The problem with the British is that they don't live the way experts say they should.
This was probably always true, but it first occurred to me a while ago with regard to blocks of flats. Back in the 1960s, architects and town planners in this country bought into a utopian dream of urban redevelopment. In cities across the country the old Victorian estates and slums would be bulldozed and their residents relocated to great blocks of flats, `streets in the sky' stacked one on the other to form new vertical communities.
My home town's experience with streets in the sky wasn't a terribly happy one, but it wasn't unusual. The sense of community didn't travel, the flats were badly-designed and often badly-built, the walkways and stairwells became crime-ridden, maintenance became poor, the blocks became great bleak run-down monoliths between which howling winds blew litter. Instead of utopian communities, the blocks were places to escape from, if you could afford it, and they became places for local councils to dump problem families. Eventually, councils had to admit the experiment had failed, and many of the flats were demolished and their communities - and the social problems bred there - were scattered to new housing. For a lot of councils, though, there was no alternative but to retain the flats, and some of those hi-rises and lo-rises remain grim places to live.
This is not to say that the blocks had a monopoly on social problems. There were housing estates in the Sheffield of my youth that were, by reputation, every bit as rough and tough and deprived.
If you look at the Continent, though, it's hard to see why the experiment failed. In Poland the majority of the population live in towns in blocks of flats, many of them grim Stalinist blocks erected in the Sixties and Seventies, and there's no social stigma and - from my admittedly limited experience, anyway - no more crime and social deprivation than you'd find anywhere else.
There, and in Germany and France and elsewhere, I think, the culture is different, there's a mindset which allows people to live in places like that quite happily. The British seem to be wired quite differently.
This also became apparent a few years ago when the government decided to institute all-day opening for pubs. When I was growing up, pubs were allowed to open between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, and between seven in the evening and eleven o'clock at night. I understand these were actually relatively recent innovations, brought in during the First World War to ensure that factory workers and others doing war-work couldn't spend all day and night drinking.
In recent years there have been growing concerns about drinking and drink-related violence in this country. I don't know for sure whether things are as bad as they say, but it's become a handy cudgel for the media to beat the government of the day with - all you do is send a reporter and a photographer out to the centre of London or Sheffield or Cardiff or any big town late at night, take some shots of drunks fighting and falling over, interview harrassed and understaffed police forces about the problem, get rent-a-quotes from Opposition parties, and splash it across a couple of pages under the head `BOOZE BRITAIN.' It's cheap and sensational and it gets people reading. And you can run the story for a few days with op-eds from experts and columnists.
Anyway, the government decided that the problem was people drinking frantically to finish their drinks before Last Orders at eleven and then all hitting the streets at once. And they decided that the solution was to abolish Last Orders.
Their thinking, as I understand it, was that places like France don't suffer similar drink-related problems the way we do, because they don't have drink restrictions and are therefore more relaxed. The government's aim, as I recall, was to engender a `cafe society' in this country by removing certain licencing regulations and thus prompt Britons to drink less.
The thought of trying to foster a cafe society in Briton seems rather comical now. I don't have any figures to hand, but my impression is that getting rid of Last Orders - and it was a voluntary scheme; pubs could apply for late licences if they wanted to, but it wasn't mandatory - has made little or no difference. Brits like to drink, it seems, and if you give them more time to drink, that's what they'll do.
Most recently, the government launched an initiative called `Change4Life,' which is meant to combat what I've seen described as the `obesity epidemic.' Basically it's an advertising campaign warning of the health impact of having too much body fat - diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so on.
The initiative follows a study on UK obesity compiled by `250 experts,' which warned that `excess weight' had `become the norm' and that by 2050 the obesity problem, if not tackled now, would cost British taxpayers in England alone £50 billion a year in health costs.
I found the launch of this interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, it seems to me to be an inexpensive - although by no means cheap - way for the government to appear to care about the populace. Secondly, it seems to me to be a way of saving money, and I do wonder whether, if the NHS wasn't in such a poor state, the government would care how fat we all are. And thirdly, I know it's only a coincidence that, at a time when our minds are focused on how badly the government is doing during the present economic crisis, a campaign has been launched which is intended to focus our minds on how badly we're doing in our own lifestyles.
So if we don't behave the way the experts say we should, who are we?
Well, it seems to me that we live in a culture geared to instant gratification, a society that demands that figures in authority take responsibility for failings, while at the same time trying to avoid responsibility ourselves. The chaos caused by the recent snowfall has sparked predictable calls for heads to roll among the people who run things, followed by a predictable chorus of `not my fault, guv' from those same people.
We live in a society where Pop Idol and The X-Factor are the most popular shows on television, offering the promise of instant stardom, an easy ride to the top that short-circuits the dreary grind of paying your dues.
We live in a society where, speaking of the shooting murder of a young boy in Liverpool by a gang member barely older than the victim, a policeman said that the youth of the area could only see two ways of getting on in life - drugs or becoming footballers for one of the top clubs.
It's a society where boys are taken more or less straight out of school and given unimaginable amounts of money by teams like Manchester United and Liverpool and attention by the media, and are then expected to behave as `role models' for the young.
It's a society where our sense of decency, our sense of what's allowable, is increasingly dictated by media who are pursuing their own political agenda and dwindling sales. We've discussed the furore over the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross affair and the Prince Harry video, but new outrages seem to come every day. Carol Thatcher was recently dropped by the BBC for a remark, similar to Prince Harry's, that she made, and the same papers - the ones who despise the BBC - who heaped opprobrium (for several sales-boosting days) on Prince Harry have come out fighting for her, saying the BBC have only dropped her because she's Margaret Thatcher's daughter. Meanwhile, Jeremy Clarkson has got himself in hot water for calling Gordon Brown a `one-eyed Scottish idiot' and not been fired, further fuelling the anti-BBC brigade's outrage.
At the same time, while we're being told to take responsibility - for our health, for our behaviour, for our failings - we're treated to the sight of Gordon Brown - who was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the years when the conditions which led up to the present crisis were being put in place (and who, actually, is Scottish and does only have one eye, although he may or may not be an idiot) - repeatedly refusing to share any of the blame for the economic problems we have now, stressing over and over again that this is a global problem and it started in the US and `not my fault, guv.' There was even a transparent attempt this week to pin part of the blame for the early bank panics on financial journalists (personally, I don't think they're entirely whiter-than-white, but they're certainly not to blame.)
So, where are we? It's impossible to tell what shape Britain will have in future. We remain celebrity-obsessed, manipulated by the media, and utterly scornful of what `experts' tell us we should be. I suspect the future will just be more of the same. Which is rather depressing.