days when kids just lost interest in a club and never showed up again). In contrast people of the working class realise they cannot afford many children and it is they who often only have one child. The fact that family has become a hobby, I realised, was when 'The Guardian' an epitome of a middle class newspaper, introduced its 'Family' section alongside the sport and the travel sections on a Saturday.

The other thing that has come out of these thoughts on bank holidays is how 'dirty' or 'wrong' everything associated with Socialism and/or workers' movements is now perceived. My parents, old Socialists who believed in Harold Wilson's ill-fated 'white heat of technology' modern technocratic Socialism, have gone to Belgium for the May Day celebrations. Over there people still dress in red (dogs too apparently) and march around and celebrate being workers and the honesty of hard work; they have plays, singing, dancing a real party mood. Given what I had noted above about how guilty employers try to make working people feel maybe it needs revival in the UK. I mention this to the woman in my house and she said 'isn't Socialism something bad'. Even though at 35 years old she lived through a period when there were Labour governments, somehow now Socialism and even more simply workers' movements are just tarred with the brush of Communism and the Soviet bloc. This is why the campaigners for St. George's Day are going to win ultimately as in the UK May Day has been turned from a joyful day into something that now seems sordid. Of course even before workers' movements grew up in the mid-19th century, May Day had much older traditions celebrating fertility and the coming of the growing season. Such sentiments still appear in things like a Maypole (I do not know how accurate it is, but people tell me is it a phallic symbol) but of course any reference to Paganism was frowned upon even before things began to be comdemned for being 'Red'. To some extent this sentiment stems from the fact that though we have had a party calling itself 'Labour' in power since 1997, it in fact was the Blair Party with no attachment to the history of the Labour Party and beyond that of the labour movement. This is why Brown is finding it so hard now and why people have written him off long before he even needs to have an election and with an opposition lacking policy and clear direction. Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour Party, but effectively that party and all the history it, and the bodies around it, stood for, died in the UK in 1994.

My advice on this May Day holiday, is put aside the DIY, have a break from work, but delight in the fact that you do work and you work hard. That is nothing to be ashamed of, it is something to be proud of. It is the leeches of society who suck more than they could ever use off you, who should be humiliated on news reports not the people who work hard for their families and for their countries. Both relax and celebrate.

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