THE industrious Englishman has long been getting less so. "I stand by my class," said the workman in Shaw's Major Barbara, "and do as little as I can so's to leave arf the job for me fellow workers." Forty years ago, Dean Inge of St. Paul's had begun to doubt "whether nature intended the Englishman to be a moneymaking animal." Recently, an American efficiency expert took a look at the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and wryly reported that the British work force "takes a substantial part of its wages not in money but in leisure, most particularly in the leisure that is taken at the place of employment." Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted the same thing with a Yorkshireman's economy of speech. "Sheer damn laziness," he said, is Britain's besetting sin, and the nation's need is "a full day's work for a full day's pay."
As the Times of London sadly observes, "a stroll past any building site, a visit to any factory gives the real clue to the country's troubles." One day last week, the sun poked through the haze above Mayfair just after the "elevenses" tea break and just before the lunch break. All work on a Curzon Street building stopped as the construction gang peeled off shirts and spread-eagled across the masonry for a sun tan. On English docks from Liverpool to Southampton, 14-man gangs of stevedores can be found idly following the forklift trucks that replaced them. When a British company proposed to check up on workers who had been out sick more than 25 times a year for three years or more in succession, 500 men indignantly went on strike.
Bunnies in London's Playboy Club are being fired for loafing. Construction workers have been known to take breaks to play soccer in the street. Automobile sheet-metal stampers linger in their locker room calculating the football pools, while the foreman hopefully chants, "Back to the benches, mates." The title of Peter Sellers' 1959 film, I'm All Right, Jack, satirizing the idleness in "the farewell state," has become part of England's language, summing up all the nation's cosseted, truculent, archaic featherbedding.
Smell of Death
On the surface, Britain bustles with the prosperity of bumper-to-bumper traffic and aluminum forests of television antennas; its cultural shock troops of pop art, theater and cinema, the big beat, and Carnaby Street fashions are conquering the world. But underneath, nearly every observant Briton knows that his nation is in serious trouble. One critic has warned that the scepter'd isle seems ready to "sink giggling into the sea." Author Michael Shanks (The Stagnant Society) says that "the hardheaded (and often hardhearted) millowners and steel masters of the North have bred the little flirts of Chelsea and Kensington. It is gay, it is madly amusing, and it carries with it the smell of death." Few would perhaps put Britain's malaise in such harsh terms, but even George Brown, when he was Labor's Economics Minister last May (he has since become Foreign Secretary), said that "fundamental changes are required in the industrial structure of Britain today."