Forget the economy, the EC, the exchange rate - in citizen's Britain, one issue absorbs our lords and masters. David Morton examines the symptoms of a modern obsession.
I don't think Euripedes was specifically referring to the captains of British industry when he wrote, 'those whom the gods would destroy they first send mad', but he could not have been more on target. In the last two years a strange madness has descended on our lords and masters - and the symptoms are there to see in almost every interview they give in how they are responding to difficult economic conditions.
There they are, sounding quite lucid really, chatting away about their lucky escape from the ERM, perhaps getting a a bit tearful about some obscure EC directive to do with paying the staff, but otherwise quite compos mentis, when suddenly they start talking with a peculiar intentness about how they answer the telephone. 'By the fourth ring, you know, we never let it ring more than four times, never...ever.' Fair enough, you might think. Chap likes to answer his telephone before his answer-phone gets going. Except it is more than that. It is a total obsession. 'By the fourth ring, you know, we never let it ring more than four times. It may seem trivial - but we think it's a very important demonstration of our being committed to ...' At which point most people nod sympathetically that no, it's not trivial at all, and yes, it is a very important demonstration of being committed - preferably to a long-term stay in a home for the bewildered. And, talking of Whitehall, it is here that the obsession seems to have got the strongest grip. Here we are, with economic policies which have helped produce three million unemployed people in the UK, a supercomputer system that pushed up the average response time of an emergency ambulance in London to five or six hours, and, until the Budget, four blanks on the map because we couldn't decide where to build the railway link to the Channel Tunnel.
Faced with these small problems, what do government ministers talk about? Well, with almost one voice they say that their department operates this system by which all phones are answered by the fourth ring. With a little encouragement they will go on to tell how they actually answer the phones in the correct manner; clearly announcing the name of their department and their own name, 'because everybody is now personally responsible'.
If it were only true that any of them would admit to being personally responsible. 'Good morning, Government of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, prime minister's Office, John Major speaking, how can I help you?' Given that nothing so useful ever happens, one is forced to ask, what it is all about.
One answer, favoured by psychologists, is that these people are in a state of shock. Like survivors of a great earthquake, our leaders are going around automatically doing the little things that they associate with normal life in the hope that by tidying up the living-room they will set the world back to rights. Finding it difficult to come to terms with a great disaster is a state which the psychologists call 'Denial' - one often associated with what is known as 'displacement activity'. This is not a polite management term for being fired but refers to the tendency to do an inessential task which you feel you can do, rather than face up to the necessary task which you fear you can't. Thus the chairman spends time getting rid of the split infinitives in the Annual Report rather than getting rid of an inadequate executive; chief executives redesign the corporate logo rather than the corporate balance-sheet; the Mirror Group accountants get the petty-cash book balanced while the pension funds are nicked and the Queen's first minister finds a new way of answering the phone.
A more hopeful explanation is offered by anthropologists who have pointed out an interesting parallel to the PM's phone obsession in the islands of the Pacific in the years following the World War II. During the war the lives of the inhabitants of these islands had been made much richer by the arrival of US planes bearing the essentials of modern warfare - in particular a large supply of cigarettes and chewing gum - to build up strategic bases. For two years the natives watched as the Americans conjured up this great source of wealth from the heavens by the simple ritual of sitting at desks on which were assembled large mounds of paper, and through their devoted attendance to strange machines that made a ringing noise.
When the Americans left, the islanders reasoned that if they could repeat the ritual then they could earn for themselves the fabulous cargoes of Lucky Strike which had been brought by the great sky-gods. From local materials they created an imitation of a desk and trays into which they they piled palm leaves. On the desk they placed a telephone that the sky-gods had left behind. They placed a high priest behind the desk who would, from time to time, imitate at great length the sound of a telephone ringing before picking up the handset, putting it to his head and saying a prayer to the mouthpiece, occasionally stopping to shake his head and frown. The priest would then nod, choose one of the leaves from the in-tray and make random marks on it before transferring it to the out-tray. The Islanders would then troop down to the abandoned airfield to await the arrival of a Lockheed. None ever came, and it is said that the high priests are still wondering which bit of the ritual they are getting wrong.
Perhaps John Major has cracked the problem. Are the islanders answering the call by the fourth ring? And when the plane arrives, if there are any spare cigarettes, could they send them on to the UK.