Saturday's Rally Against Debt was a minor flop, to put it bluntly, with a mere 350 attendees according to Police estimates. The cordoned off zones empty, it was far smaller than expected. No amount of spin can claim that as a success, even a small one, and those of us concerned about our national finances have been very fortunate that it hasn't been portrayed as a bit of a joke. It would certainly be a huge risk to plan another.
On Sunday, Tim asked the question on these pages of why "the right" so rarely marches, and there are many answers put forward, but I feel that perhaps we are overlooking something wider, more fundamental and more specific to Britain. In the United States "the right" does march, Glenn Beck's rally and the Tea Party being the most prominent examples. And if you extend your definition of "marching" to include other acts of protest and legal rebellion you find an even more active right of centre movement. Gun owners walked through LA with riffles over shoulders recently to defend their right to bear arms, organisations such as the NRA regularly hold vast conferences, right of centre political groups campaign for dozens of reasons, laws are challenged as unconstitutional.
Yet in the UK, effectively nothing. Now part of the issue is that the British Right has had the intelligence to realise that protests here don't achieve anything. Without the open primaries of the US there's really no means to effect change within the Right and so there is no point in building a movement. Protests: they're a waste of time, plain and simple. This doesn't bother the Left; gesture politics and rebellion are in their DNA – even after taking power they cling to the lexicon of rebellion with Revolutionary Guards and such like – but it just isn't in the DNA of the British Right.
The Left may enjoy wasting their time waving banners and blowing whistles but those of us on the Right would rather stay home to watch the Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. Add in the law of concentrated gains and dispersed losses, whereby vested interests know they benefit – and when they're at risk – yet the taxpayers almost obliviously pay collectively through a thousand taxes, and you've got a strongly rebellious Left with no rebellious Right as counter balance.
America, by contrast, was founded on right wing rebellion: no taxation without representation, an end to tyrannical rule, the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Rebellion is their founding story, it's in their DNA. Furthermore Americans have a great Constitution and Bill of Rights to defend, documents full of clauses that appeal to the libertarian minded and conservative Right. Thus not only is rebellion in their DNA, it's Jeffersonian right of centre. In America it can be patriotic to protest, placing yourself in their great tradition of defending freedom, yet in Britain it seemingly can't be anything but Leftist gesture politics.
Yet this attitude stretches beyond politics, so it can't only be the legacy of 1766 and the making of the American political system. It's a universally known truth that customer service in the UK is, with exceptions, far less than in the US. Indeed the saying that "the customer is always right" is never even stated, quite shockingly the customers themselves don't even seem to support such a notion. One of the classic moments of British comedy is the "Waldorf Salad" scene in Fawlty Towers – a demanding American wanting better service – but the scene is so comic because of the observational truth in it. We as consumers protest far less than our American cousins, whether that's over service at a hotel or the attitude of the government to our freedoms, the quality of public services, or taxpayer value. We just take what's served up and pay the bill, and the results are as a consequence often poor.
In vast swathes of industry and public service we are not a consumer society but a provider society. Only the Left protests in Britain, the Right – which in business is the paying consumers – sends letters to the Telegraph and as the old saying goes, "today's newspaper, tomorrow's chip paper". Quite why we're this way I do not know. I've read and heard various explanations, ranging from rationing during World War 2 through to our historic politeness, our extreme dislike of causing a scene. There's even a theory that blames our design of buses and trams – with single doors compared to American open sided streetcars as still seen in San Francisco – for creating a culture of queuing that develops into a gratefulness to receive anything rather than a "I'm paying so I expect good quality" attitude.
It may also be the case that we are brought up this way, particularly in schools – to not complain, to take what we are given, to do what we are told down to the tiniest micro-managed minutae – a legacy of children being "seen and not heard", which is carried forward into adulthood as the norm. Historically American families have been considerably more informal – as a generalisation – and American children treat more maturely than here in Britain. I know of Americans who would baulk in horror at being told by a State organisation what their children must wear to school as "uniform" or what they can do with their hair, for example, yet here it's not only accepted as the norm but Left and Right attribute magic powers to dress conformity and exclude those breaking these petty rules. (We care little for parental and personal freedom, even though it's the parent's taxes paying. I recall at my old school a boy was suspended because his brother shaved his head as he slept for an April Fools joke. Ironically the Headmaster was bald).
Whatever the cause of our national acceptance of the second rate and obsessively intrusive governance with its petty rules and meddling, we don't seem too bothered about breaking free of it. The public it seems are afraid of being given healthcare choices and school choices, afraid of electing police commissioners, mayors, etc. They'd rather someone else do that, an "expert". The majority of the public want freedoms of speech, press and action restricted somehow, whether that's ever expanding laws against hate speech, Mr Clarke's desire for a privacy law or bans on all manner of activities that may upset someone, somewhere. Recently I told someone, regarding an incident locally in which a particularly stupid man was arrested under the Public Order Act for making an upsetting gesture on a YouTube video, that "I don't defend what he did but I defend his right to do it". They not only were shocked but had never heard that saying. Voltaire must be spinning in his grave.
I've long said that it's as if a large part of the nation wishes to return to primary school, where they can run to an all powerful authority figure because Jimmy said X and Fred was nasty, but I'm starting to think it's more than that. When people are taken hostage some come to love their captors, to feel safe, to feel scared of leaving their control and return to freedom. We call it Stockholm Syndrome, and it's almost as if most of Britain has a variant of it. Commercially we at least have choice, we can vote with our feet though rarely do (even though we should do that and complain strongly as well because nothing improves otherwise), but politically of course we can't do that. Instead as a country we accept being burdened by debt, we accept liberty being restricted, we accept second or third rate services despite the fact we pay the bill, yet we're afraid of breaking free, even many of us on the Right. Britain lacks the freedom-focussed rebellious Right of the USA, which in that country is the driving force politically, because a very large section of Britain I believe is afraid of the consequences of freedom, and that's why the Right doesn't protest.