From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Snitching contd.

Steve Baker, MP: ‘1984’

It is reported that more than 80 Conservative MPs are prepared to rebel against the imposition of new coronavirus laws.  The MP Steve Baker has invoked Orwell’s 1984 in his portrayal of a dystopian regime.   The numbers are sufficient to defeat the Government and would represent a major reversal in its management of the crisis, at just the moment that deaths and infections are beginning to rise sharply.

The final straw was the overnight introduction of a new set of offences at the beginning of the week.  Fines of at least £10,000 are to be imposed for a range of behaviours, including deliberately mis-identifying someone as a contact of an individual who had tested positive for an infection.

There are several possible explanations for this expansion of the disciplinary state. 

Just as the Minister of Health sought to blame the malfunctioning of testing on too many fit people using the system, now the failure of the tracking mechanism will be attributed to a shadow army of maliciously nominated non-contacts.

Or ministers and officials have indeed identified a vulnerability in the structure of official surveillance.  As I wrote in my entry for May 7, there is a long history of ‘snitching’ – using a new disciplinary mechanism to settle scores between neighbours.  Introducing significant fines for infractions of regulations weaponises local disputes.  If you are irritated by the noise someone next door is making, now at the swipe of an app, you can shut them in their house for a fortnight, or expose them to a hefty fine.

There is evidence that with the coronavirus entering its second wave as the nights draw in, tempers in communities are fraying.  Mediators who deal with neighbourhood disputes are reporting a sharp increase in business.*  According to a provider of such a service in Manchester, “The problems will get worse as people are home more.  If the neighbours are being difficult and you can’t go out because of the weather, that’s going to cause a problem, whether it’s breaking lockdown rules or someone trimming your hedge.” 

As the months pass, tolerance becomes frayed.  The police 101 reporting line [for non-emergency issues] is said to be “swamped” with complaints about people breaching the ‘Rule of Six’ that was introduced as the second wave began.  Some of these reports are well-founded, driven only by a concern to protect public health.  Others have less heroic motives.  A mediator explained that “in a tit-for-tat dispute, people will employ any kind of measure they can and make false allegations about breaches to settle a score.” 

Or, finally, the new regulations are, as Steve Baker and others on the Conservative right are now claiming, the consequence of ministers and officials exploiting the shift of power from the individual to the collective that must happen in any pandemic.  As the number of infections starts to rise again, they can amuse themselves by inventing new offences without any kind of Parliamentary scrutiny, in the latest case seemingly in the small hours of the morning. 

It is a game without limits.  Soon we will need a regulation fining those who maliciously report people for maliciously reporting their neighbours.


From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hobbies and the English

22nd July. ‘As I write,’ began George Orwell, ‘highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’  The time was 1941.  Britain had been driven out of continental Europe and victory over Fascism was a distant and uncertain prospect.  He set out to define what was ‘distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation.’  He found his answer not so much in the large generalities of freedom and courage but rather in the detail of everyday life:

here it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers.  This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe.  Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever.  What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.  We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon snippers, darts-players, crossword puzzle fans.* 

These were deeply embedded national pastimes.  It was not just gardening, which has been discussed in earlier entries.  Stamp collecting became a passion of schoolchildren and their parents almost as soon as the adhesive postage stamp was invented with the Penny Post of 1840.  The term ‘hobby’ entered the national discourse at the end of the nineteenth century, with a magazine bearing that title launched in 1896.  Amateur practitioners not just of carpentry but an immense range of decorative and useful objects multiplied, generating societies, a flourishing retail trade in supplies and a raft of publications.  The crossword, imported from the United States in the late 1920s became a fixture in the back pages of newspapers.  ‘The range of pastimes, which are collectively known as hobbies,’ observed Ferdynand Zweig his 1952 study The British Worker, ‘is enormous and satisfies a great variety of interests.’**

As we face the largest peacetime crisis since 1945, we appear to be rediscovering the same passions.  It has just been reported that the largest chain of do-it-yourself supplies, B and Q, saw a 42% rise in sales for May against the previous year.  As soon as the lockdown was eased, shoppers poured in to buy all the materials they required to improve their homes and gardens.  They took away plants, compost, fence panels, and a wide range of decorating and building materials, causing a temporary shortage in wall plaster.  A recent survey found evidence of people re-awakening old skills or setting about acquiring new ones.***  One individual described how he put into practice a long-dormant training in furniture making, another took up embroidery again as she sought relaxation from her job in the NHS, another decided it was time to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition to learn the concertina, another rediscovered a childhood passion for playing the yoyo.

There is much discussion of how this pandemic will cause a revolution in how we live.  On the evidence so far it seems more likely that we will return to all the comforting distractions that made the English who they are.     

*George Orwell, England Your England (1941, London: Penguin, 2017), p. 7.  Here published separately, this was the first part of The Lion and the Unicorn (1941).

** Ferdynand Zweig, The British Worker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952), 149-53.

***Katherine Purvis, ‘Beyond sourdough: the hobbies that helped readers cope with lockdown’, The Guardian, 21.7.20