Opinion: It’s not such a bad thing if we’re a nation of idlers

An extract from a forthcoming book appeared in the Evening Standard last week. The book the Standard quotes from is Britannia Unchained, a collection of essays by senior backbench Tories. Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore might not be household names yet, but they are young, right-wing and tremendously ambitious for themselves and the Conservative Party.

According to the Standard article, the authors believe Britons today need more “graft, risk and effort” in order to make Britain part of the “superleague” of nations. “Once they enter the workplace”, the young Tories argue, “the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”

Raab, Patel and company are part of a thriving tradition of believing it politically necessary to make everybody work harder. But is this necessarily a good thing?

There are several reasons why it certainly isn’t. For one thing, I don’t know quite where the authors think they were coming from if they think this is going to win them elections. Personally, I rather like to work very hard, and I’m sure many of the authors do too. But voters don’t want some expenses-grabbing politician telling them to work harder, especially in the current economic climate when jobs are scarce and wages stagnant. If a politician told voters they could have more told off, it seems likely she’d be rewarded accordingly.

There’s a much bigger issue. Should we really be prioritising hard work over being happy? Is that really what our society should be about? Given increasingly scarce environmental resources, and given that happiness does not increase as societies get richer, we shouldn’t be making wealth the endpoint of our activities. Simply being richer for its own sake is no longer a good thing- if it ever was.

This is a brilliant opportunity for liberals to embrace a new society, one founded not on the industrialising imperialism of the 19th century but the diverse, creative environmentalism of the 21st. It’s an idea that’s been brilliantly embraced in the past by Bertrand Russell, and it’s time to look into it again. We shouldn’t be asking for people to work harder, but for them to realise that hard work is only part of a good life. As Russell wrote:

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief. When I was a child, shortly after urban working men had acquired the vote, certain public holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of the upper classes. I remember hearing an old Duchess say: ‘What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.’ People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion.

Is it really so far-fetched to suggest a four-day week or a six-hour day as the legally mandated norm? No stranger, surely, than telling the stressed and exhausted office-workers of Britain that they’re being too idle. The modern politician, if she is to be successful, should think hard- and act accordingly.

* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.

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  • I think the reported quotes are hugely insulting. I employ around 70 people directly and as a general rule they work very hard and are rewarded as well as circumstances allow. I am certain from peers in other organisations that they are not an isolated example. I would like to see real attacks on their attitudes from Lib Dems in Westminster starting with Vince.

    It’s always good to get a reminder of why the Tories are still the nasty party….

  • The “end of work ” issue is one argument, but the statements surrounding the book in question is quite another
    The fact is Brits work long hours, do a lot of overtime and live in an expensive country. Work has not been shifted abroad because of red tape or poor workers. It’s about labour costs and how things float with shareholders.

  • It won’t surprise anyone to find out that none of the authors of this book have ever started a business, half are career politicians and the others have done a few years in Law/The City before becoming career politicians.

    I’ve worked 3 days a week since my mid-20’s, luckily I have a lucrative enough job, and a small enough mortgage, to allow me to do that but there is a HUGE cultural barrier to reducing hours. Some people really can’t understand why I wouldn’t work a 5 day week and be “rich”.

  • Paul Pettinger 23rd Aug '12 - 4:25pm

    We should also campaign against idleness, but focus primarily on the idle rich & unearned income

  • I seem to remember in my distant youth a TV lecture entitled The Age of Leisure. It was given by a then prominent Labour MP called Shirley Williams. I can’t remember the details of this bright new age but it was supposedly just around the corner.

    I’m still waiting….

  • jenny barnes 23rd Aug '12 - 5:39pm

    It reminds me of the factory owners opposing the factory acts restricting work hours to 12, or whatever it was. Let’s get the working class working at least 168 hours a week, that’s how to make a profit. Who cares if they die, there’s plenty of unemployed ones.

  • jenny barnes 23rd Aug '12 - 5:41pm

    forthe avoidance of doubt, that’s irony.
    I forgot that this site can’t cope with special characters, and had designated it with
    left angle bracket irony mode on close right angle bracket, and irony mode off.. but it disappeared. Sorry

  • Good to see these MPs have been keeping themselves busy, coming up with ways to insult the electorate during their 10 week break.

  • To post angle brackets, use the appropriate HTML escape sequences, as in &lt;IRONY&gt; as <IRONY>.

  • See http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2012/08/laziness-productivity.html which includes a great graph. Higher productivity gives people the opportunity to work fewer hours, and that’s a good thing.

  • “I don’t know quite where the authors think they were coming from if they think this is going to win them elections.”

    It wins them the votes of people who think they work very hard but are pissed off by their (mistaken) belief that lots of other people don’t.

    BTW Idleness was one of the five great evils that Beveridge identified (though I think its being used in a different way here)

  • Laura Gordon 24th Aug '12 - 5:31pm

    What got me about their claims was that they mix the blindingly obvious (SHOCK NEWS! People prefer lie ins to their jobs!) and used that to extrapolate to ‘therefore they don’t work hard at work’. I prefer lie ins to my job (as it happens, I like my job a lot, I just REALLY like lie ins) but I’ve still managed to keep myself on or above the breadline, start a career, and progress in that career by working hard. All the while having a second job and spending quite a lot of time campaigning. I imagine most people are similar – prefer being on holiday, recognise value of having a job to earn money to fund nice holiday.

    So I’m insulted not only by the suggestion that I don’t work hard enough, but by the suggestion that enjoying my leisure time more than my office time means i don’t work hard enough.

    Also, as other people have said – these people want us to work harder to improve our GDP. They seem to be rather forgetting what GDP is for – which is providing a good quality of life for our citizens. If a better quality of life can be had by having slightly less GDP and having enough free time to actually live your life – why on earth not?

  • Richard Dean 25th Aug '12 - 10:12am

    One problem with the idea that “Once they enter the workplace the British are among the worst idlers” is that that idea itself generates the problems it complains of. It distorts the perceptons of owners and managers, and generates the hostility that demotivates. If that is Tory thinking, it’s clear evidence that the Tories are bad for the country!

  • Richard Swales 26th Aug '12 - 6:47pm

    It’s things like being against early retirement that show the Tories are just pro-GDP growth and not really pro-economic-freedom when it doesn’t suit the growth agenda.

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