Argus title : It is amazing that the nation that first organised a revolution, created Parliament and even executed its king should be prepared to stomach so much from its political masters
I was queuing in the old Co-op post office in London Road this week. It’s come to be something of a habit.
This time it took approximately 40 minutes to reach the counter and send off my parcel. I had moved two thirds of the way up a queue of about 20 – 25 people before I realised that I hadn’t taped my parcel properly. I could have cried. Fortunately, the kindly woman behind the counter took pity on me and taped it herself.
Sometimes the people in the post office queue are pretty morose. It’s hardly surprising. It’s incredibly hot in there and sometimes the sewers smell. However, on this particular day the air, though tropical, was relatively fresh and the people queuing with me were chatty.
I met former Mayor Bob Cristofoli there and a young woman who told newcomers to the queue as they arrived “I’ve been here a week”. The funny thing to watch was the nanosecond of utter confusion within which they half believed her.
Bob railed against the closure of the post offices and I agreed with every word he said. It’s hard for me to believe that a Labour Government is overseeing the destruction of the post office system.
The effect on businesses must be destructive. Most of the people in the queue seemed to be carrying parcels. I was posting back something I’d bought from a catalogue that wasn’t suitable. It was delivered efficiently by a courier firm, however I know that I won’t buy by mail order again. I’m simply not prepared to risk the inconvenience and waste of time of returning something by post.
Gazing idly around, I saw several people who had obviously nipped out from work approach the post office counter, look at the queue in mute frustration and leave again. A number of people said they used to use the small post office above Preston Circus, which is now closed. Someone commented that the Trafalgar Street post office has now also shut.
A woman using crutches reached the end of the queue with difficulty then asked the woman behind me if she’d keep her place while she sat down in the small waiting area. The woman behind me agreed to shout down the length of the queue when it came to her turn.
The disabled woman was full of fire – and deeply angry about privatisation. She said she couldn’t believe the way things are going in the Post Office and added that she was appalled at creeping privatisation of GP surgeries. She said “I watched a documentary the other day. They say that even the surgeries need to operate like businesses. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous”.
She wasn’t the only disabled person in the queue. Several older people arrived and looked at the length of the queue with mute despair. Some left, but others quietly joined us. They didn’t sit down. There was only one chair left and anyway they probably didn’t have the nerve to ask someone to yell for them. Or maybe they thought they’d be forgotten, or pushed out of the way, as elderly people so often are. So they just stood there, in the heat.
The elderly man in front of me growled: “The country’s going to the dogs” then smiled at me. I said I couldn’t believe what had happened to the postal service and he agreed. He said “I’m in my seventies now, but when I was a boy I thought the twenty first century was going to be very different. I thought technology would have moved on.”
He laughed “When I was nine I thought we’d all be so mobile. Cars would have been abolished and we’d move around on hovercraft. That’s what we thought in those days. And here we are still queuing. We seem to be going backwards”. As an afterthought, he added “There’s two things the English do really well…moaning and queuing.” I said I was surprised people didn’t riot.
I stood in that queue and thought about the so-called “John Lewis list”, by means of which which M.P.s are able to furnish state-funded second homes from John Lewis’ store at tax payers’ expense – not just with essentials, but with luxurious fripperies. I thought about pensioners scrimping and saving on tiny pensions and a benefits system which allows sick, disabled and homeless people to buy only the most limited household equipment. I wondered why we put up with it.
Endurance is one of the greatest strengths of the English, but also, it seems to me, one of their greatest weaknesses. It is amazing to me that the nation that first organised a revolution, created parliament and even executed its king – well before the French did it – should be prepared to stomach so much from its political masters.
The electorate may give this particular government a bloody nose at the next general election, but the next government, if Conservative, will be as bad. After all, it was the Conservatives who privatised the post office and other public utilities, sold off our common heritage and successfully demonised all nationalised industries.
By the time they lost power in 1997, the Tories were distrusted and deeply unpopular. Labour had the opportunity to counter the Thatcherite myth that the private sector is always good and the public sector always bad, but failed to do so.
There were times at which Labour could have taken some privatised industries back into public ownership – as the New Zealand government has just done – and have received public support for doing so, but it ran scared of big business and the media. It could at the very least have improved things by properly controlling and regulating the privatised industries, but it didn’t have the courage or the principle to do even that. We live with the results.
The Tories will do no better. “Compassionate conservatism” will go out of the window when they hear the siren voice of private profit or the barked orders of Rupert Murdoch.
And where does that leave us, the poor foot soldiers standing in queues up and down the country? What can we do? Maybe there are lessons to learn from another great British tradition – that of civil protest. Perhaps it is not too late to learn from early trade unionists, the suffragettes and the civil rights campaigners – and nearer to home perhaps even from the noisy protesters at the EDO factory in Brighton.
It’s very difficult to know what anyone can do regarding the post office. The public has submitted huge petitions, written thousands of letters of protest to Post Office chiefs, M.P.s and government ministers and held many demonstrations, but all have been comprehensively ignored.
We can’t criticise the post masters and mistresses, because they’ve been the backbone of the campaign to save the post offices. We can’t berate the post office workers because they’re understaffed and overworked. We can’t set fire to post boxes – as the suffragettes occasionally did – because we’ll lose our own mail. We can’t confront Post Office bosses because they’re never in sight.
I suppose we could organise a series of one-day boycotts of the Post Office. Or occupy our M.P.s surgeries or gardens (especially if they voted the wrong way in Parliament). Or chain ourselves to the post office counters.
In the old days people like the suffragettes would indeed have chained themselves to post office counters or post boxes – or lobbed bricks through the windows of government ministers’ offices. Alternatively, had they lived today, they might have sent unsigned protest letters to the authorities who had ignored their previous submissions – assuming they’d take more notice if they received them in unstamped envelopes or parcels for which they subsequently had to pay.
I don’t believe that would be illegal, but in any event I couldn’t possibly recommend it.
Nowadays, we’re all far too well behaved.