I don’t know if the title phrase ever became a part of common parlance. Even if you’re near to my age, you might not be familiar with it, or with the condition to which it refers. First and foremost: it doesn’t refer to a physical malady.
An anecdote might best illustrate what was meant by “the English disease.” It comes from a writer on economics who has since retired. He was in Britain for unspecified purposes when the following encounter occurred. It struck him powerfully enough to make it the centerpiece of one of his columns.
Our protagonist entered a sandwich shop in London and ordered something no American would blink at: a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich. He was handed a ham sandwich – no cheese. When he protested the omission to the counterman who’d made it, he was told rather brusquely that “we don’t do that.” When our protagonist asked how he might get a bit of Swiss cheese on his sandwich, the counterman said “I’ll have to charge you for two sandwiches, sir.” Perhaps he thought that would put an end to our protagonist’s demands. But our protagonist, who very much wanted cheese in his ham and cheese sandwich, agreed to this, and a little while thereafter received a ham and cheese sandwich for approximately twice what he would have paid in an American delicatessen. As he turned to leave, he heard the counterman mutter, “Bloody Yanks think they can have whatever they want as long as they can pay for it.”
If memory serves, the episode above occurred in 1985. Trailblazing Margaret Thatcher had been Britain’s prime minister for six years. The kingdom was moving into its first era of economic expansion since World War II. Yet according to our writer-protagonist, the attitude exemplified by that sandwich-making counterman was near to ubiquitous.
Have you encountered anything like that here in the Land of the Formerly Free, Gentle Reader? A surly resistance by some retail clerk or low-level functionary to doing anything more than the bare minimum needed to keep his job? I have. It surprised and saddened me. It’s not yet commonplace, but it was practically unknown until fairly recently.
It’s unwise to rely too heavily upon anecdotes as evidence of a broad condition. And though there is some truth to the rejoinder that “the plural of anecdote is data,” the casual way in which such events are witnessed, aggregated, and discussed leaves them short of reliable as evidence. Still, some symptoms of an incipient sociocultural change should be watched, and discussed, by those who care about their country.
For its first four decades after World War II, what we called Great Britain then was steadily devolving toward what we call the United Kingdom today. Britain was shedding its Empire, retreating from its colonial possessions, and gradually retreating into its island home. Today the last vestige of that empire is Northern Ireland: six counties severed from the rest of Ireland. Until fairly recently even that possession was unsteady, owing to the Irish Republican Army’s terror campaign to reunite them politically with the republic to their south.
But it wasn’t just Britain’s gradual loss of its overseas possessions that was going on. The British economy had stalled; important industries, including some of considerable longevity, were diminishing faster than new ones were being born. Unemployment broke through 10% and seldom thereafter dipped below it. The British welfare state experienced a period of explosive growth. Young Britons were becoming accustomed to a state of affairs in which they had little to hope for. What in America would be called “entry-level jobs” became lifelong careers…for those fortunate enough to have one.
That was when “the English disease” took hold of that formerly great nation. A man who perceives himself to be “stuck,” with no prospects of advancement, is far less likely to be cheerful, or helpful to customers, than is he who hopes and expects to move up over time.
A great part of the reason for the national decline into sullenness was the expansion of the British state itself World War II was followed by a wave of nationalizations, enforced unionizations, and over-regulation. It began with the Attlee government and didn’t lose speed until the Thatcher administration. Britain’s confiscatory levels of taxation didn’t help, either. “The fiddle” became an integral aspect of British life. Here’s a fictional example from the late, great Cyril Northcote Parkinson: a patient negotiating a “fiddle” with his oral surgeon:
“Your fee of £4000,” the patient said, “represents the proportion I retain from the last £44,500 of my income. To pay you without being worse off would mean earning another £44,500 more than last year, no easy task.”
“Well,” replied the surgeon, “you know how it is. It is only by charging you that much that I can afford to charge others little or nothing.”
“No doubt,” said the patient. “But the fee will absorb £44,500 of my theoretical income — no inconsiderable sum. Might I ask what proportion of the £4000 you will manage to retain?”
It was the surgeon’s turn to scribble calculations, as a result of which he concluded that his actual gain, after tax had been paid, would amount to £800.
“Allow me to observe,” said the patient, that I must therefore earn £44,500 in order to give you £800 of spendable income; the entire balance going to the government. Does that strike you as a transaction profitable to either of us?”
“Well, frankly, no,” admitted the surgeon. “Put like that the whole thing is absurd. But what else can we do?”
“First, we can make certain that no one is listening. No one at the keyhole? No federal agent under the bed? No tape recorder in the — ? Are you quite sure we can keep this strictly to ourselves?”
“Quite sure,” said the surgeon after opening the door and glancing up and down the corridor. “What do you suggest?”
“Come closer so that I can whisper. Why don’t I give you a case of scotch and call it quits?”
“Not enough,” hissed the surgeon. “But if you made it two cases — ”
“– and lent me your cabin cruiser for three weeks in September — ”
“– We might call it a deal!”
“That’s fine. And do you know what gave me the idea? I studied Parkinson’s Second Law and realized that excessive taxation has made nonsense of everything!”
[C. Northcote Parkinson, The Law And The Profits]
An economy in which such is the norm offers the young, their feet not yet upon the first steps of the ladder of capitalism, little hope…and little reason to do any more than they must.
My thoughts took off along this track after reading this John Hinderaker piece:
What we call liberalism in America is a global philosophy or movement. Thus, what Janet Daley writes in England’s Telegraph applies equally here, and across the West: “The Left now has a demonic new aim: to make ordinary people poorer.”
We are living through the most startling political realignment in more than 100 years. Never since the advent of modern socialism in the early 20th century has the Left openly advocated making ordinary people poorer, thereby leaving those on the Right to defend the spread of mass prosperity. The debate (if this tendentious chorus of unanimity can be called a debate) on net zero has entirely shifted the ground on which modern political discourse has been based.
This role-reversal is especially clear in the features that were once most characteristic of Left-wing and Right-wing allegiance: it is the radical young who now tend to be most adamant that the freedoms and comforts that come with widespread disposable wealth should be prohibited, while the traditionally conservative older generation is left to fight for what used to be the Left-liberal doctrine that higher income and the independence it brings should be spread as widely as possible. Where organised protest movements in the past have been inspired by the idea that the masses were too poor, now they promote the idea that most ordinary people are too rich.
That is exactly right. The liberal philosophy, reduced to its essence, is that most people need to be poorer, to consume fewer resources. To do less. To enjoy less. But not them, of course. Us.
And so “the English disease,” already familiar to the denizens of the Sceptered Isle, is coming to America. The longstanding optimism of young Americans is being displaced by the sour conviction that there’s little to hope for. If what was once regarded as an “entry-level job,” labor-intensive and poorly paid, is likely to become a lifelong career, why strive? Why exceed the minimum requirements of the position? After all, you’re not going anywhere. Your employer knows that, too, so doing the minimum won’t endanger your grip on your post. After all, whoever he might replace you with would face the same set of non-incentives.
Makes a life on the dole look fairly attractive, doesn’t it?
The above isn’t a clarion call to excellence. We’re in the grip of something that’s doing its best to establish itself as permanent and unopposable. Individuals will still break through now and then, but unless the Left’s grip on the levers of power can be loosened, they’ll become ever more exceptions to the general trend.
Some commentators saw the roots of this in the “service economy” that began to predominate in the Seventies. They may have been correct, but it doesn’t matter now. The Left is determined to fasten irreversible decline, a condition worse than any period of stagnation this country has ever known, upon us. Why? For some, it’s devotion to one or another of the radical environmental cults. For others, it’s sheer contempt for their fellow men. For those at the top, it’s an aspiration to rajah-hood.
And we have only a little time before it becomes unopposable in truth.